When historians write about the rise of academic freedom in the United States, they usually describe a movement championed by left-leaning intellectuals. But in recent years, the cause has also gained a significant following on the right, making it the rallying cry for people on both sides of the political divide.

What academic freedom stands for in 2019 is not, however, what it stood for 100 years ago.

Calls for academic freedom have become a partisan affair. When conservatives champion the cause today, they do so primarily for two reasons: to strengthen the influence of their ideas in courses taught at liberal arts institutions and to defend the First Amendment rights of right-wing extremists to speak on campus, most recently the right of commentator Ben Shapiro to give a talk at Christian Grand Canyon University. The avowed commitment of conservative intellectuals to freedom of expression rarely inspires them, however, to defend the rights of people on the left. Similarly, when progressive advocates of academic freedom call for more diversity on campus, they rarely extend their welcome to the opinions of activists or scholars on the right.

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Yet standing up for the other side was precisely what the founders of academic freedom had in mind when they came together in 1915 to form the American Association of University Professors. Four years later, prominent members of the AAUP opened the New School for Social Research to defend the rights of colleagues whose opinions they did not share. As faculty and students lay claim today to the legacy of academic freedom, they would do the movement a big favor if they took a closer look at what led this small group of intellectuals a century ago to break away from mainstream universities and build a new kind of institution dedicated to defending freedom of expression and new ideas.

The New School opened on Feb. 10, 1919. “With éclat,” added Alvin Johnson, the institution’s first president, as an act of protest against academic leaders who denied faculty and students the right to voice pacifist views while Americans were fighting overseas. The main target of the protest was Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, who had fired two professors in October 1917 for having disregarded a warning given the previous June: “What had been tolerated before was intolerable now.”

The founders of the New School had no sympathy for the arguments that pacifists were making against sending American soldiers to Europe, a fact they repeated every time they defended the rights of pacifists to campaign against the war. Among the other founders, were two former members of the faculty at Columbia, the historians Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson, both of whom had resigned in protest after Butler fired their pacifist colleagues — causing such a media sensation that people were still talking about what they had done in the winter of 1919. “Every liberal in the city,” Johnson reported, “was excited by the novel venture of an institution headed by such dynamic figures as James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard.”

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Beard’s letter of resignation remains one of the most eloquent defenses of academic freedom ever written. As he laid out his reasons for leaving Columbia, the historian made the case for creating a new kind of educational experience, where faculty and students would engage in full-throated debates over the urgent issues of the day. Freedom of expression was critical, Beard maintained, to the health of the nation’s democracy and its academic institutions. The letter appeared in the New York Times on Oct. 9, 1917:

I was among the first to urge a declaration of war by the United States, and I believe we that should now press forward with all our might to a just conclusion. But thousands of my countrymen do not share this view. Their opinions cannot be changed by curses or bludgeons. Arguments to their reason and understanding are our best hope.  
Such arguments, however, must come from men whose disinterestedness is above all suspicion, whose independence is beyond all doubt, and whose devotion to the whole country, as distinguished from any single class or group, is above all question. I am convinced that while I remain in the pay of the Trustees of Columbia University, I cannot do effectively my humble part in sustaining public opinion in support of the just war.

It is difficult to imagine prominent intellectuals in 2019 — no matter their political persuasion — abandoning tenure and professorial chairs to defend the rights of people with whom they disagree. And then, in the name of academic freedom and the dignity of humankind, saving the lives of endangered scholars the way Johnson did between 1933 and 1945. Within days after Adolf Hitler assumed dictatorial power, the New School president moved with lightning speed to open within the New School the University in Exile. By the time World War II ended, the New School had provided lifesaving visas and jobs to nearly 200 scholars evicted from academic institutions in Nazi-occupied Europe because they were Jews and/or held the “wrong” ideas.

As the New School turns 100 today, advocates of academic freedom might consider paying tribute to the legacy of this heroic institution by taking bold initiatives of their own, for example, providing teaching and research positions for refugee scholars fleeing the tyrants of our time — or, if their universities are doing so already, urging them to do more.

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They might also consider organizing serious debates on campus between people who fiercely disagree. The operative word here is “serious.” In a nation as polarized as ours, where political leaders have replaced reasoned arguments with mudslinging epithets, universities should step forward and set an example.

The First Amendment protects the rights of people to say what they please, as crudely as they please, with or without the facts to back them up. Does this mean that universities should authorize racist rallies on campus, giving license to hate speech and venomous lies? Or, for that matter, any other activity that makes no demands on participants to use verifiable evidence to defend what they say?

Political scientist Ira Katznelson addressed this thorny question in the mid-1980s, while serving as dean at the New School for Social Research: “Any attempt to extend free speech norms so far that they challenge standards of evidence and arguments, threatens the university; any attempt to restrict speech in the name of standards … threatens to undercut the foundations of academic freedom.” Universities, Katznelson concluded, “must learn to live with this conundrum.”

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Given the depths to which political discourse has fallen, faculty, students and university administrators should assume our responsibility as members of academic institutions and acknowledge complexity, addressing it squarely, instead of shying away or ignoring it completely. With our democracy in crisis, Americans need leaders who look at problems from conflicting points of view and consider all the available evidence. The founders of the New School chose “reason and understanding” over “curses and bludgeons” during some of the darkest hours of the 20th century. The time has come for us to do the same.

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