The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Carolina’s effort to cancel professor tenure echoes the 1950s

Ending professor tenure chills academic freedom and undermines teaching about race and racism

South Carolina State House, Columbia, S.C. (iStock)
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South Carolina legislators have recently proposed the “Cancelling Professor Tenure Act.” Academic tenure is a job status that not only confers stability in an often-precarious profession but protects professors from being arbitrarily dismissed from their jobs, allowing them to freely communicate ideas, especially politically controversial ones, without fear of retaliation. The proposed bill would remove the tenure system at public universities in the state and replace it with one where professors are on job contracts that last five years or less.

The South Carolina bill is just the latest in efforts by state governments to exert greater control over public universities. Several other states have also sought to revise tenure rules or eliminate the practice altogether.

In parallel to attacks on tenure, state legislators are also interfering in debates about teaching politically controversial topics. For example, South Carolina legislators asked universities to stop teaching critical race theory, claiming it “proclaims all white people are oppressors and all black people are inherently oppressed.” Bills banning the topic from being taught at public universities have been proposed in South Carolina and nine other states. Elsewhere, including in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma and New Hampshire, bills have passed that affect campus discourse on race-related political issues. Many of these efforts infringe upon professors’ freedom of teaching: exactly what tenure is designed to protect.

Efforts by state legislatures to squash academic freedom are nothing new. The modern tenure protection that legislators seek to remove was created in the 1950s in response to intense political attacks on professors. A study of those attacks shows the importance of protecting academic freedom from politicians.

The attacks took place against the backdrop of the Red Scare, a national atmosphere of fear that Americans sympathetic to communism were committing treasonous acts in support of the Soviet Union. Left-leaning professors were often a target of suspicion. In South Carolina, suspicion fell on seven professors at Benedict College and Allen University, two small, private, church-related historically Black schools.

In the governor’s 1958 annual message to the legislature, he declared that professors at Allen University were “highly trained communist workers.” He claimed they were engaged in “typical [Communist Party] projects” that included teaching “hate white and hate Southern and hate State.” The governor then announced that state approval of the university’s teacher-training program would be withheld until the university addressed the professors’ activities. Loss of approval meant that graduates from this program would be unable to teach in South Carolina’s public schools, potentially ruining the careers of many. A few weeks after the governor delivered his annual message, he gave a similar speech about Benedict College.

None of the professors was planning anything like a communist takeover of South Carolina. However, they did engage in teaching and political activities that ran counter to the segregationist beliefs held by many South Carolina politicians at the time. For example, a history professor taught students about the achievements of freed, formerly enslaved people living in the South Carolina Sea Islands during Reconstruction.

Outside the classroom, the professors spoke out against racial segregation. Among other activities, they published a letter criticizing segregation in a regional newspaper, supported a student-led bus desegregation campaign, ran workshops on voter registration, and hosted the celebrated academic and civil rights champion, W.E.B. Du Bois, as a campus speaker. Two of the seven professors directly challenged segregation; they were White and lived in an otherwise all-Black apartment complex. All these activities were well within the professors’ rights. FBI files on one of the professors show agents reporting again and again that they found no evidence of “subversive” activities.

But the professors’ political activities took place during a time when South Carolina politicians were eager to aggressively defend racial segregation, in response to legal challenges raised by the recent Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Casting the professors as communists at the height of the Cold War was a politically expedient way to demonstrate that challenging segregation was beyond the pale. Moreover, the professors had limited job protection from attacks by politicians because neither Benedict nor Allen had adopted written tenure regulations at the time.

This became an issue when the presidents of Allen and Benedict, desperate to restore state approval of their schools’ teacher-training programs, began trying to force the professors out. Many of their efforts seemed like something out of an absurdist comedy, such as when one of the professors received a letter from the president of Allen requesting his resignation. He declined the request, but then, only a few hours later, received a letter informing him that he had, in fact, resigned. He wrote back to explain that the president cannot simply “resign” people from their jobs.

Ultimately, the presidents’ efforts, under intense pressure by the governor, were successful. The professors left South Carolina a few months after the governor’s speech.

These dismissals sent a strong and frightening message to professors who remained in the state. Writer Calvin C. Hernton, who was teaching at Benedict at the time, told a colleague that Benedict’s environment was one where “no body had guts enough to challenge or merely ask WHY? They are all scared stiff of losing their indecent jobs!”

The consequences extended far beyond Benedict and Allen. Throughout the state, the governor’s attacks had a chilling effect on political discussion. This not only shaped what professors wrote and taught. It also hindered the process of racial desegregation by silencing, in a very public manner, the voices of scholars who had been encouraging students and the broader public think critically about segregation. Ultimately, South Carolina only desegregated its public universities in 1963, making it the last state in the nation to do so.

The dismissals of the Allen and Benedict professors drew national attention and provoked a backlash. In 1960, the American Association of University Professors issued a detailed 19-page report that rebuked Allen and Benedict for violating due process in dismissing the professors.

Reports like this helped create the modern notion of tenure with its strong job protections. Today, these are the very protections that some legislators in states like South Carolina now seek to remove. The vast majority of professors now labor without the protection of tenure. Removing the protections of tenure altogether, as some states hope to do, will make the problem even worse.

The future may closely resemble the situation in the 1950s, when an accomplished professor could be dismissed over a false accusation of being a Communist Party agent. Indeed, much of the current discourse surrounding “canceling tenure” says that universities are promoting “socialist propaganda” — statements that could well have been made by South Carolina politicians in the 1950s. Politicians seeking to “cancel” tenure would benefit from reading a speech that one of the professors, Edwin D. Hoffman, gave in response to the governor’s 1958 address: “[The] First Amendment … erects a fence inside which man can talk. Lawmakers and government officials are told to stay outside that fence.”