History of Political Views of American Academics

Pre- and post-WWII
Carol Smith and Stephen Leberstein have documented investigations of professors' political views at the City College of New York (CCNY) during the 1930s and 1940s. Citing the tactics of private hearings, requiring respondents to name others, and denying rights of legal representation, Smith calls the investigations a "dress rehearsal for McCarthyism". Smith described the case of Max Yergan, who was the first African American professor hired at the CCNY. After complaints that he expressed liberal and progressive views in his classes on Negro History and Culture, Yergan was terminated in 1936. In 1938, the U.S. House of Representatives created the House Un-American Activities Committee; one of the committee's first actions was to attempt to investigate the political views of faculty in the New York public colleges.

In 1940, Bertrand Russell was denied employment as a philosophy professor at CCNY because of his political beliefs. That same year, the New York State Legislature created the Rapp-Coutert Committee, which held hearings in 1940-41 during which faculty accused of holding communist political beliefs were interrogated. More than 50 faculty and staff at CCNY resigned or were terminated as a result of the hearings. One professor, Morris Schappes, served a year in prison for refusing to name colleagues who may have been affiliated with the Community party. Smith believes that the investigations caused the largest political purge on one campus in the history of the US.

In 1942, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), began investigating the political views of W.E.B. DuBois, an African American sociologist who taught at Atlanta University. The investigation centered on DuBois's 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. Although the investigation was dismissed, Atlanta University fired DuBois in 1943. Public outcry led the university to reinstate DuBois, but he retired in 1944. In 1949, the House Un-American Activities Committee summoned faculty members from the University of Washington, and three tenured faculty members were fired.

Public concern about the political opinions of college teachers intensified after World War II ended in 1945. Sociologists who were investigated by the FBI for their political beliefs during this period include Ernest Burgess, William Fielding Ogburn, Robert Staughton Lynd, Helen Lynd, E. Franklin Frazier, Pitirim A. Sorokin, Talcott Parsons, Herbert Blumer, Samuel Stouffer, C. Wright Mills, and Edwin H. Sutherland.

McCarthyism and loyalty oaths
Although government employees and entertainment figures were most often investigated for alleged communist sympathies during the "Second Red Scare" of the 1950s, many university faculty were accused as well. In their 1955 study of 2,451 social scientists who taught at American colleges and universities, Lazarsfeld and Thielens noted that the period of 1945-55 was especially marked by suspicion and attacks on colleges for the political views of their faculty. These authors label this period "the difficult years.".

In 1950, the University of California Board of Regents and its administration began to require faculty to sign a two-part political loyalty oath: one part required faculty to declare they were not Communists, and did not believe in the tenets of Communism; the other part was an oath of loyalty to the state of California and the US Constitution in accordance with the Levering Act. In early March, 1950, the faculty, who numbered 900, unanimously refused to sign even though the Regents threatened non-signers with termination. Faculty who refused to sign the loyalty oath were terminated, although most of the terminations were later overturned by a California state court. In 1951, members of the American Legion began accusing various university faculty of being communists. University administrations responded by banning left-wing student groups and communist speakers. Joseph McCarthy's Senate committee investigated 18 faculty members at Sarah Lawrence College, some of whom were pressured to resign.

According to historian Ellen Schrecker, "it is very clear that an academic blacklist was in operation during the McCarthy era." An estimated 100 university faculty were terminated during the McCarthy era due to suspicions about their political beliefs. In 1970, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover sent an open letter to US college students, advising them to reject leftist politics, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the FBI conducted a secret counterintelligence program in libraries.