Published Date

March 5, 1974

From the Report of the AHA Committee on the Rights of Historians (1974)

In an attempt to assess as systematically as possible historians’ experiences and their opinions regarding their rights and responsibilities, the Committee circulated a lengthy questionnaire during the winter of 1971-1972. After consulting experts, the Committee finally decided to use an extensive set of questions, involving 119 separate, responses, most of which proved to be revealing and useful, despite some ambiguities which emerged when answers were tabulated. The Committee’s decision to circulate a lengthy document was made in hopes of illuminating as many facets as possible of a complicated and subtle problem, and with full awareness of the consequent risk of limiting the number of respondents.

A 50 percent sample of the entire AHA membership was drawn proportionally by states and randomly within each state so that approximately 8000 questionnaires were mailed. Responses were received from 2200 historians, or 27.5 percent of those polled, which is within the normal range of response to a mail questionnaire. To conduct telephone interviews of nonrespondents was beyond the resources of the Committee.

Considering the length and complexity of the questionnaire, the response was gratifying, but the accuracy with which the results reflect the opinions of the entire membership of the AHA—or of the profession as a whole—naturally depends on whether or not the historians who responded are representative of those who were polled, the entire population of the AHA, or of the profession. One might suspect, for instance, that the views of the less affluent, the young, members of ethnic minorities, and those who feel themselves somehow outside the mainstream of the profession are not adequately reflected in the responses, either because they did not respond to the questionnaire or because they are not affiliated with the AHA. Because the AHA has no statistical profile of its member-ship, a rigorous comparison of the characteristics of the respondents and the characteristics of the membership is impossible. Nonetheless, if historians as a group are assumed to be similar in their age, rank and salary distribution to faculty members in general, the profile provided by the survey of 42,345 faculty members by the American Council on Education, Teaching Faculty in Academe: 1972-73, can serve as a gauge of the respondents representativeness. The comparison of results is reassuring.

Our sample of historians appears strikingly similar to the ACE profile of faculty members in institutions of higher education in age, rank, ethnic composition, and tenure in administrative positions. The income distribution in our sample of historians is weighted more heavily toward the lower end of the salary scale than that of the ACE sample, and the political self-descriptions are apparently more liberal. Our sample is biased against those groups whose rights are most often violated—the young, the non-tenured, women, and ethnic minorities—but this may reflect the actual structure of the profession. From the institutional standpoint, there may be some underrepresentation of junior colleges, community colleges, and colleges which are predominantly black. On the other hand, cross-tabular analysis correlating age, rank, tenurial status, and institutional affiliation with responses to questions dealing with limitations of permissible behavior did not reveal notable variations in attitude. Thus the slight bias of the questionnaire in favor of the comfortable and satisfied members of the profession seems unlikely to have exercised much effect on the general pattern of responses.

After examining the responses and analyzing 948 individual cross-tabulations as cautiously as possible, the Committee concluded that the state of academic freedom in the historical profession is poor. This conclusion was reached with clear realization that the results of the questionnaire might be interpreted in a more positive manner. Question 25, for example, found only 8.4 percent of the respondents working in situations in which they had reason to fear that unorthodox opinions would be penalized. Answers to question 26 revealed that 90 percent of the respondents had themselves never experienced any infringement of their rights, even to the extent of receiving friendly advice about how to conduct themselves. Fewer than 1 percent of the respondents had suffered dismissal as a result of political activity. Despite the crises which the nation’s campuses have experienced in the preceding five years, only 8.5 percent of our respondents felt threatened in any way by strikes, moratoria, or other movements on campus. The responses to question 19 and 20 indicate that a majority of the respondents have no personal knowledge of cases in which a faculty member’s political views caused the faculty member not to be hired or not to be retained.

Despite these statistics, a pessimistic assessment seems justified. A significantly large minority—21 percent to 34 percent—know of instances in which the political views of a faculty member at their institution influenced judgments of scholarly and pedagogic competence. More-over, when the responses to question 19 and question 20 are combined with the various components of question 22, it becomes clear that the majority of respondents believe that personnel decisions are affected by unwarranted discrimination of various sorts. Thirty percent of the respondents believe that they must mute, suppress, or be penalized for expressing unorthodox opinions. According to the responses to question 23, 27.7 percent of the respondents teach at institutions where, in the preceding five years, departmental recommendations on appointment, advancement, and tenure were overruled by administrators or trustees for unjustifiable reasons. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents teach in departments where the anticipated reaction of the administration or the trustees is taken into account when candidates are nominated. About 25 percent of the respondents have some reason to believe that radical political beliefs or activity affect personnel decisions in their departments (question 22, parts 5 and 7), while approximately 16 percent believe that the same is true for right-wing political beliefs or activity (question 22, parts 6 and 8). It is true that only .7 percent of the respondents have been dismissed or have had their salaries reduced because of off-campus political activities, but this represents at least twelve members of our profession who have suffered. All these facts convinced the Committee that there is cause for concern.

In its analysis of respondents’ reports of infringements of academic freedom, the Committee was impressed by the following correlations. The questionnaire reveals that the younger, lower-ranking, non-tenured, and less conservatively oriented members of the AHA are on the whole more inclined to believe that candidates for jobs are discriminated against for their controversial political views (see Tables 1 and 2). Members in these categories are also more likely to acknowledge having perceived violations of academic freedom (see Table 3). While there are no apparent regional differences in experiences involving breeches of academic freedom, differing modes of departmental administration appear to be closely correlated with such breeches. The form of governance most frequently associated with infringement of academic freedom is that in which the department chairman makes decisions with little consultation. The administration, with or without consultation, performs better than the strong chairman. The lowest incidence of violation—29 percent knowledge of violations as opposed to 50 percent in systems dominated by strong chairmen—occurs in departments in which all faculty members participate in personnel decisions.

Universities are apparently more tolerant than colleges, and private non-religious institutions are more tolerant than institutions supported by state or local governments. Cross-tabulation of questions 20 and 15 revealed that almost half (42.7 percent) of the 461 who responded from state supported four-year colleges with Masters programs, and 41.3 per-cent of the 481 who responded from state universities, reported knowledge of a historian who had lost his job within the preceding five years be-cause of controversial political views. The comparable responses from private non-religious schools of the same description were 27.7 percent and 24.2 percent. In general there is more tolerance of right-wing than of left-wing political views and activities, in both history departments and school administrations, although departments tend generally to be slightly more tolerant of dissent in all types of institutions than do ad-ministrations.

Some aspects of these patterns change if the focus is shifted from the area of politics to that of morals. Not only are homosexuals discriminated against more than political dissenters, but they receive least tolerance at religious schools and most at state universities (see question 29, part 14, and question 15). The situation is the same for personal sexual morality (question 29, part 15, and question 15).

The fourth section of the questionnaire, dealing with opinions rather than experience, casts light on the attitude of our profession toward crucial questions of academic freedom. The survey shows that
an impressive number of the respondents are prepared to tolerate or support the principles of diversity and pluralism. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents believe that ideological diversity is a positive good which should be encouraged; 27 percent think it should be irrelevant (question 30; see Table 4). Methodological diversity is viewed as a positive good by 80 percent of the respondents, while 8.4 percent believe it should be irrelevant (question 31). There is, nevertheless, a striking variety of opinion about what sorts of considerations ought to influence professional judgments and behavior. Approximately half the respondents believe that political beliefs and activities should never be considered in personnel decisions, while another quarter of the respondents would like to see them taken into account in the interest of diversity (question 29, parts 5-8). Implicit in the stand taken by the latter group of respondents is the assumption that it would be legitimate to inquire into these aspects of candidates’ lives. Similarly, responses to question 29, parts 9 and 16, reveal fundamental disagreement concerning the ethical obligations of the teacher in the classroom. Only 49.5 percent of the respondents thought it impermissible for teachers persistently to introduce extraneous material and to use the classroom for purposes of indoctrination—a practice specifically deplored in the 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles. Answers to this question show no significant differences by institutional affiliation, although self-styled liberals were slightly less willing than others to allow personnel decisions to be influenced by the candidates’ abuse of the classroom. It is also striking that 40.6 percent of the respondents consider off-campus disruption an offense for which an institution may penalize a teacher, despite the fact that the external community possesses courts and machinery to deal with such matters. The responses to the questions also reveal thorough division, weighted slightly on the side of tolerance, on the question of whether homosexuality or personal sexual morality should legitimately affect decisions about appointment, renewal, and promotion.

Interestingly, cross-tabulation of the responses to question 29, sections 5 and 6, and question 5 showed no significant differences by tenure status in attitudes about whether or not right- or left-wing political beliefs or activities should be taken into account in personnel decisions. Nor do the responses to question 30 and question 5 reveal any differences by tenure status in attitudes toward the value of ideological or methodological diversity. With regard to homosexuality and personal sexual morality, however, historians with continuing tenure tended to be less tolerant than those with less secure statuses.

The last two questions attempted to measure historians’ attitudes toward the existing modes of protecting academic freedom. The responses to question 33 reveal a distressingly low level of faith in the effectiveness of boards of trustees and school administrations in this respect. Approximately half the respondents expressed confidence, however, in chairmen, faculties, and faculty committees. As far as the AAUP is concerned, 53.5 percent of the respondents think that the national AAUP would oppose a violation of academic freedom with determination, while 22.1 percent think it would protest but take no determined action. Question 34 found 42.6 percent of the respondents satisfied with the status quo, although 9 percent expressed a rather fatalistic lack of faith in any agency’s ability to shore up the boundaries of academic free-dom. In view of these figures, it may be surprising that 43.5 percent of the respondents want the AHA to play a more active role in defending academic freedom. Cross-tabulations between the responses to question 34 and to various questions in Sections I and II indicate that there is no close correlation between the desire for the AHA to play a more active role, and age, sex, region of the country, form of decision-making experienced, or institutional affiliation. Non-tenured faculty and those identifying themselves as politically liberal tend to want more AHA activism than their fellow respondents. While the respondents favoring intervention and activism on the part of the AHA do not constitute a majority, it is yet noteworthy that many of those who at the present moment are satisfied and do not feel threatened are still not convinced that the situation is so secure that additional measures to protect academic freedom are unnecessary.

The data from the questionnaire responses, coded for computer manipulation, are on file on magnetic tape in the offices of the AHA.

Next section: Analysis of Individual Cases