In 1894, Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Oliver Wells, a Democrat, launched a smear campaign against U.W. Economics Professor Richard T. Ely. According to Wells, Ely, “believes in strikes and boycotts,” encouraged “ostentatious sympathy with all who are in distress” and taught “impracticable and pernicious doctrines” that would furnish “justification on an attack on life and property.”
In an open letter to The Nation magazine, reprinted nationwide, Wells demanded that the UW Board of Regents fire Ely. The Board convened, and after some deliberation, demurred, penning what became one of the most celebrated defenses of academic freedom in U.S. history. “…we could not for a moment think of recommending the dismissal or even the criticism of a teacher even if some of his opinions should, in some quarters, be regarded as visionary” the board wrote, and went on to say, “ In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
That statement ultimately led to the establishment of academic tenure — the idea that professors can’t be fired except for just cause. Now, 121 years later, the UW Board of Regents again finds itself reviewing its policy on academic freedom, this time at the behest of a Republican Legislature and Governor, perhaps fearful of the next purveyor of pernicious doctrine. Nicholas Fleisher is a professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and is the vice-president of the UW-Milwaukee Chapter of the American Association of University Professors. He joined Brian Standing to talk about the politics of academic freedom.