The University Record, September 17, 2001

Gregorian says gift of academic freedom emerged slowly

By Theresa Maddix

Gregorian (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Vartan Gregorian entered the classroom at San Francisco State where he taught and wrote on the blackboard, “I refuse to teach today.” Gregorian’s response to the current national tragedy was quite different. The renowned president of the Carnegie Corporation in New York went ahead with the Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom Sept. 11.

“I could not do that today [refuse to give the lecture] because my city has been under siege. I don’t want anybody to think they control our lives because that would begin to encourage everybody to think that they are in charge of our lives,” Gregorian said.

Sitting toward the front and nodding assent was H. Chandler Davis, one of the three faculty members called to testify before the 1954 Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities. Davis, along with Clement L. Markert and Mark Nickerson, invoked constitutional rights in refusing to answer questions about their political associations. All three were suspended from the University. Although Markert was reinstated, Davis and Nickerson were dismissed. Davis has attended the Academic and Intellectual Freedom Lecture each year since its inception in 1991. Markert and Nickerson have passed away.

“For more than two centuries, America’s colleges and universities have been the backbone of our nation’s progress, helping make it an economic, cultural, scientific, technological and political superpower,” Gregorian said. “At the same time, America has become an educational superpower.” Today the majority of the world’s best universities are in the United States, and most foreign students studying abroad come to the United States.

Gregorian said that in the U.S. today:

  • More than 50 million students are enrolled in 3,600 colleges and universities.

  • U.S. universities employ more than 2.5 million people, including 1.1 million faculty members.

  • Higher education is a $225 million enterprise.

    “The diversity of our higher education system gives our system its greatest strength,” Gregorian said.

    Commenting on landmarks leading to America’s preeminence in higher education, Gregorian also talked about areas that present problems, and, in keeping with the lecture, presented principles of academic and intellectual freedom.

    Landmarks in American universities covered 1862 to the present:

  • The Merrill Act of 1862, commonly known as the Land Grant Act was signed into law by President Lincoln. This act extended the opportunity of higher education to all Americans by locating universities where people lived.

  • Congress chartered the National Academy of Sciences in 1863 to advise Congress on any subject of science and art.

  • The federal government began supporting university research in a significant way after World War II. “Prior to the war the best research was done in Europe and in corporate laboratories,” he noted.

    President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned the report that came to be known as Science—The Endless Frontier by adviser Vannevar Bush. “Bush argued that it was the Federal government’s responsibility to provide adequate funds for basic research,” said Gregorian. Basic research “promises to pioneer the frontiers of human knowledge for the betterment of society.”

  • The National Science Foundation was created in 1960 and grew rapidly following the launch of Sputnik in 1957.

  • The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. bill, opened the doors of the best universities to men and women who had never dreamt of going to college,” he added.

  • The Pell Grant Program, started in 1973, created federal loan guarantees as a subsidy program for college students. Nearly 80 million students have received Pell Grants.

    Despite the U.S.’s great success in higher education, Gregorian warned of some challenges ahead.

    He noted that problems associated with the information explosion are fragmenting many academic disciplines into “specialties and subspecialties.” Instead of digging ever deeper into one area and disappearing into jargon, Gregorian said, “the challenge is to find synthesis.”

    Gregorian also sees a threat in political correctness, “The use of the right lingo and jargon is not a substitute for thorough analysis, sound public policy, compassionate interaction and social change.”

    Other challenges include teacher education, an increase in part-time and adjunct faculty members, distance learning, and commercialization of universities. But Gregorian focused most on the faculty.

    “The faculty is the core of the university—the core and bone marrow. It is the faculty that has provided the university continuity and quality century after century,” he said. To protect faculty, Gregorian emphasized the need for academic and intellectual freedom.

    “Academic freedom has become an integral part of the fabric of our universities and democracy. The first amendment and academic freedom go hand-in-hand, but academic freedom is more powerful. It has provided an institutional context and a public forum for free inquiry as a nation for generations of Americans. We cannot curb academic freedom without endangering free inquiry, free thought and the right to criticize.”

    The Academic Freedom lecture is sponsored by the Office of the President, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, the Academic Freedom Lecture Fund, the Ann Arbor chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and LS&A.