Columbia's Dismissed Professors

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Columbia's Dismissed Professors  (1917) 
Literary Digest, October 20, 1917

All our wars have had able, and doubtless conscientious, men who were regarded as "wrong-headed" in their attitude toward the nation. Two Columbia professors— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana and James McKeen Cattell—are grouped by the Brooklyn Eagle with certain like-minded Tories of our Revolutionary days and copperheads of the war of the Rebellion. Their general name is perhaps yet to be attributed, but pacifists is the one now bandied about. "History, which confounds the reasoning of all these objectors, does not refuse justice to their motives," says The Eagle. "From that reflection Professor Dana and Professor Cattell may derive some consolation," but the trustees of Columbia have declared their chairs vacant on the ground that their "academic usefulness" is ended. The specific charge against Professor Cattell is that "he had written letters to members of Congress endeavoring to vote against sending soldiers of the new National Army to Europe." Professor Dana was dismissed because of his activity with the People's Council and other pacifist organizations. Professor Cattell has made public a rather long statement of his case impugning the legality of his dismissal and passing on to a statement of his position in respect to the war:

"I am opposed to war and to this war, but I have undertaken no agitation against the Government nor against its conduct of the war. I have written nothing against the Draft Law or against sending armies to Europe, altho I regard both measures as subversive of the national welfare.
"In August, 1914, when President Wilson was telling us to be neutral in thought as well as in deed and Mr. Roosevelt was 'pussyfooting,' I wrote in a journal that I edit:
"The official German justification of the mad, wanton European war is that it is a defense of the Teutonic culture and people against the semi-Asiatic and barbaric Slav hordes. The verdict of history will probably be that it was a war of calculation for caste and national aggrandizement, and a war of miscalculation. The German Emperor and his bureaucratic military entourage probably held that the time was ripe for an extension of German influence in the Balkans and toward Asia Minor, with an increase of its African possessions at the expense of France. But it is by no means clear why, if the serpent was prepared to use its fangs, that it did not show its alleged wisdom. . . . We may look for a second Napoleon the little rather than for a second Napoleon the great.'
"In June, 1917, I began a letter to the New York Evening Post with the words:
"'An emperor, driven by the militaristic and capitalistic classes of his people and "by God demented," must accept responsibility for the great crime.'
"The letter that I wrote on August 23 to members of the Congress, on account of which I have been dismissed from the chair of psychology at Columbia University, asked support for a measure then before the Senate and the House to prohibit sending conscripts 'to fight in Europe against their will.'
"There is no law requiring or permitting the President to send 'conscientious objectors' to fight in Europe. To do this would be contrary to the intent of the Constitution and to the uniform policy of the nation. It would provide a less efficient army and might cause disorder and possible revolution at home. Surely this should not be done without careful consideration by the Congress after efforts to learn the will of the people.
"I have done nothing except exercise the constitutional right and fulfill the duty of a citizen to petition the Government to enact legislation which I believe to be in the interest of the nation. For this I am dismissed from the division of philosophy, psychology, and anthropology of Columbia University, which I have made the strongest of any university in the world. Professors in every university are terrorized so that they dare not exert their influence for peace and good-will."

Whatever objection is uttered to the action of Columbia is naturally put upon the cherished ground of academic freedom of utterance. Three Columbia professors, James H. Robinson, Charles A. Beard, and John Dewey, are quoted by the New York Tribune as regretting that "President Butler chose to silence free expression of opinion when we are trying to teach the German people to speak out freely against an autocratic Government." But both the New York Evening Standard and the Philadelphia Ledger take the position that this dismissal is not "on all fours with the dismissal of Bemis and Nearing from other universities." The Ledger sees the Columbia trustees as "acting from a stern sense of duty in what was undoubtedly a very disagreeable situation." The trustees, it appears, were much more drastic than the council of professors deemed wise, as the Ledger's analysis of the case shows:

"While the council of professors was very far from approving the disloyal policies of the two men, Professors Cattell and Dana, its recommendations that Dr. Cattell 'be retired' and Professor Dana 'be asked to resign' were essentially recommendations to mercy which the court, the trustees, did not see fit to follow. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that both professors, who having long been warned as to what their anti-Government agitation would lead to, were extremely contumacious and opinionated and flatly refused to take any hint that, if they felt as they did, they should not remain members of a university all of whose officers were pledged to absolute loyalty to the Government and, from the President down, were continually adjuring the student body to live up to a patriotism which spelled critical sacrifices for all concerned.
"The action of the Columbia trustees can not but help to clear the air as to rights and duties with the country at war. In one case Professor Dana became part and parcel of the People's Council movement, a body whose policies so closely border on treason and sedition that, were it not for the puerility of the propaganda, most of its leaders would have been rounded up long ago. On the other hand, Dr. Cattell was urging the kind of thing which has ruined the army in Russia and brought the country's industries to a state of collapse and the whole nation to the verge of anarchy through the most doctrinaire insistence on the personal right of every citizen, as a sort of denationalized unit, to do as he pleases, no matter what his duties to stable society or organized government may be. The distressing feature of the situation is that both these men bear eminent names and come of long strains of patriotic ancestors. Dr. Cattell, indeed, a product of German universities, at the University of Pennsylvania in 1887 held the first professorship of experimental psychology established anywhere. But he, with Professor Dana, has gone beyond even the philosophical anarchism of Prince Kropotkin, now opposing the extremists in Russia, and if their theories were carried out civilization would disappear through an individualism gone mad, since cooperation would be impossible and the 'rule of the people' would be a mere scramble of disputing mobs."
"With the country at war and with President Wilson asking of all colleges and universities a most thorough rallying to the cause of democracy, this is not the time when the much-abused term, 'academic freedom,' can be invoked to cover offenses which, if they were wide-spread, would mean the downfall of all Governmental activity and the defeat of the great cause of the people. Columbia has led the way in a clarion call to the patriotic, and the action of its officers in the matter of the dismissal of the professors is the logical outcome of a grave situation, in which it behooves all to remember that their sacred duties are of more value in promoting freedom and democracy than are their 'rights.'"

Each succeeding day has brought evidence that the Columbia case will bring the whole question of academic freedom of speech into a heated arena and merit further treatment.

This work was published before January 1, 1923 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 96 years or less since publication.