New book examines the evolution of academic freedom at the U of I
While the topic of premarital sex among college students may seem blasé today, openly expressing an opinion on it in a student newspaper in 1960 was so offensive that it abruptly ended one university professor’s career.
Although biology professor Leo Koch would never work in higher education again, his legacy was a reevaluation of First Amendment and academic freedom protections for scholars at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, an Illinois professor wrote in a new book. These changes would benefit classics professor Revilo Oliver—an anticommunist, white nationalist firebrand—enabling him to withstand the tidal waves of outrage that his provocative language and ideas incited to keep his job in academia.
In Dangerous Ideas on Campus: Sex, Conspiracy and Academic Freedom in the Age of JFK (University of Illinois Press), author Matthew C. Ehrlich, a professor emeritus of journalism, examined the intersections of sex, politics, and academic freedom in higher education by revisiting the cases of these controversial scholars.
“The Koch and Oliver cases marked a significant shift in the understanding of academic freedom,” Ehrlich said. “Through them, we can see the context for the ongoing battle over beliefs and values that continues to divide our society as well as various groups’ efforts to ignite, spread, contain, or extinguish explosive ideas.”
Ehrlich’s analysis examines the prevailing Christian beliefs and moral values of the time that attempted to control student sexuality and set standards for discourse, as well as the political climate that was rife with anticommunist suspicion in the wake of the Red Scare of the 1950s.
“While people sometimes wax nostalgic about a supposed Golden Age when universities faced fewer political and economic pressures than they do today, that wasn’t really the case,” Ehrlich said. “Universities, especially public universities like the U of I, have always been under enormous economic and political pressure.”
Although polar opposites in their political views, Koch and Oliver were in many ways mirror images of each other in their roles as “campus gadflies and public provocateurs,” Ehrlich wrote. The outspoken and unconventional Koch had long been a source of consternation for campus administrators, and his unit already had decided not to renew his contract when it expired.
But Koch’s exit from the University was expedited when he wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily Illini student newspaper in March 1960 critiquing a column titled “Sex Ritualized.” Written by two male students to promote an upcoming lecture series on sexuality and Christian values, the column lamented how sexual expectations and campus dating culture interfered with the development of healthy relationships between men and women.
According to Ehrlich, Koch’s response took “a light poke at (the student authors’) ‘narrow-minded, if not entirely ignorant perspective’ on student sex.” Koch suggested that with “modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available … there is no valid reason why sexual intercourse should not be condoned among those sufficiently mature to engage in it.”
Outraged parents, two of the University trustees, and a Baptist minister named Ira Latimer—who suspected Koch of being a communist—clamored for Koch’s dismissal. Within days, University president David Dodds Henry—who called the letter “offensive and repugnant”—relieved Koch of his duties, and the University announced that he would be out at the end of that academic year.
After a formal hearing, the trustees concurred with firing Koch. However, the Academic Freedom Committee of the faculty senate investigated the incident and issued a report recommending that Koch be disciplined for writing the letter but not fired.
Koch’s dismissal and fight for reinstatement would become a cause célèbre, stoking vigorous debate in the national media and in higher education about the limits of academic freedom and faculty members’ First Amendment rights to extramural speech as private citizens.
In 1963, the American Association of University Professors censured the U of I for violating Koch’s due process rights. In response to the AAUP’s censure, U of I officials began reexamining and revising the University statutes, bolstering the academic freedom provisions for scholars on campus, Ehrlich wrote.
Thus, the University’s response would be very different a few years later when Oliver created a similar uproar by penning a seething op-ed titled “Marxmanship in Dallas” that made startling allegations about the late President John F. Kennedy and other high-ranking officials.
Published in the far-right John Birch Society magazine American Opinion in February 1964, just weeks after Kennedy’s death, Oliver’s column—infused with invectives such as “cockroaches” and “vermin”—alleged that JFK was a traitorous agent for an international communist conspiracy intent on overthrowing the U.S. According to Oliver, JFK was killed by his co-conspirators after he became a political liability.
Despite Oliver’s explosive claims, the University defended his right to express them, Ehrlich wrote. Oliver stayed on the faculty and continued as a public speaker and political writer.
“The U of I was clearly wrong to fire Koch and equally right to defer to the professional judgment of faculty and not discipline Oliver. That principle must be adhered to today even in the face of severe challenges to faculty autonomy,” Ehrlich said. “Far from protecting only liberal faculty, academic freedom also protects faculty on the other end of the political spectrum. Revilo Oliver is a prime example of that.”
Ehrlich also touched upon the more recent case of Steven Salaita, a scholar whose offer of a tenured faculty position at the U of I was rescinded after he posted angry tweets about Israel.
Ehrlich concluded that imposing strict civility standards will only backfire, stifling the free exchange of ideas critical to scholarly inquiry vital to universities.
Instead, Ehrlich urged readers to keep faith in the ideal that former U of I dean of students and dean of women “Miriam A. Shelden called ‘a university of all of us’—a ‘stirring place where ideas fight for the supremacy of truth.’”
—Sharita Forrest, Education Editor, University of Illinois News Bureau
Editor’s notes: To reach Matthew C. Ehrlich, call 217-333-1365; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A press kit with photos of the author and the book cover is available by request from the News Bureau.