Un-American Activity: Harold Taylor, the American Legion, and Academic Freedom
At the height of the Cold War era, Louis Budenz alleged in an American Legion magazine article that eighteen educational institutions, including Sarah Lawrence College, hired and tenured professors who endorsed or contributed to organizations deemed “subversive” by the United States Attorney General. Immediately following the article’s November 1951 publication, fearing that the Sarah Lawrence faculty included Communist Party members or communist sympathizers, the Westchester County American Legion’s Americanism Committee began investigating SLC’s hiring policies. Commander Daniel E. Woodhull of the Bronxville American Legion chapter posted a letter to President Harold Taylor, dated November 23, 1951, demanding an “unequivocal answer” without “any qualifications whatsoever” to the questions raised by the American Legion regarding the College’s hiring policies. “If I do not get such a clear-cut answer, I believe that the situation should have the fullest publicity,” Woodhull wrote. Six days later, Harold Taylor expressed in a memo to the Sub-Committee on Academic Freedom his dissatisfaction at “being forced to answer questions under threat of attack.”
While President Taylor believed the Legion had no right to interfere with the educational policy of the College, he predicted that failure to answer the Legion’s questions would result in further attacks— and that if the public perceived that the College were evading the Legion’s allegations, SLC could appear to be protecting Communist Party members on the faculty. Hoping to avoid a public confrontation, on January 3, 1952 the Board of Trustees issued a revised Statement on Academic Freedom (originally drafted and adopted in 1938), which reaffirmed the College’s commitment to freedom of thought and speech and pledged that “teachers who meet the test of candor, honesty, and scholarly integrity may not be deprived of any rights they hold as citizens of this country, including the right to belong to any legal political organization of their own choosing.”
On the very day the statement was issued, however, the Bronxville Legion Post released a series of charges to the press, alleging that SLC faculty took part in subversive outside activities and questioning the College’s commitment to academic freedom, setting off a firestorm of national press coverage and impassioned correspondence from the community.
Although the Bronxville Legionnaires publicly bowed out of the fracas within a few months, in the spring of 1953 eleven SLC faculty members received subpoenas to appear before the Senate Committee on Internal Security, compelled to testify about their alleged participation in or connection to the Communist Party. The Board of Trustees and President Taylor made the decision to defend the civil rights of its professors, hiring a lawyer to defend the faculty called before the Senate committee. Of course, the battle for academic freedom was not limited to Sarah Lawrence College; educators across America were threatened with expulsion and sometimes dismissed from their teaching posts for refusing to swear to loyalty oaths.
In February 1953, at a Sarah Lawrence-sponsored intercollegiate conference on “Democracy and Communism in the Modern World,” attended by 400 delegates from 40 Eastern colleges, Taylor—one of the few college presidents to speak out in this era of red-baiting hysteria—boldly argued the virtue of critically analyzing democratic and communist ideologies within the academy.
“We cannot preserve the loyalty and political integrity of our students and teachers by congressional investigation. We can only paralyze their will to think independently and to act politically. It is the proper function of boards of education and boards of trustees to protect the educational system from political control by the Government,” Taylor said. “If education is conceived as a means of telling students what to think and making sure that they think it, this is the most un-American activity of all.”
– Valerie Park MA ’02, Archivist