Academic Freedom: The Case of Angela the Red

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As TV news cameras ground away, an overflow audience of 2,000 students, professors and curiosity-seekers jammed Royce Hall at the University of California at Los Angeles last week for the first meeting of Philosophy 99—Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature. When the lecturer took the podium, the audience stood up and cheered. The center of all this attention was Angela Davis, 25, a militant black and an acting assistant professor of philosophy at U.C.L.A. She is the heroine in what is fast becoming California's most dramatic row over academic freedom since the loyalty-oath fight in the early 1950s.

Old Men, Old Issues. Some such row has seemed inevitable since last April, when the university's regents gave themselves veto power over faculty tenure appointments. Later they tried to soothe irked professors by vowing that "no political tests shall ever be considered" in faculty hiring and promotion. But last month, despite that vow, the regents voted to fire Professor Davis—a Brandeis Phi Beta Kappa, a protegee of New Left Philosopher Herbert Marcuse and a onetime Black Panther—because she is, by her own admission, a member of the Communist Party. For the moment, she is being allowed to give non-credit lectures pending the outcome of her appeal to a faculty committee on privilege and tenure.

In justifying their decision to fire Professor Davis, the regents reached all the way back to a 1940 resolution, reaffirmed in 1949, that bars Communist Party members from the faculty. Under Governor Ronald Reagan's leadership, they chose to overlook more recent rulings by both the California and U.S. Supreme Courts holding that mere membership in the Communist Party does not disqualify a professor from teaching in a state university; specific intent to carry out the party's unlawful aims must be shown. Equally remarkable, the regents ignored the advice of U.C.L.A. Chancellor Charles Young, who opposed the firing from the beginning. "A bunch of old men raising old issues, saying they believe in law and order and doing illegal acts," said Fred Dutton, 46, one of the few dissenting regents.

The Davis firing has brought the U.C.L.A. faculty and administration into open rebellion against the regents' Reagan-dominated majority. At a recent emergency meeting, the faculty overwhelmingly condemned the regents' action as illegal and an infringement on academic freedom. Many feared that the firing may blunt the school's drive to recruit black faculty members, who presently number 25 in a full-time staff of 1,500. Warned the professors: "If a faculty member can be fired for entertaining radically divergent views about the structure of our society and the solutions to its problems, this recruitment program will become a mockery." Risking his job, Chancellor Young backed up his professors, calling the Angela Davis case "a problem of the greatest gravity—perhaps the most serious yet in a series of difficulties which have confronted this academic community."

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