The Dismissal of Ralph Turner: A Historical Case Study of Events at the University of Pittsburgh

By Curtis J. Good

In the early 1930s, the University of Pittsburgh found itself in a period of increasing uncertainty about what academic freedom meant. The previous decade had been a time of strenuous struggle between the faculty of the institution and chancellor John Gabbert Bowman with regard to scholarship. Bowman had arrived at the university in 1921 with the perspective that faculty serve institutional and community desires and objectives; as a result, a faculty member’s responsibility to his or her discipline was routinely ignored. By 1934, the university still had not created a workable definition of academic freedom. Faculty members were appointed, reappointed, or nonrenewed without a defined protocol, and served in one-year appointments.Lacking the protections of tenure and due process, they were subject to immediate removal by the chancellor for whatever reason or whim without any right of appeal, but with only payment for whatever remained of the one-year appointment.Perhaps the best known, most negative, and egregious example was the case of Ralph Turner. In 1934, Turner was unjustifiably dismissed from his post at the University of Pittsburgh. His case epitomizes the extent to which academic freedom was ignored at the University of Pittsburgh during this era and his experience ultimately contributed to a better understanding of the principle at the institution.

Turner, professor of history and an accomplished scholar and teacher, experienced an unprecedented academic freedom violation at the completion of the 1934–35 academic year when his contract was not renewed for the next year. The stated reasons for his dismissal from the university were highly suspect. The university’s primary justification for Turner’s dismissal was his discussion of religion in the community and the classroom. Upon further inspection, though, it is evident that Turner’s community activism and political affiliations most likely contributed to his eventual termination. Regardless of the official justification for his termination, it is clear that Turner’s dismissal was unwarranted and a violation of academic freedom.

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