The AAUP and the Angela Davis Case

Revisiting the AAUP's 1971 UCLA investigation
By Emily Houh

In September 2020, then president Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13950 on “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which banned federal agencies, contractors, and grant recipients from conducting trainings that addressed systemic racism or sexism. Although immediately withdrawn when Joe Biden took office in 2021, Executive Order 13950 lives on in spirit, as a growing number of states have proposed and adopted educational gag orders restricting the teaching of “controversial” subjects relating to, among other topics, race, gender, and sexual identity, in both public K–12 schools and public institutions of higher learning. More recently, administrative crackdowns on pro-Palestinian campus activity by students and faculty, often brought about by private donors’ threats to withdraw or withhold major institutional gifts if such activity is not quashed, have brought into sharper relief how prevalent educational and academic censor­ship has become and, consequently, how unstable and threatened academic freedom is. The imperiled status of academic freedom today was at the forefront of my mind as I began work on this article looking back at the AAUP’s 1971 report on Angela Davis’s dismissal from her faculty position at the University of Cali­fornia, Los Angeles. In times like these, how should we understand the significance of this report, written more than a half century ago? What can we learn from the UCLA report that we can use to respond to what is happening today?

In a 2015 issue of Academe celebrating the AAUP’s centennial, the late Jordan Kurland—the AAUP’s legendary associate general secretary who, for most of his fifty years in the national office, served as staff to Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure— characterized the report on UCLA as one of the most important issued by the AAUP in its first hundred years. He wrote,

In the richness of its complex subject matter and in the thoroughness, skill, and value of the inves­tigating committee’s analysis of the many issues presented, this report yields to no other that the AAUP has produced. . . .

Despite the report’s title, the resulting censure was directed against the University of California Board of Regents. The UCLA chancellor, with faculty support, had declined to act against [acting assistant professor Angela Davis,] whose dismissal the regents sought, whereupon they took the mat­ter out of his hands.

During its site visits, the investigating com­mittee interviewed a collection of prominent Californians. Among them were regent chair Wil­liam French Smith, who was to become President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, and Governor Ronald Reagan, a regent ex officio.

When the investigating committee submitted its report to Committee A, an unrelated episode led to criminal charges against [Davis], and a draft of the report with an invitation for comments was delivered to her jail cell. When initial discussion of potential censure removal occurred, she had bro­ken parole and was a fugitive from justice. Years later, legally cleared, she applied for and obtained a full-time position at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She had been granted tenure by the time censure was removed, and she recently retired at the rank of full professor.1

The thirty-eight-page report on UCLA is, as Kurland noted, epic in its coverage and analysis. It is also disturbing in how it portended contemporary attacks on academic freedom by the state and private interests, on the production and dissemination of knowledge, and on the autonomy of higher education institutions. This article fills in some of the details about the Angela Davis case in an effort to draw out lessons from the report as we strategize about how to move through these intensely challenging—and scary—times.

The Angela Davis Case2

The story began conventionally enough. In spring 1969, the chair of UCLA’s Department of Philosophy, Donald Kalish, offered Angela Davis—then teaching and working on her dissertation at the University of California, San Diego—a one-year position as act­ing assistant professor. Not atypically, the one-year appointment included a presumptive renewal for a second year, contingent on Davis’s satisfactory per­formance in the classroom and the completion of her dissertation by the end of the 1969–70 academic year. An official offer followed, from the dean of the Divi­sion of Humanities in UCLA’s College of Letters and Science, Philip Levine, though it stated expressly that the appointment was for the 1969–70 academic year only (a discrepancy that the regents would later use to justify Davis’s dismissal).

During the summer prior to Davis’s arrival on campus, the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, pub­lished an article written by a student, later revealed to be an undercover FBI agent, asserting that a new, unnamed philosophy professor—easily identifiable as Davis—was a member of the Communist Party. Soon after, the San Francisco Examiner published a story stating that Davis was “a known Maoist” who was “active in the SDS and the Black Panthers.”3 At a meeting two days later, a majority of the board of regents, with strong encouragement from then governor Ronald Reagan, hatched a plan to termi­nate Davis’s appointment pursuant to a 1950 rule, adopted by the regents at the height of the McCarthy era, that prohibited the employment of Communists at the University of California. There was a problem with this plan, however, as the 1950 rule arguably had been superseded by the recently adopted Stand­ing Order 102.1, which stated, “No political test shall ever be considered in the appointment and promotion of any faculty member or employee.” The regents, needing more time to find a way around this roadblock, tabled further action until the next meet­ing. In the meantime, they directed the president of the UC system, Charles Hitch, to investigate the mat­ter further, leading UCLA’s vice chancellor to write Davis a letter informing her of the 1950 Communist-disqualification rule and asking her whether she was, in fact, a Communist.

To the surprise of many, Davis responded unequiv­ocally to this formal inquiry. Her reply is worth quoting at length:

I am now a member of the Communist Party. While I think this membership requires no jus­tification here, I want you to know that as a black woman I feel an urgent need to find radical solutions to the problems of racial and national minorities in white capitalist United States. . . . It goes without saying, of course, that the advo­cacy of the Communist Party during my period of membership in it has, to my knowledge, fallen well within the guarantees of the First Amend­ment. Nor does my membership in the Communist Party involve me in any commitment to principle or position governing either my scholarship or my responsibilities as a teacher.4

Perhaps not anticipating Davis’s forthright “admis­sion,” the regents pivoted quickly. At the next meeting in September, the board introduced a resolution to “direct the President to take steps to terminate Miss Davis’s University appointment in accordance with regular procedures as prescribed in the Standing Orders of the Regents.”5 Both UCLA chancellor Charles Young and President Hitch opposed the motion, noting that under university rules Davis was entitled first to a hearing before the Committee on Privilege and Tenure. Regardless, the motion passed. President Hitch subse­quently notified Davis on September 20, 1969, of the termination of her appointment, effective September 29, unless she requested a hearing—which she did.

At this time, Davis formally requested that phi­losophy department chair Kalish assign her to teach Philosophy 99 in the upcoming fall quarter so that she could demonstrate her competence as a teacher; it was unlikely, after all, that she would be able to make much progress on her dissertation amid the controversy over the regents’ attempt to dismiss her. Kalish granted the request and, in immediate response, the regents called an emergency meeting to prevent Davis from teaching, effectively calling for her suspension. Again, Chancellor Young and Presi­dent Hitch opposed such action, and Hitch urged the regents, in the words of the investigating committee, “to be scrupulous in avoiding any action that might be construed as an infringement of academic due process.”6 Others present at the meeting likewise warned that any attempt by the regents to prevent Davis from teaching would elicit strong backlash from the UCLA academic senate, which had already adopted resolutions supporting Davis and condemn­ing the regents’ invocation of the 1950 rule to fire her. A majority of the regents disregarded these objections and voted to restrict Davis from teaching during the fall quarter. Accordingly, the UCLA reg­istrar was directed not to enroll students in Davis’s Philosophy 99 course.

In an emergency meeting the UCLA academic sen­ate sprang into action, quickly passing a motion to instruct the registrar to enroll students in the course on the grounds that the regents had overstepped their authority. The assembly of the academic senate, rep­resenting tenure-line faculty in the entire UC system, followed this up with a motion disavowing the 1950 faculty endorsement of the rule barring Communists from university employment. At the same time, several faculty members and students together filed a taxpay­ers’ lawsuit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, asserting that the regents’ actions based on the 1950 Communist-disqualification rule violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. The court agreed, and the UCLA registrar began enrolling students in Philosophy 99.

This victory was short-lived, however, as the regents again quickly pivoted, shifting focus from Davis’s Communist Party membership to her public speeches and the duration of her appointment for one, as opposed to two, years. If they could not terminate her appointment in her first year, they could at least prevent UCLA from renewing it for a second. They made their intentions clear to Chancellor Young who, perhaps to counteract the regents’ anticipated allega­tions about Davis in round two, agreed to convene a “blue-ribbon” faculty committee to review “all aspects” of Davis’s performance during the 1969–70 academic year.

Young appointed seven UCLA faculty members to this ad hoc committee, which would review Davis’s performance “in the light of the University’s policies and the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics” and investigate the regents’ three key charges against Davis—all of which are being leveled now against universities and their faculties across the United States. The regents had asserted that Davis used her teaching position to “indoctrinate” students; that her com­mitments and activities outside the university setting “interfered” with her duties as a faculty member; and that her public statements about academic freedom demonstrated, in essence, her unfitness as a faculty member.7 Although disturbed by the highly anomalous, secret nature of the ad hoc committee, the committee’s members, seeing an opportunity to create an official record on as narrow a basis as possible, decided to move forward. With the philosophy depart­ment’s assistance, the committee assembled a thick dossier of materials on Davis that included student and faculty evaluations of her classes and copies of her written class lectures. But because of the secret nature of its work, the committee did not advise Davis of the allegations against her or afford her an opportunity to be heard in her own defense.

From the dossier of materials, the ad hoc commit­tee easily concluded that the first two charges were not only unfounded but that Davis was an exceptional teacher who took great pains to ensure that her out­side engagements did not interfere with her teaching. The third charge, relating to her public statements about academic freedom and thus her fitness as a faculty member, presented more of a challenge and warrant a more detailed discussion.

As an initial matter, Daniel Gordon points out in his excellent 2022 book What Is Academic Free­dom?, the ad hoc committee’s response to the charge was problematic in that it legitimated the idea that a faculty member’s “extramural utterances” could be the subject of a university investigation.8 On the merits, the charge was hard to address because it lacked clarity. Was the charge that Davis’s under­standing of and public statements about academic freedom made her unfit as a faculty member? Or that her public statements about academic freedom were themselves violative of academic freedom? The committee addressed both interpretations. It dis­posed easily of the first based on the same evidence that disproved the allegations of “indoctrination” and “interference.” But the question of whether her public statements about academic freedom them­selves violated (others’) academic freedom was less straightforward.

In public speeches, as the ad hoc committee noted in its report, Davis had referred to academic freedom as an “an ‘empty concept’ and a ‘real farce’ if divorced from freedom of political action, or if ‘exploited’ to maintain such views as the genetic inferiority of black people.” On education more generally, Davis had stated publicly that “education is ‘inherently political’ and political values should be made explicit in the classroom, and also that the Regents have ‘usurped’ the power to determine educational policy for dominant political goals.” The ad hoc committee wrote that she also called the university an “outmoded feudal institution” and described the regents as “‘unscrupulous dema­gogues’ intent upon representing and maintaining the ‘prevailing oppression.’” And finally, the ad hoc committee wrote, Davis had stated in speeches that “mass demonstrations” were “necessary to secure the objectives” she supported.9

These and similar statements raised the question that Chancellor Young had charged the ad hoc com­mittee with examining: “whether [Davis’s] concept of academic freedom would ‘ultimately be destructive of that freedom itself.’”10 Further, the ad hoc com­mittee noted that Davis “does not hesitate to attack the motives, methods, and conclusions of those with whom she disagrees.”11 But even though the ad hoc committee found that Davis’s “choice of language in some of her public statements” might have been “inconsistent with accepted standards of appropri­ate restraint in the exercise of academic freedom,” it concluded that even those statements were “not likely to lead to the destruction of those standards.”12 Sig­nificantly, it found finally that despite all this, Davis’s public statements would not have subjected her to dis­ciplinary proceedings under the university’s own rules or, in its view, the AAUP’s recommended standards of professional ethics. Thus, the ad hoc committee concluded that what would be the regents’ final charge against Davis was unfounded.

During this time, the Department of Philosophy had also begun the process of assessing whether Davis’s performance justified the renewal of her appointment for a second year. In March 1970, Kalish sent a letter to Dean Levine recommending Davis for reappointment, noting unanimity among those faculty members who had voted on the matter. Kalish’s letter further stated that Davis’s “performance as a teacher during fall and winter quarters of this year raises no doubt that her reappointment is in order; in fact, the evidence available from those who have attended her classes indicates that she is exceptionally dedi­cated to and competent at teaching.” As to Davis’s slow progress toward completing her dissertation, Kalish pointed out the extraordinary and “distract­ing” circumstances relating to the regents’ attempt to dismiss her and recommended renewing Davis’s sum­mer stipend so that she could continue work on her dissertation.13

Levine was slow to respond, claiming that signifi­cant cuts to the budget of the College of Letters and Science had created uncertainty about the funding for Davis’s position. After much discussion between administrators at high levels—in which, notably, everyone agreed about Davis’s “unquestionable” qualifications justifying reappointment—the budget­ary issue was resolved in favor of the reappointment: funding for Davis’s reappointment would come from the Faculty Development Program, which had been created “for the purpose of attracting members of minority groups to the UCLA faculty.”14

Accordingly, at the May 1970 regents meeting, Chancellor Young recommended Davis’s reappoint­ment for a second year as acting assistant professor and submitted as part of the supporting documenta­tion the ad hoc committee’s report. In response, the regents adopted a resolution relieving “the President of the University, the Chancellor of the Los Angeles campus and all other administrative officers of any further authority or responsibility in connection with the reappointment or nonreappointment of Acting Assistant Professor Angela Davis, and direct[ing] that the Board of Regents, acting as a Committee of the Whole, review the record relating to this matter and recommend appropriate action to the Board at its next regular meeting.”15 The regents subsequently prepared a report recommending Davis’s dismissal and at the June meeting voted not to reappoint her.

The report of the regents’ committee of the whole based this extraordinary action on the regents’ “con­stitutional right” and “constitutional duty to act in those rare instances where it appears that great harm to the University would result from a failure of the Board to act”—although, as the AAUP’s investigating committee noted, “great harm” was defined nowhere in the regents’ report.16 The regents dismissed UCLA’s recommendations as failing to adequately consider Davis’s “extracurricular” activities and “lack of prog­ress” on her dissertation. Formally, the regents’ report identified three substantive reasons for the decision: Davis’s lack of progress on her dissertation, budgetary constraints, and the fact “that the above quoted state­ments and others contained in the four public speeches reviewed by the Ad Hoc Committee and this commit­tee are so extreme, so antithetical to the protection of academic freedom and so obviously deliberately false in several respects as to be inconsistent with qualifica­tion for appointment to the faculty of the University of California.”17 The first two reasons could not be taken seriously. One could hardly fault Davis’s lack of progress on her dissertation in light of the regents’ continuous attacks on her, which began before she ever set foot on campus, and budgetary constraints had no bearing on the source of funding for Davis’s position.

But what of the charges about academic freedom? They presented more challenging issues for the AAUP’s investigating committee, for, as Gordon puts it in his chapter on Davis’s dismissal, while “it had been illegal when the Regents fired Davis for being a communist,” they were now trying to “dismiss . . . her legally—for talking like one.”18 Of the charge that Davis’s speech was “extreme,” the AAUP report stated that “the mere characterization of a speech as ‘extreme’ conveys no criticism cognizable under AAUP standards”—regard­less of whether “extreme” refers to unpopularity of the opinion expressed or the intensity with which it is held.19 Nor did the charge of “deliberately false” statements warrant serious consideration, because the regents did not specify which of Davis’s statements could be so characterized.

With respect to the regents’ imprecise and unclear charge that Davis’s public statements were “anti­thetical to the protection of academic freedom,” the investigating committee hypothesized that the regents “meant to charge a violation of the AAUP admonition to ‘respect and defend the free inquiry of her associ­ates’ or ‘to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.’”20 Consistent with the ad hoc committee’s report, the investigating committee recognized a distinction between strongly criticizing contemporary understand­ings of academic freedom through reference to how academic freedom protected specific individuals and their research on, for example, the validity of eugen­ics and Black racial inferiority, and directly acting to prevent such individuals from doing their work. But while Davis’s strong extramural critiques of and state­ments about academic freedom and those protected and not protected by it might have lacked “appropri­ate restraint,” they did not violate AAUP-supported standards of academic freedom or demonstrate Davis’s “unfitness” for the position of acting assistant profes­sor, especially in light of the demonstrably high quality of her teaching and scholarship.

The investigating committee went on to address the question underlying the entire case: Did the regents fire Angela Davis because she was a Communist (and a Black female Communist to boot)? On the issue of academic freedom and political affiliation, the AAUP report unequivocally stated, “It is unquestionably con­trary to the standards of the AAUP for a faculty member to be discharged, or for reappointment to be denied, for any of the following reasons or for a combination of them: membership per se in a political party including the Communist Party, the holding or expressing of views favoring revolutionary activity to the extent that these are not contrary to law, or being a political liability in a state either because of well-publicized membership in the Communist Party or because of lawful advocacy of revolutionary activity.”21

Further, the investigating committee acknowledged

the view of an essentially political motivation of the Regents’ action which is widely expressed in the California press and among faculty mem­bers—the view that the final decision was the foreordained result of an unvarying determination by a majority of the Regents to get rid of a fac­ulty member who was a member of a Communist group, who made radical speeches, and whose presence at UCLA had become a political liability in the State of California. . . . The character of the report of the Committee of the Whole and the pro­cedures of its initiation and adoption do nothing to dispel this imputation that the report presents the Regents’ justification rather than the motivating premises of their action. The record of board min­utes and other testimony show persistent eagerness throughout the year, on the part of some Regents, to find a legally acceptable means of removing Miss Davis from the faculty.22

Thus, without saying so outright, the AAUP’s report strongly suggested that the regents, in the end, did terminate Davis’s appointment not only because she was a member of the Communist Party but also because her effectiveness—her brilliance as a Black revolutionary feminist, teacher, and scholar—threat­ened the political status quo in California.

Grounding Academic Freedom

There was never any doubt in Angela Davis’s mind about the reason for her dismissal. Although she devotes very little space in her autobiography, first published in 1974, to the details of her dismissal from UCLA—and she does not mention the AAUP at all— she does write, “I had . . . been fired from my teaching position at the University of California by Governor Ronald Reagan and the Regents because I was a mem­ber of the Communist Party.”23 The AAUP report, of course, also suggests that Davis’s Communist Party membership made her a target for dismissal by the regents. But after reading the AAUP report, I found myself wanting something more than its legalistic statement of facts and background or even its impres­sive analysis and application of AAUP standards. As a law professor who spends much of her time reading and teaching judicial appellate opinions, I understand why reports of this nature seem always to strip the humanity out of conflict and struggle. As I tell my stu­dents, however, it is important to understand context and narrative because, together, they determine the issues to be addressed and analyzed and, consequently, the outcome of any particular controversy. Moreover, in this instance, there are other reasons to bring the case alive by considering its significance in the broader course of Davis’s extraordinary life and career. Davis put herself on the line for, among many other things, academic freedom, a concept that she herself chal­lenged, but her story also raises different issues—such as how academic freedom plays a role in political struggles, in both liberatory and oppressive ways.

Details of Davis’s life can provide insight into the larger lessons to be drawn from the AAUP’s report. Davis had returned to the United States only a few years before receiving her faculty appointment at UCLA, after having moved to Germany in 1964 to begin her doctoral studies at the University of Frankfurt. As she immersed herself in the work of the German ideal­ists under the direction of Theodor Adorno, a leader of the Frankfurt School of thinkers, Davis acted on her intellectual commitments through her intense observation of and engagement in student demonstra­tions and political struggle, which had impressed her as “very seriously striving to arrive at some form of practical resistance capable of overturning the enemy system.” At the same time, racial uprisings had begun to erupt all over the United States, and Davis, increas­ingly committed to struggle on the ground, began to feel an urgent need to return to Los Angeles, where “thousands of sisters and brothers were screaming in the streets . . . that they had observed the rules of the game long enough, too long. . . . Watts was exploding; furiously burning. And out of the ashes of Watts, Phoenix-like, a new Black militancy was being born.”24

Intent on joining the Black liberation movement, Davis left Germany in 1967 and moved to Southern California. There, she resumed her graduate stud­ies at the University of California, San Diego, under another philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, with whom she had studied at Brandeis University and at the Sorbonne during her undergraduate years. She was soon working with organizations like the San Diego Black Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panther Political Party (not to be confused with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense [BPP]) which she described as “a small cadre group that felt its role was to develop theoretical analyses of the Black Liberation Movement, as well as to build structures within the existing movement.”25 The work was dif­ficult and at times life-endangering. Eventually, serious internal disagreements and tensions about the various organizations’ political and theoretical commitments, structures, goals, and strategies fractured the coali­tional work in which Davis had been engaged. Deeply disappointed by this turn of events, Davis began an intense course of study (alongside her PhD studies) to decide whether to join the Communist Party. And, in the summer of 1968, Davis “handed over [her] fifty cents—the initial membership dues—to the chairman of the Che-Lumumba Club, and became a full-fledged member of the Communist Party, U.S.A.”26 Immedi­ately afterward, she began preparation for her PhD qualifying exams at UCSD, which she passed adeptly.

As she began work on her dissertation, Davis remained centrally involved with the Che-Lumumba Club, which the Los Angeles BPP had recently approached for help with opening a local office. Soon, though, the killing by the owner of a liquor store of a young Black man attempting to buy beer led to marches and rallies calling for a boycott of the store. As pro­testers grew in number, the Che-Lumumba Club and the BPP learned that the national BPP—and, likely, the LA BPP— had been infiltrated by police. Conflict arose between the two organizations. As those tensions mounted, two BPP leaders whom Davis respected and admired were found shot to death.

Davis at this point decided to discontinue her work with the BPP and focus on working with the Black Student Council (BSC) at UCSD. With the goal of creating institutional change, the BSC, along with the Mexican-American Youth Association (MAYA), proposed the creation of a “Third Col­lege” at UCSD: “Lumumba-Zapata College, in our theoretical formulation, was to be a place where our peoples could acquire the knowledge and skills we needed in order to more effectively wage our liberation struggles,” Davis wrote.27 The administration, to no one’s surprise, rejected the proposal and its goals. But students and faculty members soon began to organize in support of the BSC, MAYA, and the creation of the Third College. After months of intense campus-wide struggle, the administration capitulated and the Third College was born, albeit in a form less radical than what had been envisioned.28

In summer 1969, Davis traveled to Cuba as part of a “delegation of Communists who had been invited by the Cubans to spend a month in the ‘first free territory of America.’”29 By this time, she had accepted an invi­tation to join the Department of Philosophy at UCLA. Ironically, Davis had already decided not to enter the academy immediately upon completion of her PhD so that she could immerse herself in the on-the-ground work of Black liberation. But she “wanted desperately to get that academic part of my life behind me” and to finish her dissertation, and a faculty appointment would enable her to do so.30 Almost immediately, as discussed above, Governor Reagan and the regents began calling for a revocation of Davis’s appointment pursuant to the 1950 Communist-disqualification rule, resulting in a well-organized campus and community campaign to defend Davis’s right to teach at UCLA. Recognizing the importance of her position as part of a longer and bigger struggle, Davis committed to the fight. So, when UCLA’s vice-chancellor formally asked if she was a member of the Communist Party, Davis responded, unequivocally, that she was. The rest is history.

Why—in thinking about academic freedom—do we need to know details of Davis’s life and work? These biographical details matter because they situate a par­ticular grounded understanding of academic freedom that does not necessarily align with the more abstract conceptualizations often found in AAUP statements and reports. In one of the speeches that led to her dismissal, Davis said, “Academic freedom is an empty concept unless we connect it with social and political freedoms—the real basis of academic freedom in this country. Now, the freedom to teach, the freedom to learn, is totally impotent if it is not accompanied by the freedom to act in a way that is consonant with the principle one believes in.” Davis’s articulation of aca­demic freedom is arguably consistent with the AAUP’s conceptualization of academic freedom not as an end in itself but as instrumental to the common good, which I refer to as an “expansive” understanding of academic freedom. In another speech, Davis stated, “My position is that knowledge has to transcend the immediate political reality for . . . the purpose of transforming it; for the purpose of setting the stage for the elimination of human suffering and misery; for the abolition of racism; for the creation of a society which reflects the interests of the people who constitute the society.” To think otherwise of academic freedom, Davis said, would be a “real farce.”31

The farce that Davis alluded to was, of course, a conventional or, as I call it, “restrictive” understanding of academic freedom. The board of regents employed this “farce,” quite effectively, to achieve its desired end by characterizing Davis’s extramural critiques and excoriations of restrictive understandings of academic freedom as, in essence, violating the academic freedom of those who disagreed with her. The regents’ applica­tion of this restrictive—but not invalid—conception of academic freedom in turn made Davis unfit for the job. With respect to extramural speech, the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure asserts that “college and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession. . . . When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their pro­fession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” Moreover, the AAUP investigating committee did not disagree with the ad hoc committee’s observation that some of Davis’s public statements “offended against good taste, and that in some instances her ‘choice of language’ was inconsistent with ‘accepted standards of appropriate restraint in the exercise of academic freedom.’”32 That said, the interpretive comment on extramural speech added to the 1940 Statement in 1970 states that “the controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position.”

Insofar as Davis’s extramural speech and schol­arly work more generally challenged the AAUP’s vision of the “learned profession” as objective and appropriately restrained, it tested the limits of “aca­demic freedom” as it had been theorized, understood, and applied up to that point. Yet, in relying on the UCLA ad hoc committee’s finding that Davis’s state­ments did not warrant disciplinary action, the report confirmed that it is the university’s imperative to make determinations on fitness through its shared governance processes (distorted as they were here in the university’s dependence on a secretive ad hoc committee)—which is to say, academic freedom has an institutional dimension, not just an individual one. Notably, however, neither the ad hoc committee report nor the AAUP report took a position on the merits of Davis’s conception of academic freedom.

Yet Davis’s understanding of academic freedom is one that, in my experience, resonates with many academics. The late Edward Said, for example, made a similar point in his 1994 BBC Reith Lectures, “Represen­tations of the Intellectual,” when he said, “Intellectuals are not professionals denatured by their fawning service to an extremely flawed power, but . . . are intellectuals with an alternative and more principled stand that enables them in effect to speak truth to power. . . . The goal of speaking truth to power is, in so administered a mass society as ours, mainly to project a better state of affairs and one that corresponds more closely to a set of moral principles—peace, reconciliation, abatement of suffering—applied to known fact.”33

Fifty years after the AAUP report was published, it still isn’t clear to me, even having served on the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure for almost six years, that Davis’s and Said’s notions of academic freedom (and intellectualism) square completely or even satisfactorily with the AAUP’s academic freedom canon and “common law.” Indeed, to my knowledge, the AAUP has not addressed Davis’s particular conception of academic freedom at all outside of the 1971 report.


This, finally, brings me to my last point. The mean­ing of academic freedom—like any abstract concept or value worth thinking about—is still contested by experts and nonexperts alike. But the difference between the regents’ and Davis’s particular under­standings of “academic freedom”—and how they are situated within and without the AAUP interpreta­tions—have not since 1971 been seriously examined or treated, except by Daniel Gordon in 2022. Now, history is repeating itself. Widespread attacks on higher education (and K–12 education) have been escalating for years—starting with state incursion on what faculty members and students can and cannot teach and learn in their supposedly autonomous uni­versities. At the time of this writing, both public and private universities have ceded some of their authority and autonomy in service to the directives of private interests and capital. Crucially, different conceptions of “academic freedom” have played a major role on all sides of these fights. But is this as it should be? Perhaps it is time to take up that question. We might begin with serious consideration of Angela Davis’s conception of academic freedom and of whether the “farce” she described in 1970 has played a role in creating the existential crises we now face in the academy.

Emily Houh is the Gustavus Henry Wald Professor of the Law and Contracts at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. She is a member of the AAUP’s Commit­tee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the Committee on Historically Black Institutions and Scholars of Color, and she has served on several AAUP investigat­ing and special committees, including the Special Committee on Political Interfer­ence and Academic Freedom in Florida’s Public Higher Education System and the Special Committee on Governance, Aca­demic Freedom, and Institutional Racism in the University of North Carolina System.


1. Jordan E. Kurland, “Ten Decades of AAUP Investigations,” Academe, January–February 2015, 23.

2. Except where noted otherwise, the facts of the case presented in this section are drawn from the AAUP investigating committee’s report: “Academic Freedom and Tenure: The University of California at Los Angeles,” AAUP Bulletin 57, no. 3 (September 1971): 382–420.

3. Ibid., 386.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, 387.

7. Ibid., 391.

8 . Daniel Gordon, What Is Academic Freedom? A Century of Debate, 1915–Present (New York: Routledge, 2022), 26.

9 . “Academic Freedom and Tenure: The University of California at Los Angeles,” 391.

10. Ibid., 391–92.

11. Ibid., 411.

12. Ibid., 412.

13. Ibid., 388.

14. Ibid., 389.

15. Ibid., 390.

16. Ibid., 392.

17. Ibid.

18. Gordon, What Is Academic Freedom?, 14.

19 . “Academic Freedom and Tenure: The University of California at Los Angeles,” 397.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., 395.

22. Ibid., 399.

23. Angela Davis: An Autobiography, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 5–6.

24. Ibid.; quotations from pages 122–24.

25. Ibid., 139.

26. Ibid., 164–65.

27. Ibid., 170–71.

28. UCSD renamed the Third College Thurgood Marshall College in 1993.

29. Davis, Autobiography, 173.

30. Ibid., 189.

31. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: University of California at Los Angeles,” 410.

32. Ibid., 404.

33. Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (New York: Random House, 1996), 97, 99–100.