Jordan E. Kurland and the Work of Committee A

By Matthew W. Finkin

Christopher Wren’s son had these words inscribed in St. Paul’s Cathedral: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (If you seek his monument, look ’round). Jordan Kurland was also an architect, but of a different sort. The materials he worked with were far less malleable than brick and stone. They were principles and people. His work was far less visibly attributable. If one were to seek his monument, where would one look?

Jordan came to the AAUP’s staff in 1965, leaving a position in history at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNC Greensboro). He’d researched in Russia and, while there, was asked to lecture on American government. His Russian students asked him whether the invitation extended to him could be reciprocated: Would they be allowed to speak about Communism in an American university? He answered unhesitatingly: that would be a matter of course, such being America’s commitment to academic freedom. Upon return, he found the North Carolina legislature attempting to enact a “speaker ban” to deny Communists a podium in any state university. AAUP chapters at UNC and across the state mounted a vigorous, and successful, campaign against the bill, enlisting as leaders in the struggle a young professor of constitutional law, William Van Alstyne, and Jordan Kurland. That experience was career changing.[1]

When Jordan joined the staff, Bert Davis was in charge of service to Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Jordan was put to that work, quickly assuming an ever-larger role in it as the volume of complaints and cases rose dramatically with a concomitant rise in investigations as well as an expanding menu of policy issues. When Bert became general secretary in 1971, Jordan succeeded him as director of the Committee A operation. Technically, he stepped out of that role in 2000, even as he continued to do Committee A work until his death. But, as Greg Scholtz, the current head of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, has noted, the change was largely titular. All in all, for fifty years the primary responsibility— and the overarching vision—for Committee A staff work was in Jordan’s hands. What did that mean?

First, on a day-to-day basis inquiries from administrators and complaints from faculty members had to be dealt with, the facts sorted out, the relevant policy determined, applied or refined, policy lacunae filled in, or, if too gaping, placed on Committee A’s agenda. This required not only a close reading of regulations and correspondence, of situations and people, but also persistence, extraordinary mediative skill, human empathy, and exquisite judgment: what complaints to pursue, or not; what issues to raise, or not; when to advise a complainant to settle and on what terms and with what precedential effect for the institution and the Association. These were the kinds of judgments Jordan made or oversaw, day in, day out, thousands of times. The results immediately affected professional lives, but cumulatively they shaped the academic community’s understanding of what Committee A stood for, and against.

Committee A investigation is the most public face of the process, but it takes place only after all mediative efforts have proved fruitless. The executive director (formerly the general secretary) has to be persuaded that the issues posed by a case are worth the substantial investment of time and resources. The members of an ad hoc investigating committee have to be chosen, taking account of disciplinary expertise, institutional affiliation, and personal competence— including reason to believe the team would cohere and the chair produce a timely product. The process from start to finish lay in Jordan’s bailiwick. He often used these appointments as a means as well of vetting a prospect to recommend for a future role: service on a policy subcommittee, chair of an investigation, perhaps membership on Committee A.

Once appointed, an ad hoc committee has to be briefed—the issues defined, the regulatory instruments and documents assembled—and its report edited, submitted to the parties for factual accuracy and comment, and, possibly, edited further in light of the comments received. The editorial role is one of the most delicate of functions: the investigative report is the ad hoc committee’s product, not the staff’s; but errors of fact or policy have to be caught, questionable judgments flagged, and, when necessary, analysis refined. Sometimes egos are bruised; rarely, a committee member will demand that his or her name be removed from the report. Throughout, a high order of diplomatic skill is called for.

After publication, the question of censurability presses to the fore. Here staff guidance on local developments and sensibilities can be essential. After censure is imposed comes the sometimes fruitless, sometimes prolonged, and inevitably delicate process of persuading a censured administration to seek removal. Jordan’s hand is found throughout in hundreds of investigations and subsequent diplomatic initiatives on the removal of censure, some lasting decades. He was a master at persuading reluctant and sometimes hostile presidents that, after the dust had settled, what he was asking of them was in their best interests.

In all of this Jordan was more than a gifted bureaucrat, though such gifts should not be lightly regarded. He was the repository of Committee A’s historical memory: its conscience. Committee A’s process has to be beyond reproach, lest its integrity be compromised, irreparably. To take but one small, if salient, example, the fact that local AAUP officers played a role, by action or inaction, in abetting a violation of AAUP standards could play no role in processing a complaint even to the point of investigation and potential censure, no matter how intramurally influential they might be. Generations of Association leaders had to learn this lesson; but Jordan was a matchless teacher, not only of elected leaders but of the junior members of the staff assigned to Committee A work—the lawyers not excluded. That Committee A’s stature remains as it has been for fifty years is due in great measure to Jordan’s pedagogic ability and steadfast resistance to any political influence. These efforts were of necessity veiled from public view.

Return, however, to the visible, the legislative business of Committee A. As the head of what is, practically speaking, a national clearinghouse for campus contention, Jordan played a pivotal role in separating out from the transitory that which had call on national address, in appointing those in subcommittees who would be asked to address them, and in helping to shape the committee’s draft in a direction consistent with professional values and fit for practical implementation. If one proceeds through the tenth edition of the Association’s Redbook, one finds, first, the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, next the joint 1958 Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings, and then twenty-five subsequent policies and reports on academic freedom and tenure. Jordan had a role in virtually every one of them. Even the 1940 and 1958 Statements have been refined into the Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the provenance of which lay in a small working group that included Walter Metzger, Clark Byse, and Jordan Kurland.

If one seeks Jordan’s monument, it can be found in the lives of the thousands of faculty members whose careers he saved, in the regulations of hundreds of institutions brought up to acceptable standards by dint of his efforts, in the refinement of policies advancing professional norms in changing circumstances, and in the continued stature and relevance of Committee A. All one need do is look ’round.

Matthew Finkin is professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He served as chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure from 1980 to 1990.

[1] Sight is largely lost today of the depth of the threat to academic freedom—and to individual academics—posed at the time by governmental action and the pusillanimous response of university administrators. The reader would benefit not only from Sigmund Diamond’s 1992 book, Compromised Campus, but also from Jordan’s review of it in the spring 1993 issue of the Slavic Review.


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