Remembering William Van Alstyne

By David M. Rabban

William Van Alstyne, for decades a leader in the AAUP and a preemi­nent scholar of constitutional law, died on January 29, 2019, at the age of eighty-four. He joined the AAUP in 1960, at the beginning of his career as a law professor, and twice served as president of the AAUP chapter at Duke University, where he taught for almost forty years. He became involved with the national AAUP in 1965, when he testified on its behalf against an at­tempt by legislators in North Caro­lina to enact a “speaker ban” that would have prevented Communists from speaking at state universities. Later that year, he was appointed to Committee S on Faculty Respon­sibility for the Academic Freedom of Students. The work of this com­mittee led to the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students in 1967. He subsequently served as chair of Committee O on Orga­nization (1969), general counsel (1969–70), chair of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure (1970–73), and president of the AAUP (1974–76). After his presi­dency, he served several additional terms on Committee A and another term as general counsel, and he was a long-standing member of the Litigation Committee.

Van Alstyne’s prolific and influ­ential scholarship covered subjects across the broad field of constitu­tional law. Much of it addressed First Amendment issues. Among his many articles and essays, two clas­sics relate especially to the work of the AAUP. “The Specific Theory of Academic Freedom and the General Issue of Civil Liberty” is a brilliant analysis of the relationship between academic freedom and free speech. “Tenure: A Summary, Explanation, and ‘Defense’” is a concise and sophisticated essay that corrects misconceptions about tenure while emphasizing its importance in protecting academic freedom. Similarly connecting his scholarship to his work with the AAUP, he edited a collection of essays to mark the fiftieth anni­versary of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The book, Freedom and Tenure in the Academy, contains contributions from many scholars who had been active in the AAUP, including his own piece, “Academic Freedom and the First Amendment in the Supreme Court of the United States: An Unhurried Historical Review.”

A scholar who influenced judges as well as academic colleagues, Van Alstyne was cited in Supreme Court opinions and numerous lower court decisions. His high professional standing made him a particularly effective advocate for the AAUP by lending credibility to the positions he took on the Asso­ciation’s behalf.

I had the good fortune to join the legal staff of the AAUP while Bill Van Alstyne was still president. His intellectual brilliance, verbal dexterity, and charismatic person­ality made it exciting to observe him in action and especially to work with him. His extemporane­ous speaking was more polished than what most people can achieve through multiple revisions of writ­ten drafts. Collaborating with him on legal briefs in cases that raised important and often novel issues for professors remains a highlight of my career.

Most of my work with Bill focused on issues of academic freedom and free speech, but I vividly remember his presentation at a daylong hearing in a large auditorium about proposed IRS regulations. One of these propos­als would have imposed additional tax liability on professors. Bill felt strongly that the AAUP should testify against it. He rode his motorcycle from Duke to Wash­ington, DC, and arrived dressed in leather, the only person among the several hundred in the auditorium who was not wearing blue or gray. Each speaker was limited to five minutes, and by the time Bill’s turn came in the middle of the after­noon, many in the audience were dozing off. Within thirty seconds, almost everybody was looking at Bill, riveted by the eloquence of his presentation. Even on a technical matter well outside his professional expertise, Bill could command attention. Happily for American professors, Bill’s eloquence was persuasive. The IRS decided not to implement the proposed tax.

With the death of William Van Alstyne, the AAUP has lost one of its most important leaders during the past fifty years. Those fortunate enough to have known him have lost an unforgettable friend.

David M. Rabban is the Dahr Jamail, Randall Hage Jamail, and Robert Lee Jamail Regents Chair in Law at the University of Texas at Austin. He was general counsel of the AAUP from 1998 to 2006 and chair of Commit­tee A from 2006 to 2012.


During the Watergate hearings I was his secretary at Duke Law School. He revered the U.S. Constitution. He handed me vintage law book upon vintage book, most with yellowed pages, torn edges and loosened bindings. “Be extremely careful when making copies” he would say, place my page tabs back into place, keep everything in the order as I present them”. For him, these were sacred texts. He was always cordial, a consummate professional standing in front of my desk in brown leathers, top buttons on shirt open. I thought of him as Duke Law’s “rock star”. Phone calls arrived steadily because Watergate, from across the nation & memorably from Calcutta.
Months later, at 8 am, arriving for work & walking up the stairwell two floors, the building seemed empty and the walls were increasingly streaked with soot.
A pipe smoker, he left behind a burning ember in his office late the prior evening. He arrived an hour later joining other witnesses standing beneath his office window. The fire was soon quenched, leaving adjoining offices relatively unscathed.
Professor Van Alstyne, on the shortest of lists for a Supreme Court appointment, was in his office to begin again. The “sacred texts” were now ash or water stained. We, all of us present, were gifted with a substantive definition of “grace under pressure” — he had great love and met great loss straight on.

Michele Marie
Fuqua EMBA

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