Surviving Attacks on Academic Freedom

A lesson from the past.
By Larry Gara

For historical background on the case discussed in this article, read "Larry Gara and the Historic Grove City Censure" by Gregory F. Scholtz.

As a retired faculty member who was at the center of a case involving an institution that spent more than fifty years on the AAUP’s censure list, I hope the story of my academic career will be useful to others. At ninety-five, I can look back on a good life that has been shaped by my pacifist convictions.

My parents were divorced when I was very young, and my mother and I moved in with her parents. My grandfather, “Pop,” was a cigar maker in Reading, Pennsylvania. Reading was then a Democratic Socialist city, and both my maternal grandparents were Socialists. They were also antiwar, though my father had been in the military. Early in life I became a strong pacifist, and I participated in several peace actions that included two long “walks” for peace.

My mother, a skilled dressmaker, had several clients who were antiwar Quakers. Their influence led me to attend Quaker meetings for worship and to join the Society of Friends when I became an adult. Meanwhile, I became the first member of my family to attend college. I enrolled in the state teachers’ college in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, as a commuter, usually hitchhiking the eighteen miles each way. In the early 1940s, when war clouds began to gather, the college abruptly added the Pledge of Allegiance to its assembly programs. I was scolded for wearing a peace button and nearly expelled for joining two others in refusing to stand for the pledge.

When I turned twenty and was legally required to register for the Selective Service, I openly refused, an act that led to a three-year sentence in federal prison. While in prison I participated in several nonviolent actions, including an effort led by activist Bayard Rustin to desegregate the dining hall. For that violation I spent a year in partial isolation.

Released from prison, I spent my final undergraduate year at William Penn College in Iowa. The president, Cecil Hinshaw, had recruited a challenging faculty and invited war resisters as well as military veterans to study there. I arrived in January 1946, and before the year ended I had a BA in history and had married Lenna Mae Goodson, my amazing life partner.

My speaking and writing about peace projects convinced me that I would enjoy teaching, something that was confirmed by one semester of high school teaching in Pisgah, Iowa. Lenna Mae and I then attended Pennsylvania State College, where I received the MA degree and Lenna Mae added credits to her academic record. In a year and a summer I was ready for a teaching job, but the placement bureau I contacted failed to be of any help. Luck came my way, however, when I got a call from the president of Bluffton College in Ohio, inviting me to interview for a one-year opening in history. That resulted in a job teaching history, along with being dean of men and living in a college apartment in the men’s dormitory.

In the summer before our arrival, however, a male Bluffton student had refused to register for the draft. By the time the FBI arrived to arrest him, I was on duty in the dorm, and I said, “Don’t let them coerce you into changing your conscience.” Later, the arresting agent testified that I had advised him not to register. In fact, I had earlier talked to the student, urging him to rethink his position and register if he could do so in good conscience. I would never counsel a student to refuse. It now seems likely that J. Edgar Hoover was looking for a case to test the constitutionality of the counseling clause of the Selective Training and Service Act, and mine was a perfect fit. My trial ended with a very prejudiced ruling and another eighteen-month prison term. While I had done “easy time” on the first sentence, the second was sheer hell. Lenna Mae, who was earning her way while working on her own degree, used all her spare time supporting me. Following public pressure that came from many, including Lloyd L. Ramseyser, the president of Bluffton College, the director of the Department of Justice offered me early parole.

In 1950 the counseling case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, where the ruling against me was affirmed by a divided court. We lost on a 4–4 ruling with no written decision or record of how the judges voted. Despite the odds, I continued to hope for a chance to teach college, not to propagandize but to help students think critically before reaching conclusions. That goal required my getting a PhD. The University of Wisconsin was an obvious choice for graduate study, not only because it was highly rated academically, but also because of the presence of William B. Hesseltine in the Department of History. Hesseltine, a pacifist, had published an article about my case. I soon became his research assistant, and we coauthored a number of articles. The training I received from him was superb, for he insisted his students write about history as well as teach it. I did much of Hesseltine’s research as well as my own and had little time for anything more. Since I was on parole when I arrived in Wisconsin, I could not legally travel far. I chose the biography of a local land agent as a dissertation topic because his papers were on deposit in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. My dissertation was published and became the first of my six books and many articles. The presence of Robin, our first child, added a joyful distraction to our lives. Six years later her brother, Brian, was born.

With a degree in hand I began the search for a college teaching job. Several institutions where the Wisconsin history department had sent my applications reacted with anger because of my prison record. Administrators at Mexico City College, however, were positive and hired me, but without securing official permission for me to work in Mexico. Although my teaching was well received, I was an undocumented resident, and every six months I would have to travel to Texas to renew my visitor’s permit while lying about my status. That complication, coupled with government devaluation of the peso, led us to return to the United States without a job in sight. William Russell, a friend from graduate school, was leaving a position at Eureka College in Illinois just as we were leaving Mexico. He recommended me as a replacement, and that led to three untroubled years at Eureka College. Trouble, however, came when President J. Stanley Harker, of Grove City College in Pennsylvania, called me one summer. After more than an hour on the phone I agreed to visit Grove City, even though I had no interest in leaving Eureka, and a week later I foolishly took the job Harker offered. After a year I became chair of the history department, but I soon realized that Harker did not approve of my interest in research and writing and especially did not like my being a vegetarian. Nonetheless, we never argued, and each year I got a raise and a note of support from the dean, who had also counseled me about what he considered my tough grading.

In March 1963, the day new contracts were to be issued, I was called to the dean’s office, where he and two other administrators confronted me. I was shocked when they told me that they had received many complaints about my teaching and that my contract would therefore not be renewed. The dean suggested I quietly resign and said they would help me find another teaching job.

I asked how they could support such a bad teacher and expressed my determination to seek an impartial evaluation of my performance. If other professionals agreed that my teaching was below par, I would seek another profession. I then called the AAUP for guidance and also requested a meeting with President Harker, who reluctantly agreed. In that meeting he merely repeated what the others had said about my teaching and offered to share with me an abundance of material that would prove his case. I never did see any “evidence” that justified my dismissal.

Meanwhile, I was under contract to teach at the University of Delaware that summer. I wrote the professor who had invited me that my dismissal from Grove City had come as a shock to me and that I did not wish to involve the University of Delaware in any controversy. If that meant my not coming, I would understand. He urged me to stick with the plan, and my family and I had a positive experience there. However, when word of the dismissal became known, the Delaware American Legion published a protest. My supervising dean at Delaware then called me to his office and was relieved to learn that I had already written the history department chair about the incident. He himself was a member of the Legion, he said, and would call them off. He did so, and I had good results from my teaching, which gave me hope at a difficult time.

That hope was thin, however, until I got a note from President James M. Read at Quaker-affiliated Wilmington College in Ohio: “My situation is fluid,” he wrote. “How is yours?” I answered that “fluid” was the right word for my case, whereupon he suggested I visit Wilmington for an interview. I did so, and was offered a contract for the upcoming year.

I finished the remaining months of my contract at Grove City College, even though it was a difficult time. Colleagues whose children had enjoyed my classes would no longer speak to me. However, six faculty members, led by Raymond M. Lorantas, who was an outstanding alumnus of the college, protested my dismissal. The group tried to negotiate with Harker but got nowhere.

It became clear that Harker could not change the order to fire me because it had come from J. Howard Pew, the right-wing chair of the college board. Harker became furious when Pittsburgh news outlets criticized him, and he even threatened their reporters. Since he could not tell the truth about his decision, he devised false stories about Lenna Mae and me. He also wrote to my graduate school adviser Professor Hesseltine about some of the charges.

We found out later that Hans Sennholz, a German war veteran and faculty member, had been a spy for Pew, who hired two private detectives to spend a week in Grove City investigating me. I had befriended Sennholtz, who was openly disliked by most of the faculty because of his background as a German fighter pilot. Even though he was secretly working to get me fired, he thanked me for not harassing him.

Meanwhile, Ray Lorantas and five other faculty members had publicly announced their resignations from the college, even holding a birthday party for me with a group of friendly students. I never mentioned my situation in class and attended commencement to support my students, although my presence there was probably an embarrassment to the administration. During that difficult period, we kept a promise to take our daughter Robin to a performance at the college by civil rights activist and singer Odetta, whose recordings Robin loved. Despite the chilly atmosphere in the auditorium, we all enjoyed the evening.

It was the AAUP report and the subsequent imposition of censure on the administration of Grove City College that saved my professional career. The AAUP’s thorough investigation revealed no wrongdoing or incompetent teaching on my part; instead, it showed that the controversy stemmed from my having written a letter to the college paper in which I had pointed out the dangers of nuclear war and supported graduation requirements that included a course in US history. The AAUP’s report described Grove City College as an institution that failed to protect the academic freedom of its faculty.

Although the exoneration of my teaching record concerned me the most, Grove City College had remained on the AAUP’s list of censured administrations for more than fifty years when Richard Jewell, retired president of the college, visited us and expressed his regret that I had been unfairly fired. Later I was pleased to learn that further negotiations led to the removal of the college from the AAUP’s censure list. Today, the institution has a procedure for affording due process to any faculty member accused of unprofessional behavior.

This article would not have been possible without the contribution of historian Steve Taaffe, an alumnus of Grove City College, who resented the AAUP’s censure of his alma mater and decided to look into it. His research convinced him that the college administration’s only reason to fire me was that it had received direct orders from the board chair to do so. Taaffe’s article proved him to be an honest and principled historian.

Looking back on my long career in college teaching, I feel great satisfaction in knowing that I outlasted several attempts to cause its early end. Although the situation at Grove City College posed the most serious threat, it led directly to my career at Wilmington College, a near-perfect place for me to teach and my family to live. At the same time, of course, the AAUP deserves major credit for the thorough and fair report that made my continued teaching possible.

After my retirement, Wilmington College president Daniel DiBiasio permitted me to teach a course on nonviolence for ten more years. He then granted me the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree and established the annual Larry and Lenna Mae Gara History Lecture. A number of former students have written to thank me for what my teaching has meant to them. Those letters countered the one that attacked my teaching as subversive. As I look back on a full academic career, I take satisfaction in having made a small contribution to the teaching of history and having helped keep nonviolence alive.   

Larry Gara is emeritus professor of history at Wilmington College.

Photo by Randy Sarvis, courtesy of Wilmington College.

Larry Gara and the Historic Grove City Censure

By Gregory F. Scholtz

In 2016, the 102nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of University Professors voted to remove Grove City College in Pennsylvania from its list of censured administrations. The college had been placed there in 1963, by vote of the Association’s Forty-Ninth Annual Meeting. Grove City’s fifty-three years on the censure list had thus set an unenviable AAUP record, making its removal all the more cause for rejoicing.

The recommendation on censure approved by the 1963 annual meeting read as follows:

In February 1962, Professor Larry Gara, chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at Grove City College, was told by the Dean and the President that he would not be retained beyond the end of the academic year. Professor Gara was in his fifth year of service at the college and, taking into account five years of service at other institutions of higher education, should be regarded, under the standards generally observed in the academic profession, as having had tenure. Grove City College, however, states that it has no tenure system. . . .

The administration of Grove City College gave Professor Gara no semblance of that due process which should be the basis of any adjudication. This absence of fair procedure, which inevitably raises doubts regarding the academic security of anyone holding an appointment at this institution under existing administrative practice, leads Committee A [on Academic Freedom and Tenure] to recommend that Grove City College be placed upon the list of Censured Administrations of the American Association of University Professors.

Present at that annual meeting, his first, was Jordan E. Kurland, a young professor of Russian history at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). In later years, Jordan would recall that the first vote he cast at an AAUP annual meeting was for the censure of Grove City College. In 1965 Jordan joined the AAUP’s professional staff. Among his key responsibilities was reaching out to censured administrations twice yearly to encourage them to work with the AAUP to remove the censure.

Unfortunately, staff communications to the Grove City administration over the next fifty years seldom garnered even a bare acknowledgment. Then, in 2013, the college’s new provost, Robert J. Graham, responded to the staff’s letter by initiating a phone call with Jordan and me to discuss what Grove City’s removal from the censure list would entail. We explained that the college would have to address its policies on academic freedom and tenure, but Jordan went on at length about the preliminary need to extend a gesture of redress, while still possible, to Professor Gara, who, Jordan pointed out, had gone on to enjoy a distinguished career at Wilmington College in Ohio, which had just granted him an honorary doctorate at age ninety. In 2014, Paul J. McNulty became Grove City College’s ninth president, and the dialogue intensified, with Jordan continuing to stress that something needed to be done for Professor Gara. Then, on October 20, 2015, came the extraordinary news that Grove City’s newly retired president, Richard G. Jewell, had traveled to Ohio to offer Professor Gara an apology, a rare gesture of redress in the history of the AAUP. In a letter to the staff, President McNulty wrote, “Grove City College has reached out personally to Professor Larry Gara to express our regret at the way in which his situation was handled.” He went on: “Regardless of whether the AAUP’s censure of the College is lifted, we believe that this was the right thing to do and are pleased to help bring some closure to Professor Gara.”

In November 2015, following the fall meeting of Committee A, we wrote to the president and the provost urging resolution of the outstanding policy issues in time for the annual meeting in June, hoping to capitalize on the general good feeling brought about by the college’s action. On November 24, Jordan proposed specific language to be added to the Grove City faculty handbook that he believed would “prevent another college action against a professor such as that which led to the AAUP investigation and 1963 censure.” On January 4, 2016, he followed up with a note to Provost Graham pressing adoption of the language he had proposed, eliciting from the provost the assurance that the college was indeed considering it. Although Jordan did not live to see his efforts come to fruition (he died on January 23), the college did adopt a version of Jordan’s recommended language. Subsequently, an AAUP representative visiting the campus submitted a report to Committee A supporting removal, Committee A recommended lifting of censure based on the new handbook language and the college’s remarkable gesture of redress, and the 2016 annual meeting voted to approve Committee A’s recommendation—thus ending the longest censure in the history of the AAUP.

Gregory F. Scholtz is director of the AAUP's Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance.