Walter P. Metzger (1922–2016)

By Hans-Joerg Tiede

In 1955 the AAUP emerged from one of its greatest crises—the failure to respond to McCarthyism’s relentless attack on academic freedom. The incoming general secretary, Indiana University law professor Ralph F. Fuchs, was assigned the dual task of remedying the Association’s recent shortfalls and enabling it to persevere into the future. Fuchs recognized that to do the latter required a deeper understanding of the former, and so the Association established not only a Special Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure in the Quest for National Security, which issued a report on the unaddressed cases of the preceding decade, but also Committee H on the History of the Association. In late 1956, Fuchs invited Columbia University historian Walter P. Metzger to chair Committee H. Metzger had just coauthored with Richard Hofstadter what soon came to be recognized as the authoritative account of the history of academic freedom from colonial times until World War I, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. This invitation led to Metzger’s lifetime of service to the AAUP and to the cause of academic freedom.

With the Association’s encouragement and support, Metzger in 1960 spent a yearlong research leave in Washington, DC, where he made a thorough study of the archives of the Association and conducted in-depth interviews with AAUP founder and Johns Hopkins University philosophy professor Arthur O. Lovejoy. Metzger eventually published a series of articles on the history of the AAUP and of the academic profession that remain the standard treatments of the subjects. One of these, a seventy-five-page history of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, published in 1990 in Law and Contemporary Problems, provides such a thorough description of the AAUP’s early history that it comes close to fulfilling his unrealized goal of writing a book-length history of the Association. Its insights into the circumstances that led to the rise of the modern tenure system remain relevant to understanding today’s attacks on tenure.

But Metzger’s contributions to the Association did not consist solely of his research. In 1958 he was appointed to Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He ended up serving longer than anyone else, as a member until 1985 and then as senior consultant until 2000. His tenure on the committee exceeded even that of Lovejoy, who served from 1915 to 1943. In 1985, when he retired from active service on the committee, former committee chairs wrote letters praising his contributions. University of California law professor Sanford Kadish wrote:

I know whereof I speak when I say that you so imparted your spirit to Committee A that in the minds of the rest of us Metzger and Committee A became inseparable. It has always been amazing to me how an institutional body, a faculty or, as in this case, a committee, can acquire and maintain a distinctive personality that continues on even as the members come and go. The explanation in the end is some single member whose own character and style give perfect expression to the highest aspiration of the group so that to serve as a member of that group is to be in one sense, but in a profound sense, like that person. For Committee A that person has been you. You have Metzgerized us all.

Metzger not only studied academic freedom and participated in its defense through service on Committee A; he also had a deeply held appreciation for its significance, expressed in the final paragraph of the jointly authored book that marked the beginning of his lifelong work on the subject: “No one can follow the history of academic freedom in this country without wondering at the fact that any society, interested in the immediate goals of solidarity and self-preservation, should possess the vision to subsidize free criticism and inquiry, and without feeling that the academic freedom we still possess is one of the remarkable achievements of man.”

But his careful study of academic freedom cases—serious failures, as they are, to uphold that freedom—influenced his views as well. Thus, the final paragraph concludes: “At the same time, one cannot but be appalled at the slender thread by which it hangs, at the wide discrepancies that exist among institutions with respect to its honoring and preservation; and one cannot but be disheartened by the cowardice and self-deception that frail men use who want to be both safe and free. With such conflicting evidence, perhaps individual temperament alone tips the balance toward confidence or despair.”

Professor Metzger’s lifelong contribution to academic freedom was invaluable. As another chair of Committee A remarked in 1985, “Surely, if there were a Committee A Hall of Fame, your name, along with Arthur Lovejoy’s, would lead all the rest.”

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