Linking Academic Freedom and Shared Governance: The Rollins College Inquiry, 1933

                                                               Jack C. Lane                                                             Alexander W. Weddell Professor Emeritus of American History and College Historian (Photo:  David Noe)

The Archives is happy to share this guest blog post from Dr. Jack Lane ’06H, who taught history at Rollins for more than thirty years. Dr. Lane’s latest book is Rollins College Centennial History:  A Story of Perseverance, 1885-1985.

When I arrived at Rollins College in 1963, I found in place a democratic governance system where the entire community shared academic decision making. After researching the history of the college, I learned shared governance was the result of a long and contentious process. Today, mounting pressures from multiple sources have led to serious criticism of the system of shared academic governance. Many argue a corporate model is better suited to meet future challenges. More businesslike methods, it is argued, are necessary so that academic institutions can be more “flexible” and “nimble.”

If not now, then sooner or later the Rollins College community will be forced to face the issue of what kind of governance best meets these emerging challenges. In the meantime, it would reward the community to ponder a moment in its history when a crisis first forced the college to come to grips with the meaning and extent of a shared governance system. Comprehending this moment allows the community to reflect instructively on how and why a previous generation prepared the way for the college’s present system of shared governance and why knowledge of that effort is important today.  —Jack C. Lane

From the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915, its officers have understood that fulfillment of principle of academic freedom depended on faculty participation in institutional governance. Although the association did not determine the parameters of faculty participation in governance until 1966, throughout the AAUP’s early years  it worked to lay the groundwork for the principle of shared governance. Because most of the association’s time and funds were spent investigating individual cases of freedom of speech abuses, the officers were on the lookout for violations that would allow the association to highlight its goal of academic shared governance.

One such opportunity materialized in April 1933 when the office received a letter from President Frank Aydelotte of Swarthmore College stating that his son-in-law, Professor John Rice, Rollins College Winter Park, Florida, had been abruptly fired without prior notice. At Rice’s request and with the approval of the college president, the association decided to send representatives to conduct an inquiry into the issues involving the dismissal. As evidence of how significant the AAUP regarded this case at a small college in provincial Winter Park, it dispatched its most prestigious officer, Arthur Lovejoy, to head the investigation. Lovejoy of Johns Hopkins University, a distinguished philosopher/scholar and a founder of the AAUP, was a determined proponent of establishing a link between academic freedom and faculty participation in college governance.

Arthur Lovejoy (Photo:  Courtesy of the Ferdinand Hamburger Archives, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University)

Small colleges such as Rollins presented the AAUP with a major obstacle: most boards of trustees and presidents at these colleges were guided by a governing system that had changed little since the early 19th century and therefore they were resistant to the concept of shared governance. Authority and responsibility for most college policy rested solely in the hands of trustees who then delegated that authority to the president. Although college teaching was proclaimed a calling rather than a job, in terms of college governance, most administrations treated the faculty as employees. The idea of employer/employee college relations expanded after the turn of the century when businessmen began to replace church leaders on the boards of trustees. Afterwards, a management, autocratic style of governance emerged that further consolidated authority in the hands of the boards and the presidents. Any inference from an outside organization such as the AAUP was viewed in the same light as a labor union intrusion.

No administration held more staunchly to this corporate view of small college governance than the board of trustees and the president of Rollins College. Hamilton Holt’s prior experiences as owner and editor of an influential magazine predisposed him to a business-like governing style. In his ten years as president, he had developed a strong personal attachment to the institution. Appointed president in 1926, he almost singlehandedly saved the college from academic and financial demise, gave it a new identity, increased the size of the student body and built a new physical plant. He alone was responsible for the gathering of a talented group of faculty. A nationally known and influential figure, he accepted the presidency of the little college because he wanted to experiment with pedagogical ideas he had accumulated over the years as editor of The Independent. Within weeks of his appointment and without participation of the faculty, he introduced a new system of teaching he called the “Two-Hour Conference Plan.”  Drawing on his experience as an editorial office apprentice, Holt’s plan stressed mutual cooperation and interaction between professor and students where the professors would serve as facilitators rather than lecturers. He then used his publicity talents to advertise Rollins nationally as on the cutting edge of national collegiate educational reform. From that point, he viewed his leadership in academic matters as a major part of his role as president.

This photo of President Hamilton Holt hosting students at his home appeared in a college publication called An Experiment That Has Proved Itself (1939), captioned as “an example of the spirit of Rollins.”

A photo of a math class in 1939, illustrating the way students and professors worked  together under the college’s Conference Plan.

In 1931, Holt persuaded John Dewey, the guru of progressive education theory, to head a five-day conference comprised of major leaders in non-traditional education. Principles of progressive liberal education from the meetings were integrated into a new Rollins curriculum called “Individualization in Education.” Afterward, Rollins was regarded as one of the leading innovative colleges in the nation. Given his dominant role in these academic innovations, not surprisingly Holt had assumed a strong proprietary attitude toward an institution in which he had invested so much effort. He had completely internalized an oft quoted catchphrase, “Rollins is Holt and Holt is Rollins.” He was universally praised and extolled as “Mr. Rollins College.” Any faculty disagreement with college policy would be considered an act of personal disloyalty.

John Dewey and the Report of the 1931 Curriculum Conference (Photo of John Dewey by Underwood & Underwood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

For the first few years Holt managed to steer a harmonious ship but by 1933 all was not well in the Rollins vessel. When Lovejoy and a colleague arrived in Winter Park, they found the Rollins campus in turmoil. Holt’s abrupt dismissal of John Rice was the culmination of a growing disagreement between the faculty and the president over the prerogatives of faculty in those areas affecting academic affairs. Assuming the academic reforms embraced a more democratic community, the faculty steadily began asserting its role in academic policy. Trouble began when the Curriculum Committee proposed to abolish or to severely restrict the Greek system as disruptive of academic life and incompatible with the academic progressive reforms sweeping the campus. Holt bristled at and then rejected the attempt to dismantle a social system he himself had helped establish.

A few weeks later the faculty challenged the president’s authority in other areas.  “The Curriculum Committee and as individuals,” protested the administration’s practice of holding chapel convocations that extended beyond the 10:30 class period. A “convocation of doubtful value,” the committee charged, “disrupted and in fact led some faculty to disband classes.” Additionally, the committee chided the administration for permitting students to miss classes to listen to tennis professional Bill Tilden, whose sole purpose was “to advertise an exhibition of tennis professionals.” Holt, taken aback by the sharp and condemning tone of these protests, admitted the administration’s mistake in infringing on class time but added a pointed retort: “The slur of your phrase concerning tennis professionals implies a motive on the part of the administration that I am sure on reflection you will wish to withdraw.”

A more serious confrontation followed. The curriculum committee proposed abolishing the two-hour classes and the eight-hour day, arguing that the schedule was “incompatible with the new Rollins plans.” If the new curriculum was based on achievement rather than time and if it was designed to “enable the individual to develop in his own way and along the lines of his own interests as fast as his ability will admit,” then, the committee argued, the college needed class periods elastic enough to “permit more hours in class, less hours in class or no hours in class.” Holt vehemently rejected not only the attempt to abolish his treasured “Two-Hour Plan” but also to faculty entitlement to make such a change. Efforts to make basic alterations in the curriculum without his approval, he declared, in effect usurped his authority. Holt warned that if the curriculum revisions passed either he would resign or a certain group of faculty would have to go. “If there is as much as fifty percent disagreement between me and any member of the faculty on fundamental matters,’ he warned, “either he or I should go.” Following Holt’s warning, a majority of the faculty voted to table indefinitely the Curriculum Committee’s resolution.

President Holt (front row, center) and Rollins faculty members in 1932. Prof. Rice is standing behind the President.

For the Rollins community these were uncharted waters. Were these faculty efforts simply a logical extension of the academic reform that foretold a democratic community and therefore a way of making a transition from a traditional to a participatory governance system? Or was this faculty assertiveness a kind of revolt against authority and therefore a challenge to Holt’s presidential leadership? Holt’s response to these questions came on February 23, 1933 when he fired Professor John Rice, leader of what the president called the “rebel faction.”

Prof. John Andrew Rice, from the 1931 Tomokan yearbook

Shortly after arrival in May 1933, Lovejoy discovered what the AAUP office had suspected: that traditional academic freedom in terms of tolerating social and political views of faculty members was not an issue at Rollins College. President Holt gave virtually unlimited scope to faculty in this realm and often provided support and protection to professors whatever their political views. Lovejoy admitted Rice’s behavior was disruptive but he believed that was not the main reason for dismissal. Holt fired him, Lovejoy concluded, because of Rice’s leadership in faculty demands for participation in college academic policy. Rollins faculty, it seemed, were allowed to enjoy academic freedom in all aspects of college life except in college governance.

Thus, to Lovejoy, Holt’s imperious governing style was a prime example of why faculty participation in academic governance needed to be linked to the principle of academic freedom. Holt exemplified, Lovejoy wrote, the unwillingness of college presidents to accept the “prerogative of faculty members to exercise professional responsibilities in educational matters” and to have the freedom from repercussions when expressing their views on academic college policy. As Lovejoy’s inquiry revealed, several faculty members had made a similar argument. They explained that their opposition to the president’s firing of Rice came not from admiration for the iconoclastic professor, but from the peremptory method the president employed in firing Rice. As Professor Ralph Lounsbury, a former Holt classmate at Yale, explained: ”I have gone and shall doubtless continue to go upon the supposition that loyalty does not call for mere subserviency or for clothing an honest expression of opinion. College professors who are willing to surrender lightly the thing which is very fundamental to their profession–namely their professional integrity–are not apt to be of any value to the college.” One trustee made the same plea. She begged Holt to elect a faculty committee to consider the discipline and even dismissal of Rice. Wasn’t such an effort simply an extension of “your own liberal policies?” she asked Holt.

Prof. Ralph Lounsbury, who was not re-appointed to the Rollins faculty for the 1933-1934 academic year

All these pleas fell on deaf ears because Holt and the trustees refused to abandon the traditional practice of sole and complete authority over all college affairs, including academic policy; they interpreted the Rice case as a power struggle between the president and a group of rebellious faculty. They advised Holt to stand firm in his authority, or else he would lose complete control of the college governance. They demanded Holt to “go at this Rice matter firmly, decisively, and without hesitation” and counseled Holt “to clean the decks just as quickly as possible of all disloyalty and of all disintegrating influences personal or otherwise that have surrounded this Rice probe.” The president needed no encouragement. Holt had candidly disclosed his attitude toward governance in a letter to the Southern Association of Colleges: “It is fundamental of [the] employee’s duty that he should yield obedience to all reasonable rules, orders or instructions of the employer.” More to the point, when asked why he would not sanction a faculty committee to review Rice’s behavior, Holt replied, “When you fire a cook you don’t go out and get a committee of neighbors to tell you what to do.” In Holt’s mind, cooks and professors were on the same level when it came to the presidential authority.

After ten days of hearings, Lovejoy and his colleague had failed to bring Holt around to the AAUP’s concept of share governance. Later, while considering his report on the investigation, Lovejoy learned that the eleven professors considered part of the John Rice “rebellion” had been either fired or forced to resign. This purge of faculty members for simply opposing administration policy reinforced Lovejoy’s earlier conclusions. In a 14-page account, Lovejoy admitted Rice had “disturbed the harmony of the community,” but went on to criticize the professor’s firing as a blatant violation of the principle of due process. He especially condemned the dismissal of eleven faculty members who had been fired “because of their expression in faculty gatherings and in conversation with President Holt . . . of disagreement with certain views of the president on college policy . . . and their intention of continuing to advocate for AAUP principles on academic freedom.” The autocratic behavior of the Rollins administration, Lovejoy noted, proved even more egregious because it flagrantly contradicted “the spirit of cooperation in an educational experiment ostensibly characteristic of the College.” The AAUP published Lovejoy’s report in its December 1933 Bulletin and placed Rollins on its censured list.

Holt responded aggressively. He published and distributed to all “sister” colleges a 27-page pamphlet where he characterized the AAUP report as biased, prejudiced and replete with errors. “The experiences of Rollins College,” the response begins, should be a concern of “all Colleges and Universities of the country” because that episode showed how an investigation could disrupt the “amicable relations which should exist between College and professors.” Most of the report re-litigated the Rice dismissal. However, the thrust of the response questioned the AAUP’s legitimacy to impose its view of shared governance on any institution of higher learning. According to Holt, the AAUP had no legitimate power “to interfere with the government of the college as the college may deem fit for its own interests.” Nor did it have the authority to “punish by publication a college that does not adopt forms of government advocated by the Association.” Thus, he warned, the association and its methods were a serious threat to all college administrations.

Hamilton Holt’s pamphlet

Replies from other liberal arts colleges mostly agreeing with Holt poured into the president’s office. These supportive responses from liberal arts college presidents reflected a similar position taken by the Association of American Colleges. This recently formed organization of small college administrators issued communication critical of AAUP principles, contending that colleges were governed as “businesses where the president and trustees functioned as heads and directors like any other corporation.” There is no evidence two decades later the AAC had changed its position. Thus, as late as the mid-1930s, the AAUP’s objective of shared governance as a foundation for academic freedom and tenure seemed a distant dream.

Still, in the years immediately following the Rollins inquiry, the AAUP did make progress. After months of negotiation, the AAUP announced in October 1938 it had developed a revised statement on principles of academic freedom and tenure jointly with the American Council on Education, a major higher education consortium, and the former critic the  Association of American Colleges. For the first time, the AAUP made explicit the interconnection between shared governance and academic freedom. The revised statement required colleges that approved AAUP criterion for academic freedom and tenure to agree to a governing system of “shared responsibility among the different components of institutional government [with] specific areas of primary responsibility for governing boards, administrations, and faculties.”

Within a few months of this declaration, the AAUP executive secretary received a letter from President Hamilton Holt. “Having considered the proposed rules concerning Academic Freedom and Tenure set forth by the representatives of the Association of American Colleges and the American Association of University Professors in October, 1938,” Holt wrote, “I am happy to inform you that on December 2, at a meeting of the Board of Trustees the following resolution was adopted: “BE IT RESOLVED that we agree to the rules, principles and practices therein set forth and will accept the revised AAUP guidelines.” Holt had thus committed Rollins to a governing principle even more rigorous than the one he had vehemently rejected five years earlier. At its 1939 annual meeting, the AAUP issued the following statement: “On the recommendation of the Council, following careful consideration of the new principles recently adopted by the Board of Trustees at Rollins, it voted to remove the administration from the Association’s censured list.”

An announcement of the college’s removal from the AAUP’s censured list in The Sandspur, January 18, 1939

Thus, by 1938 the self-proclaimed progressive, liberal president seemed to be having second thoughts. What he had described five years earlier as an association directed by a “small body of willful men,” who had tried to impose its own views of governance on the college, was now an organization with which he was “in full agreement.” He wrote the AAUP executive secretary that there had always been little difference between the college administration and the association. It was, he said, probably “due to what Stuart Chase has called the tyranny of words.” Perhaps, but most likely the president’s obstinate resistance in 1933 to shared governance was much deeper than language differences. It would be interesting to know if Holt recalled a letter he had received from a Duke University professor shortly after Lovejoy’s report and Holt’s response appeared in print. The professor observed Holt deserved “the thanks of all interested in education for so clearly demonstrating the great value of the AAUP as an upholder of right standards in academic life.” If Holt remembered this letter (I suspect he never forgot it), the former editor surely would not have missed the suggested irony that his behavior in 1933 actually strengthened the association he made every effort to discredit.

It is not clear how many others echoed the Duke professor’s sentiment, but conceivably it is no coincidence that shortly after the Rollins case in 1933 the association began to find acceptance of its principles. By the end of the 20th century, the AAUP had achieved almost universal success in its efforts to establish shared governance in most colleges and universities in the nation. But there is no guarantee this situation will last. In the second decade of the 21st century, mounting pressures on liberal arts colleges from multiple directions have led to growing criticism of this system of governance. Critics claim it is too messy and unresponsive to change. Many argue that a corporate model is better suited to meet present challenges, “that more businesslike methods are necessary [so that institutions] can be more “flexible” and “nimble” in the face of disruptive changes. A recent communication from the AAUP president indicates the association was still “campaigning for the rights of faculty members to participate in faculty governance.” Thus, what many assumed was a settled system of academic governance is once again a debatable issue. Today more than ever we are learning an ancient lesson:  democratic systems can never feel completely secure. Likewise, colleges and universities can never take democratic participatory academic governance for granted.

A view of the Rollins campus, circa 1933

SOURCES CONSULTED

Gerber, Larry. 2014. The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance:  Professionalization and the Modern American University. Baltimore, MD:  Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hofstadter, Richard, and Walter Metzger. 1956. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. New York:  Columbia University Press.

Lane, Jack C. 2017. Rollins College Centennial History:  A Story of Perseverance, 1885-1985. Winter Park, FL:  Story Farm.

Reynolds, Katherine Chaddock. 1998. Visions and Vanities:  John Andrew Rice of Black Mountain College.  Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State University Press.

Tiede, Hans-Joerg. 2015. University Reform:  The Founding of the American Association of University Professors. Baltimore, MD:  Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wilson, Daniel. 1980. Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Quest for Intelligibility. Chapel Hill, N.C.:  The University of North Carolina Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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