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The Sweezy-Walsh Case

Brass Tacks


In a letter elsewhere on the page, Dean Bender rightly points out that the CRIMSON has inadvertently perpetuated an untruth we have long tried to bury. Alan R. Sweezy '29, it is true, was given a "terminating appointment," and it was no secret that his views were to the left of most political centers. By working solely from these two facts, some liberals on the Faculty and elsewhere came to a conclusion which was long to prove embarrassing to President Conant. More important, the dropping of Sweezy and the other instructor in the case, J. Raymond Walsh, forced a reform in the University's appointment system in one of the few instances that the Harvard Faculty has rebelled against its Administration.

Both Sweezy and Walsh were popular and able teachers in the Economics department. Both men held three-year appointments as instructors and when this period was up, In 1937, the Department strongly recommended that both men be retained. When they were not rehired, and when the Administration released a statement that its decision was reached solely on the grounds of "teaching capacity and scholarly ability," charges accusing the University of various infringements were raised from coast to coast.

The CRIMSON immediately editorialized that, though the University's statement was "ill-timed and impolitic," the political views of the two men had nothing to do with the case. By that time, however, alarmists and those Communists who capitalize on such misunderstandings were off and running, joined by friends of the two men who were genuinely confused by the Administration's actions.

Within a few weeks, the cry about their hue forced Conant to make a special report to the Overseers. The President, who at that time did not enjoy the complete confidence of the Faculty he was later accorded, held fast, arguing that the University cannot appoint a man just because his views are unorthodox. "If academic decisions are to be influenced by the fear of their being misinterpreted as interference with academic freedom," Conant said, "then academic freedom itself, to my mind disappears." The New York Herald-Tribune hailed Conant and his stand, describing his as a man "tolerant of everything except intolerance."

Since even the two principals were now convinced that their politics were not the issue, the outburst began to quiet. But the Faculty, while willing to forgive, could not forget. One hundred and thirty-one of the nonpermanent teaching staff requested an entire investigation of the tenure system. Even if the financial pressures of the depression made it impossible for Conant to keep men like Sweezy, these teachers did not feel that the current methods of selecting permanent appointees were as accurate and well-defined as they might be.

It was significant, and extraordinary, that the appeal for a re-evaluation was not made to Conant but to a committee of eight respected professors including Ralph Barton Perry, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Samuel E. Morison, and Felix Frankfurter. These men wrote to Conant, suggesting what they wanted to study and making it pointedly clear that if they were not authorized to investigate, they would do so anyway.

Two separate reports were issued by this committee, one on Walsh and Sweezy, the second on the entire tenure question. The first recommendation--that the two instructors be re-appointed--was vetoed by the Corporation. The Faculty accepted this action without much comment; by that time, the second report was the chief interest among professors. Published in March, 1939, the report recommended a mathematical evaluation of departments, their concentrators and staffs, with more rigid rules about how often permanent additions could be made to the Faculty.

Conant substantially accepted this report and it was forwarded to the full Faculty and the Corporation which also agreed to its principles. The many complications were referred to the new Assistant Deans of the Faculty, W. C. Graustein and Paul H. Buck. Before his tragic death in an accident, Graustein had worked carefully on the plan and it came to bear his name. Dean of the Faculty Ferguson, who had agreed to hold an Administrative post only during this stormy interim period, soon resigned his position. With the promotion of Paul Buck to the job, the Walsh-Sweezy affair became history and Conant found that he had made his most successful appointment to the Deanship.

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