New York Times
THE TRUTH ABOUT NEARING’S CASE
Both Sides of the Controversy That Has Raised a Storm at the University of
by Charles Willis Thompson
If Dr. Scott Nearing has been dropped from the teaching force of the University of Pennsylvania because his political and sociological views do not agree with those of the Trustees, many of whom are trust officials or corporation lawyers, than a heavy blow has been struck at free speech. Than an attempt to muzzle college professors and turn them into the mouthpieces of rich men has been made. Then every professor in the land is made to stop and consider what will be the effect on his bread and butter of holding his opinions of his own. Than an attempt has been made to poison the fountain of thought, for it can be poisoned as well by enforced silence as by speech. Then it is a matter that concerns not Dr. Scott Nearing alone, but every man and woman in the land.
If he has not been dropped for this reason, but for reasons affecting his usefulness in the university, thin it is a matter affecting nobody but himself and the institution. But, even in that case, it is of importance to every man and woman of us to have the facts brought out. For as long as they remain unknown, all of us, professors included, will remain under an uneasy doubt and fear that the trusts are really throttling free opinion in college chairs, and the belief that it has been done in Nearing’s case will frighten and silence weak men in such chairs into the suppression of the opinions to which they are entitled. So, if erroneous, the uncorrected belief will work as much harm as if it were true.
For these reasons I went to Philadelphia to see if I could ascertain the truth; for only one side has come before the public. Dr. Nearing’s friends have said their say very fully, but the Trustees have not replied. His friends have said that he was dismissed because he held heretical opinions, because he attacked privilege and the injustices of wealth, and had become a nuisance if not a danger to the corporations and political machines which exercise such great influence in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania life. To this charge no real answer has come.
I have talked to both sides, under a promise in each case not to quote what the said or indicate in any manner, in what I might written, the source of my information.
In the first place, it is asserted by Dr. Nearing’s friends, and admitted by most of his adversaries, that he did not preach heresy in his classroom. Some of his opponents would qualify this, but the evidence is all on the affirmative. His heresy was preached outside, on the public platform and in the newspapers.
Secondly, there is no complaint of his ability as a teacher; he is admittedly not only competent but highly efficient. Nor is it said that he is an unpleasant person, hard to get along with, difficult of temper; he is admittedly a gentleman and a man of singularly winning ways. There in nothing whatever against his character; it is the subject of universal praise, and his opponents outdo his friends in tributes to it.
Thirdly, he is not the only radical in the university. It contains many as radical as he, some who are more radical. They express their opinions as freely as did he.
In this last statement is the heart of the question. Why is Nearing singled out ? His friends have an answer ready. He happens to be reachable, while others are not. A professor in that university cannot be dismissed without trial until he reaches the age of 62, and the trial must be on charges affecting his character as a teacher. But an assistant professor can be dropped without trial and without charges.
Scott Nearing was an assistant professor in the Wharton School. The Trustees could not go after full-fledged professors who were heretical, but they could go after an assistant, and they did. So runs the explanation. If you point out to Nearing’s friends that soms of the heretics, Dr. Clyde King, for example, are assistant professors and as reachable as he, they reply that these heretics will be the next to go. Concerning which, however, it is well to remark here that my investigation shows no intention whatever on anybody’s part to go after anybody but Nearing.
Philadelphia is the most conservative large city north of Mason and Dixon’s line, and things which would pass as commonplaces elsewhere sound shocking there. In the teaching force of the university are many men who entertain and express opinions which have long been received without question in the Middle West, but are still strange novelties to Philadelphia. The shock is mutual. The conservatives are alarmed and outraged when they hear these heresies, and the professors are astonished and disgusted at the reception given to these commonplaces. When the latter find what to them are the most ordinary and settled facts received as if they were blasphemies their feelings begin to surge and they emit sparks.
Now, if among these professors there should happen to be one with a faculty for pungent speech and great aggressiveness, combined with an unholy genius for getting his name in the papers, it does not require much effort of imagination to see that in his particular case the sparks might become flames. It would not be hard to imagine a constant rubbing of each others fur the wrong way, prolonged through a course of years until a tension was produced that made the Trustees begin to see red at the slightest remark from the belligerent and provocative professor.
This is the fact. Both sides have made efforts to avoid a clash and to do the reasonable thing by each other. Dr. Nearing doesn’t mean to be provocative or aggressive. Perhaps he doesn’t mean to get his name in the papers, either, but he is one of those men born to publicity.
Dr.. Nearing made an honest effort, and made it more than once, to moderate himself, to keep his hands off the Trustees’ fur, to say things as bromidically that they wouldn’t annoy anybody. He did this in response to an equally honest effort by the Trustees to avoid extremities; then sent kindly word to him by a third and disinterested party to gear himself down a few points in the matter of expression. But you can’t keep a squirrel on the ground. After every such well-meant effort there was an explosion.
The charges against him resolve themselves into two. The first is that he does not give utterance to his opinions as from a pulpit, but as from a prize ring. He is a fighter, not a philosopher. He could not set forth the Beatitudes except in a challenging and defiant diction.
The other is that he is a magnet for headlines, and whenever he appears in a headline the University of Pennsylvania is necessarily dragged after his name in the next line. Nothing can happen to him without becoming “copy.” He could not express an opinion on the weather without its having some “news value.” “He gets into the newspapers on everything,” said one pained Trustee, “from the high cost of living to the resuscitation of the apparently drowned.”
This is not a figure of speech, either. Dr. Nearing was at hand when some boys who had been upset and apparently drowned were brought to land near Walnut Street Bridge. He and a couple of policemen worked over them, trying to bring them to life. Finally the policemen gave them up as dead, against his protest, and had them taken away. Next day in the papers appeared under headlines something like this “Nearing Raps Police, University of Pennsylvania Professor Scores Their Antiquated Methods in Drowning Cases. Flays Them in Scorching Interview.” And the Trustees, seeing that inevitable “University of Pennsylvania” following on as usual like the tail after a dog, gnashed their teeth again.
Or Dr. Nearing gets drawn on a jury panel. As soon as he is discharged the following letter appears in The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin — date, Jan 1. 1911.
For three weeks I have been serving on the petit jury panel in the Prison Division of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. I entered the panel with a measure of faith in courts and the law. I left the panel with my faith utterly destroyed.
I saw foreigners come into court dazed and terrified, unrepresented by counsel, badly understood through inefficient interpretters, and sentenced to months or even years in prison. I saw political power and wealth, fur coats on arm, bowed respectfully in and out of court, and even in and out of the prisoners’ dock, though the members of the jury were subjected to the petty insolence of the court officials. Property is a god in criminal jurisprudence.
It is not what he says, apparently, so much as the way he says it, and especially the way in which the University of Pennsylvania sails after him through the newspapers like a highly respectable tail attached to a frisky and plunging kite. If some irreproachable maiden lady, prominent in prayer meeting and the sewing circle, were kidnapped and handcuffed to a buck and wing dancer at the moment of his entrance on the stage and obliged to conform to his subsequent proceedings or fall down, her sentiments would not be wholly different from those of the Trustees. In many colleges the difference between the Professor and the Trustees would not be great, but in Philadelphia —— !
“I don’t criticize what he says,” said one Trustee to me. “There is need for such a man in the world. There’s Billy Sunday. He does a great deal of good, but if he were officially connected with a cathedral, the cathedral would be responsible for him and it would not have a good time.”
Now what Dr. Nearing says is not very terrible. Outside of grave, placid and heavy-footed old Philadelphia it would not sound terrible at all. It is not charged that he is a Socialist, and he says he is not. His wife is one, and a soap-box campaigner, and makes Socialist speeches on street corners. Many of Nearing’s utterances squint toward socialism, if taken by themselves and detached from their context, but he does not seem to have enunciated any particular kind of social philosophy. He has confined himself to attacking particular features of corporation methods. In the course of these attacks he has now and then uttered some sentence which suggests a wish to reform the whole social system in some way, but how is not disclosed.
He has not, however, uttered these opinions in the classroom. There he has confined himself to his regular teaching duties, and it is conceded that he discharged them with unusual skill and success. He has conducted no propaganda among his students. He has, however, accepted invitations to make speeches before different bodies in other cities, and there he has exercised full liberty of utterance.
On one of those occasions, only a few days before his dismissal, he went to Longwood to address a meeting of Progressive Friends, and there he attacked the theory of interest, saying: “The man who doesn’t work shouldn’t eat. If a man wants to live without work, it is all right for him to live off the principal of his accumulations, but it is a disgrace for him to live off the interest which he does not earn, and save the principal to bequeath to some other that more idlers shall be created.
This utterance gave violent offense to the Quakers to whom he spoke, and it has not ceased to echo. It is, in fact, almost the only thing his adversaries can put their finger on when asked what there is so offensive in his opinions. But this is not socialism. There are only two or three of his utterances on record that seem even to squint at that philosophy. In addressing the Federation of Women’s Clubs at Atlantic City, in May 1913, he said:
How much long can you maintain a social system where the men who do the work are denied a living wage, while the idlers take millions of dollars over to England to enjoy it?
This is not socialism either, but the sort of talk often heard in Congress and on the stump; but it does intimate a belief that there could be a better social system of some kind. The other utterance was made before the Federal Industrial Relations Commission, when that body was caravanning around the country a year ago and summoning before it all sorts and conditions of men. He as asked what he thought was the cause of the present social unrest, and he replied:
There are causes, but no one cause, for the present state of affairs, with its impossible living conditions. Existing conditions threaten the stability of our civilization. Never in the history of the world has it been so easy for the few to live high on the toil of the many. The men who do four-fifths of the labor of the country get only the barest kind of living from their labor. Cut off the more blatant forms of monopoly. Have Government ownership if need be. Eliminate unearned incomes from rent and interest. Tax land higher. That might help for a starter.
In reply to further questions he said:
The condition in thirty years will be intolerable. We’ve incorporated everything. More and more is needed for interest, therefore for dividends and for salaries. Each employe must earn more and more each year for interest and dividend accounts before he can get his pay.
Still, even this wasn’t socialism. “Have Government ownership, if need be” came near to it, but no nearer than did Mr. Bryan in his Madison Square Garden speech in 1906.
This seems to be the extremity of Dr. Nearing’s socialism, so far as any words of his which his adversaries have been able to collect can be found. It falls short of the utterances of Mr. Bryan, Senator La Follette, and many other public men who are not called Socialists and would be indignantly disavowed by Socialists. However, Nearing’s friends contend that if he were a Socialist of the deepest dye he would have the right to retain his opinions and express them as an American citizen, provided he did not use his classroom for the purpose; and no one charges that he ever did that.
But there is more than one way of saying a thing, and Dr. Nearing’s way sets Philadelphia’ teeth on edge. In December, 1913, he was addressing an association of schoolteachers at Nanticoke, Penn., and urging them to study the causes of social unrest. He endeavored to wake them up, to make them put themselves in the places of the poor. He might have done it by saying, “Your are in comfortable circumstances, and perhaps do not enter sufficiently into the feelings of those less fortunate in life. Let me entreat you to pause and, if possible, imagine yourselves unable to give your children the education to which they are entitles,” Instead he said:
“You have never sent your children into the mills whose stockholders were able to education their children in Europe.”
And when this form of statement reached Philadelphia the flesh rose on the bodies of the Trustees, and apoplexy was imminent.
This it cam to pass that when the attack was made on Dr. Nearing the leaders in it were precisely those men whom such language might be expected to drive nearly frantic. They were men whose lives had been spent in the most conservative currents of Philadelphia existence; Philadelphia existence, mark you. Some of them were men who had grown up in the atmosphere of commercial and financial institutions, who were as sure that the rich govern by divine right as was George F. Baer. Others were more liberal, but were men of taste and quiet speech, and abhorred extremity in language. Even the less liberal are willing, even if grudgingly, to let professors discuss the unequal distribution of wealth and propose remedies, provided they do it in a calm and theoretical sort of way, and not as agitators.
A number of the Trustees who voted against Nearing are closely affiliated with the U. G. I and other big corporations and of course, his friends mad the most of this fact.
Another Trustee active against him was the Attorney General of Pennsylvania
( 5) in the administration of Governor Tener, which came to an end with last year. The Tener ticket was nominated by the Penrose machine. The corporations of Pennsylvania and of Philadelphia are generally understood to interlock with the political machines headed by Senator Penrose, State Senator McNichol and the Vare family.
The U. G. I. Is the Philadelphia name for the United Gas Improvement Company, which has a prominent place in the political as well as commercial and financial history of Philadelphia. Its fame even reached New York in 1905, when a proposal by it to acquire a franchise, unsympathetically styled “the gas grab,” led many impulsive citizens to invade Councils with ropes in their hands and dangle them before the eyes of the representatives of the people when the vote was taken.
Of course, the corporation affiliations of the anti-Nearing leaders were assumed to have a great deal to do with his dismissal. When the vote was taken in the board it received the ballots of all except two — Wharton Barker and J. Bertram Lippincott. Mr. Barker takes his position squarely on the ground that, since nothing is charged against Dr. Nearing but his utterances on public questions, his dismissal is an attack on free speech. He has been a believer in progressivism for many years — in fact since long before the word progressive came into political usage — and was the Populist candidate for President of the United States in 1900.
To deny that the corporation environments of some of the Trustees influenced them at all would show great guilelessness. A man takes his color from his company. If a man spent his life in Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth publishing house, and never had half an hour’s conversation except with Frank Tannenbaum, Alexander Berkman and Gussie Miller, he would surely be not only an anarchist but immovably convinced that anybody who thought the other way was a tool of capitalism.
But it is going a little too fare in the other direction to assume that the U. G. I. And other corporations ordered the dismissal of Nearing because he was an obstacle to them. It is said that he was marked for slaughter because he gave advice to Mayor Blankenburg’s reform administration which resulted in acts detrimental to the profits of this and other corporations; but it seems that it was his fellow-radical, Dr. King, who gave most of this advice and was most harmful to the corporations, and despite all reports to the contrary, no movement has been begun against King.
The Trustees resolutely corked themselves up and refused to give their side to the public. This was letting Nearing’s friends have it all their own way, and it worked as well as that lamentable policy usually does. One reason may have been that the Trustees who are offended by Nearing’s manner of public discussion are offended by different things. What set one man’s teeth on edge left another man still able to masticate. There were only agreed on one thing, which was that each of them found something Nearing had said to be too raw.
Finally one of them exploded into print on his own account, with worse results than the silence had brought about; for it so happened that the one thing which had set his teeth on edge had left all the other teeth in the board sill edgeless, and his eruption seemed to commit them all to his grievance. This was Attorney General Bell, an impulsive gentleman who has no gift for seeing how a thing will look in print. And he brought forward as Nearing’s chief offense the fact that that professor had once said:
“I’d rather send a boy to hell than to the Episcopal Academy.”
This does not sound professorial. However, it turned out that Nearing had not made use of his classroom to discharge heresy concerning the Episcopal Academy; he had uttered this fervid sentiment in the office of the Dean. What happened was this:
A certain student had come to the university from the Episcopal Academy, and, being constantly behind in his work, was sent to the office of Dean McCrea of the Wharton School, there to be interrogated concerning what was the matter with him. Dr. Nearing and the Dean were there, and as the investigation proceeded the evidences multiplied until Nearing exclaimed in a tone of dispair: “I’d rather send a boy to hell or a Billy Sunday meeting than to the Episcopal Academy.”
There was no one present at the time of this frightful blasphemy except the Dean, the professor, and the student, and neither the Dean nor the professor turned State’s evidence. The student, however, went forth from the scene and spread the horror broadcast, and when it got to the ears fo Mr. Bell, who is devoted to Episcopal Academy, it seemed a Himalaya of heresy. He described the sentence as a “professorial utterance in the university,” which implied that it was a classroom utterance, and said that a man who “intemperately declares” such a sentiment as this “invites dismissal.”
Of course, Dr. Nearing’s friends made the most of this, as showing both the bias and the weakness of the case against him. In fact, it was the bias of one man, and he not the wisest member of the board. The others, however, if called upon to produce the utterance or utterances which had most offended them, could not be any more convincing. For they cannot put their hands on any one saying that will carry conviction to other minds. Their case against him is simply this:
“He can’t say anything without saying it in such a way as to arouse antagonism and hurt people’s feelings; he hurts ours; he cant say anything without the newspapers printing it, and when they print it the University of Pennsylvania is always mentioned so as to make the institution seem responsible not only for what he says but for his manner of saying it.”
And that is a thing easy to say, but hard to prove; and if any other member of the board were called upon to produce specifications, he might be just as unconvincing as Mr. Bell. Hence they fear to tread where Mr. Bell rushed in.
There is another feature of the case not yet touched upon, and that is that whether or the Trustees are fighting against free speech, there are other persons connected with the university who are undoubtedly doing so. They are to be found among the alumni. The element among the alumni who are opposed to Dr. Nearing are squarely opposed to him because of the opinions he holds, and they want him silenced. In April a committee of the General Alumni Society adopted a resolution placing itself on record
as squarely opposed to the use of the fair name of the university as a point of vantage for utterances foreign to the scheme of its teachings and ideals in education,
that where such members of the teaching staff are not willing to subscribe to its policies their services should be dispensed with.
Concerning which it must be said that if Dr. Nearing had used his place in the classroom for his attacks on certain features of corporations — which he did not — he would not have been doing anything “foreign to the scheme of its teachings and ideals in education.” He was a teacher in the Wharton School. That school was founded by Joseph Wharton, who set apart for it the income from $500,000 for the object of giving
an adequate education in the purpose underlying civil government and a training for those about to enter business.
In the deed of gift, which was mad in June, 1881, it is provided that the instruction given in the school shall inculcate
the immorality and practical expediency of seeking to acquire wealth by winning it from another rather than through some sort of service to one’s fellow-men; the necessity for rigorously punishing those who commit frauds, betray trusts, and steal public funds, directly or indirectly.
It may be that the teachers in the university had some prevision of the attack about to be made; only a few days before Nearing’s dismissal, at the commencement exercises, Dr. Felix Schelling, who is John Walsh Centennial Professor of History and English Literature at the university, made these significant remarks in the course of his address:
“A teacher does not abdicate his right of opinion, as a man, even in the things in which he is not expert, when he decides to walk that straight — and some would have it, narrow — path wherein walks the teacher. We do not demand of the lawyer that he express himself only on the law, nor of the moneyed man that he discourse only on finance. We allow to the clergyman a latitude of opinion on all subjects, save religion, wherein his fellows of the cloth may be trusted to hold him to strict accountability.
“Then why should we not demand for the teacher a similar freedom of speech and opinion ? In this land of freedom of speech and unaccountability as to any lawful action it would be intolerable to allow those who are the most deeply learned, the most thoroughly equipped; anything less than that full liberty which we grant to all other men.”
As Dr. Schelling reached this point, one of the Trustees turned to a colleague and said, “That is an unwholesome doctrine.”
What was unwholesome ? It was simply a declaration in favor of free speech, and anywhere but in Pennsylvania it would not have been regarded as unwholesome. This Trustee a few days afterward was voting to drop Dr. Nearing. This incident may be hastily assumed to prove that the Trustees are campaigning against free speech, it only proves, however, that they, or some of them, take a hopelessly reactionary view; it proves that they disagree with and disapprove of the progressive opinions of the teachers. But that we already knew. It does not prove that they are carrying their opinions into effect by dismissing every one whose opinions they disapprove. The only one they have dismissed is Dr. Nearing; and in his case, they say, it was not what he said but how he said it that made them dismiss him.
Harrison S. Morris, one of the executors of the Wharton estate, issued a statement in which he charged that Nearing “had been dropped by the standpatters in the Board of Trustees for expressing views opposite to those held by the great trusts and public service corporations, which depend on corrupt politics for their profits,” Mr. Morris added:
He has been the most readily punished of the group of useful scholars of the Wharton School who have given it universal fame and drawn students from almost every country of the globe, because he was an assistant professor and could be dropped without a trial by his peers, as a full professor could not. His associates have been equally guilty of trying to better social and business conditions, but they are harder to get. They have been of vast use to the present Mayor and his directors in showing up the wrong done to the city by corporations whose most powerful Directors sit in the Board of Trustees of the university. They have checked the U. G. I. In its aggression against the citizens, the Reading Railway was brought to its knees in the excessive freight charges on coal though the services of one of the Professors, and the talent and efficiency of the Wharton School have been used whenever possible by the present city administration. * * * The University of Pennsylvania is not a free agent. It is supported by great sums appropriated by our corrupt Legislatures, and it must obey their wishes, which are equivalent to demands of the great corporations. My belief is that all the right-minded citizens of the State would rally to the support of the university if it would free itself from an alliance with Penrose, Vare, and McNichols, which controls it judgment when freedom of speech is at stake.
And if freedom of speech is at stake it is an issue which profoundly affects every one of use. There is not the least doubt that the utterances of the other professors — particularly in the Wharton School, which is honeycombed with radicalism, at least what passes for radicalism in Pennsylvania — grate on the feelings of the Trustees; business men mostly, and trained in a school which regards any attack on established institutions as wicked. But they disavow any intention of interfering with free speech; and they say that Nearing would be as safe as his fellow-radicals if he had been less of an agitator. “He confuses free speech with a free fight,” one Trustee said to me. Perhaps it would not be far wrong to conclude that Nearing’s offense consisted in his ability to get what he said constantly before their eyes, and in the fact that he was effectively radical while the radicalism of the other professors was comparatively ineffectual.