The Cattell Dismissal

Robert Throop & Lloyd Gordon Ward

In October 1917, Columbia University dismissed James McKeen Cattell in the middle of his twenty-sixth year of service. The story remains one of the great outrages on the American home front during the First World War. Unfortunately, this brief summary does not do justice to the events or their implications. They deserve more attention than we will be able to give them.

For us, Cattell's dismissal serves primarily as a points of comparison for the University of Chicago's dismissal of William Isaac Thomas in April of 1918. Thomas had taught at Chicago for just one year less than Cattell had at Columbia, and both had been peremptorily dismissed.  In both cases, the events were set in motion by a newspaper story: in Thomas's case the allegation from the Justice department of breaking federal laws, in Cattell's case, an accusation of sedition made by a member of the House of Representatives (New York Times 1917c). Neither the allegation nor the accusation had any standing in law.

The grounds for dismissal were also similar at both universities: both men had embarrassed their institutions (again). Since stones don't blush, that actually means that they embarrassed the men who controlled their institutions. Neither man was given what (in Cattell's case) the American Association of University Professors saw as due process — the opportunity to defend themselves against specific charges (New York Times 1918). The trustees dismissed them on the basis of admission to university authorities that the embarrassing event took place: Cattell acknowledged sending the letters on Columbia letterhead and Thomas acknowledged registering at a hotel under an assumed name with a woman who was not his wife. The foolhardiness of their acts was as obvious as the over-reaction of the Trustees.

The major similarities end here, but minor details hint at other parallels. In the initial coverage of Thomas's dismissal, newspapers mentioned Harriet Thomas's pacifist activism. Coverage of her activism, however, rarely mentioned her husband or the University of Chicago. Columbia was not so fortunate. The New York Times' coverage of Owen Cattell's trial for conspiracy to interfere in conscription routinely mentioned his father and Columbia (New York Times 1917a, b). Its coverage of Cattell's dismissal routinely mentioned that Owen had been found guilty. 

Morris Janowitz suggested that Thomas's dismissal followed a long period of bad  blood between the professor and the University administration, especially President Judson and the Board of Trustees (Janowitz 1966: xv). Columbia's President Butler suggested that University authorities had sustained a similar animosity toward Cattell. Butler mentioned only its most recent phase, when Cattell circulated a letter that had impugned the Trustees decision to spend $300,000 on the President's House and had disparaged Butler's political aspirations. The Trustees aborted their plan to dismiss Cattell in June of 1917 when the Professor issued a public apology (cf., New York Times 1917c, e). The New York Times suggested that two other events that had eroded the University Trustees' support of Cattell: his attempts to challenge the institution's whimsical dismissal of its teaching staff in 1911(New York Times 1911) and his widely broadcast censure of the Century Association for racism when they turned down acclaimed biologist Jacques Loeb in 1913 (New York Times 1911, 1913a-c).

The similarities and parallels end there. In Chicago, the University and the Thomas household withdrew behind walls of silence. In New York, Columbia and Cattell fought their battle in the press and the courts. In Cattell's case, the protest, the investigation by the American Association of University Professors and law-suits stretched from the beginning of October 1917 to the beginning of February 1922 --- more than four and a half years. With fine litigious style, Cattell patiently waited out the AAUP's report on his dismissal before reiterating his demands for redress from Columbia (New York Times 1918). Although the Times repeatedly pointed out that the out-of-court settlement was substantially lower than the combined value of the suits brought against Columbia, some of its Trustees and its alumni journal, Cattell settled for exactly what he asked for in 1918: recognition of his contract for the 1917-18 academic year, and a pension based on his twenty-six years of service (cf. New York Times 1917h, 1918, 1919a-c, 1922a-c).

The last of the New York Times articles listed below serves as a coda (New York Times 1922c). Written eight months after the Columbia University settled with Cattell, it tells a story about the professor dismissed along with Cattell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana. Columbia dismissed Dana because of his public involvement with the People's Council for Democracy and Terms of Peace, an organization that, coincidentally, Harriet Thomas was deeply involved with during the war (see "Harriet Park Thomas"). The story recounts Dana's disinheritance from the Longfellow fortune because of his "Socialist and pacifist opinions." The important detail, however, is the dating of the codicil: October 1915, more than a year and a half before America entered the war. The story stands as testimony to how deeply the European Conflict divided America, not simply fragmenting the country along pre-existing ethnic lines, but quite literally dividing families.

Those schisms created a frightening breakdown of public order, a period when respected institutions might act in ways that would not be tolerated in ordinary times. The dismissal of Cattell and of Thomas were minor transgression  when compared with "the Palmer raids" or the Chicago ordinance to deny non-naturalized foreign-born residents their livelihood by withdrawing municipal licenses from all businesses not owned by citizens (Chicago Tribune 1917). That plan was derail only after the Swiss consul intervened through Washington to protest the obvious treaty violations  (Chicago Tribune 1918).

Cattell's successful legal actions accentuate the most curious aspects of Thomas's dismissal. Institutions can "get away" with outrageous behavior only when their victims permit it. Thomas made no public protest, pursued no AAUP investigation and brought no wrongful dismissal suit. Not surprisingly, we have been able to find no mention of a pension or annuity for Thomas. In the end, the University of Chicago's refusal to recognize what they owed Thomas — in cold hard cash — was the truly scandalous aspect of his dismissal. However reluctantly, Columbia University behaved better.


Chicago Tribune.

Janowitz, Morris.

New York Times.

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