Watch Your Words, Professor

In 1900, Jane Stanford forced out a respected faculty member. Was he a martyr to academic freedom or a racist gadfly who deserved what he got?

January/February 2015

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Watch Your Words, Professor

On a Tuesday afternoon in November 1900, Edward Alsworth Ross gathered several student reporters in his campus office. Ross, 33 years old and a Stanford economics professor of seven years, had joined the university just two years after its opening. He was a captivating sight, 6-foot-5 and nattily dressed in a suit that favored his athletic physique.

Ross was popular with students and esteemed in his field. David Starr Jordan, the university's first president, had recruited him not once but twice. Plucked from Jordan's former home at Cornell, Ross was emerging as a scholarly star. Now, his time at Stanford was coming to an abrupt end.

Ross held a lengthy written statement he had prepared for the San Francisco newspapers. He handed it to the students.

"Well, boys," he said, "I'm fired."

One hundred and fifteen years later, the reasons for Ross's departure remain in dispute. The matter was precipitated by a series of public pronouncements Ross had made on political matters between 1896 and 1900, a practice that put him at odds with university co-founder Jane Stanford. Was he forced out because of his outspoken opinions or because he broke rules prohibiting partisan advocacy? What is not in dispute is that Mrs. Stanford insisted that Ross be sacked despite the vigorous objections of Jordan, who finally relented.

Ross's dismissal drove a wedge between Stanford faculty and the administration and resulted in a spate of resignations by other professors. More broadly, it galvanized efforts to codify protection of academic freedom and indirectly led to the establishment of tenure. As it turned out, that hastily arranged press conference in Ross's office was a seminal moment in the history of higher education.

Long before his name became synonymous with academic freedom controversies, Edward Ross was an enigmatic figure. Born to a farmer and a schoolteacher in Illinois, and orphaned at age 10, he was taken in by neighbors on a nearby Iowa farm. His new family viewed him as a prodigy, praising him so extravagantly that some boys in the area thought him pampered.

By the time Ross enrolled in Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he had already developed a bold self-assurance about his intellectual discernment. While studying in Berlin after graduation, he noted that "many will teach me and many will be my authorities in this or that field, but no man will ever be my interpreter of the world, of human life. The world is under my eye and I shall see for myself."

The warrant for that confidence soon followed. Ross earned his PhD in political economy from Johns Hopkins in 1891, and his reputation as a gifted young scholar spread quickly. Jordan, who left his job as president of Indiana University to take on the task of building the faculty at Stanford, first fixed his eye on Ross when the young professor was at Indiana, where he worked for one year before being hired at Cornell.

"Of all the younger men in this country in this line of work, Dr. Ross is the most promising," the president shared in a letter to Leland Stanford prior to Ross's arrival at the Farm in 1893.

Portrait of Jane Stanford

‘Professor Ross cannot be trusted and he should go. . . . He is a dangerous man.’ Jane Stanford

Portrait of David Starr Jordan

‘We cannot bring good men here, if they believe their positions insecure.’ David Starr Jordan

Ross's first years at Stanford coincided with a severe economic depression that rattled the country. One in five adults was unemployed—in New York the rate was 35 percent—and farmers were in serious distress, weighed down by heavy indebtedness. One response to the crisis was the emergence of a political movement known as Free Silver, for which Ross became a powerful supporter.

Free Silver advocates wanted the U.S. government to enable the sale of silver by private individuals at an artificially high currency rate rather than at its market value, which was much lower. The abundance of silver, particularly compared with the relative shortage of gold, would increase the money supply, spur productivity, and reduce the country's dependence on banks and creditors. At least that was the theory.

Democrats made Free Silver part of their platform for the 1896 presidential campaign, and chose as their candidate William Jennings Bryan. Republican William McKinley, along with many businesses, banks and railroads, wanted to maintain gold as the currency standard. Bryan characterized the issue as a battle of working people against the wealthy.

Ross, who had previously served as secretary of the American Economic Association, was in the Free Silver camp. Weeks before the election, the professor gave a speech at a Democratic event in San Francisco urging support for Bryan and promoting the free coinage of silver to break up the "money monopoly."

The next day, an article in the San Francisco Examiner, under the headline "Stanford University Professors Declare for Bryan," included written statements from Ross and a handful of other professors in favor of the free coinage of silver. A similar newspaper article listed other professors who supported McKinley. But Ross had also written a letter that the Democratic Committee published as a campaign document, and sold a pamphlet on the currency question in the university's bookstore.

To Jane Stanford, whose husband had been a devout Republican, Ross's views were anathema. She asked Jordan to dump the professor at his earliest opportunity. She would later claim this had nothing to do with Ross's particular views but rather was in response to the professor's lending his name and title for partisan use, and for appealing to "passions and prejudices."

At the time, contracts for faculty were based on the trustee-approved annual budget, though all educational matters were vested entirely in the president. That included power of appointment and removal. Contracts renewed annually. Tenure did not exist.

Jordan believed single-year contracts protected professors as much as the university, which, like much of the country, was struggling financially because of the economic downturn. Avoiding extended contracts inoculated his teaching staff from "further calamities to the estate," Jordan said. However, the short-term nature of these agreements also made faculty vulnerable to capricious decisions about their employment.

Jordan was torn between his fealty to the founder and his support for academic freedom, even if those principles had yet to be codified in any official way. Furthermore, he knew that removing Ross would put the university in an unflattering position. He was keenly aware of the "Bemis case" at the University of Chicago, where a year earlier a professor had publicly claimed he'd been fired because of comments that had angered wealthy capitalists.

He responded to Mrs. Stanford by reaffirming Ross's academic abilities, and reassuring her that differences over his outside activities could be overcome. The best action for the university, Jordan concluded, would be to transfer Ross from chair of economics and finance to a new chair of social science, a position Jordan felt would be more fitting. By making these adjustments, Jordan hoped to assuage Mrs. Stanford and also save the university "from outside misunderstanding and discussion."

Mrs. Stanford assented, and Ross was reappointed the following year.

For a while, it seemed that Jordan had quieted the conflict between the founder and the professor. But less than four years later, in 1900, another incident reignited Mrs. Stanford's outrage. This time, Ross's words hit closer to home.

In debates that echo today's conflicts over undocumented immigrants from Latin America, labor leaders in the 1870s blamed an influx of Asian immigration for lower wage levels. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited immigration of Chinese workers. In the early 1900s, efforts against Japanese immigration were gaining similar momentum.

On the evening of May 7, 1900, Ross gave a speech at a meeting of organized labor, providing what he called "a scholar's view." Recounting the speech for the San Francisco newspapers, Ross said, "I tried to show that owing to its high Malthusian birth rate the Orient is the land of 'cheap men,' and that the coolie, though he cannot outdo the American, can under live him. I took the ground that the high standard of living that restrains multiplication in America will be imperiled if Orientals are allowed to pour into this country in great numbers before they have raised their standards of living and lowered their birth rate."

Today, Ross's "scholarly" view would be ridiculed as ignorant, racist and xenophobic. (Nearly a century later, Stanford's Donald Kennedy noted in his book Academic Duty that Ross's assertions would now qualify as hate speech.) Ross did not help his image with one sentence in particular, which quickly found its way back to Jane Stanford: "Should the worst come to the worst, it would be better for us to turn our guns upon every vessel bringing Japanese to our shores than permit them to land," Ross said.

Illustration of men in a runaway wagon that broke free from a horse that says Free Silver on it and one holding a pitchform and a flag that says repudiation on itALL ABOUT MONEY: A controversial and divisive issue in the 1896 presidential campaign, the Free Silver Movement was supported by Ross but reviled by conservatives, as depicted in these cartoons of the day, here and below.

Mrs. Stanford wrote to Jordan again to express her frustration with Ross. "He ought not to be retained at Stanford University," she said. She compared Ross's rhetoric to that of Denis Kearny, a California labor leader who years earlier had incited violence in fiery speeches denouncing Chinese immigrants and their supporters. She recalled "a reign of terror" that had pervaded San Francisco, prompting her to hire an armed guard at her home.

She went on to say that a Stanford professor who "steps aside and out of his sphere to associate himself with the political demagogues of this city, exciting their evil passions, drawing distinctions between man and man, all laborers, and equal in the sight of God, and literally plays into the hands of the lowest and vilest elements of socialism, it brings the tears to my eyes."

She closed her letter by stating, "I trust that before the close of this semester, Professor Ross will have received note that he will not be reengaged for the new year."

Ross's position on immigration was grounded in a narrow-minded, hateful view. But it is unclear if that alone was what motivated Jane Stanford to oust him, or if it was also because he stridently challenged the establishment. The professor's beliefs contrasted sharply with her own, and questioned the legitimacy of her husband's legacy. Ross reportedly once commented in his classroom that "a railroad deal is a railroad steal," a statement that could not have pleased Mrs. Stanford. And after Ross gave a speech on public utilities, noting that American cities might benefit from a period of municipal ownership of street railroads, she reaffirmed her strong opposition.

"Professor Ross cannot be trusted and he should go," she wrote to Jordan. "This is the third outburst of partisanship and cannot be overlooked. He is a dangerous man."

Jordan recognized that dismissing a faculty member on the basis of speech might weaken Stanford's reputation within academia and make it harder to recruit top scholars. Looking for a face-saving solution, he tried to find Ross an appointment at another respected institution. He had no luck with Harvard. In correspondence about the situation with Harvard's president, Charles William Eliot, the latter replied, "it would be a great calamity for Stanford University if it should come to be known that a professor had been obliged to leave it because Mrs. Stanford expressed a wish to that effect."

Jordan asked for the founder's patience. He suggested giving Ross a regular yearlong reappointment with the caveat that the professor provide a resignation letter and begin making other plans. Jane Stanford agreed, though she tried to encourage a shorter time for his reappointment.

The president noted in a letter to Mrs. Stanford that while he had rebuked Ross for his campaign activities, his censure was not a response to the substance of Ross's remarks. "I have always held—and this under what I supposed to be explicit instructions from Mr. Stanford, that the university should have the greatest freedom of honest opinion or of honest expression on political or religious questions, but that no one connected with it should use his position to forward the interest of any political or religious organization," Jordan wrote. "This is the view practically adopted by all universities the world over."

Still, despite several appeals from Jordan between May and September 1900, Jane Stanford's view remained unchanged.

In October, Jordan tried again, telling her that "the word will go out that he was dismissed for political reasons. Such a statement would do us great injury in the higher circles which make university reputation. We cannot bring good men here, if they believe their positions insecure." He also shared that while he knew better than any the faults of Ross, "in his strength he is head and shoulders above other men in the field."

Mrs. Stanford would not be moved. "This is my final answer in regard to this subject," she said.

Jordan informed Ross that the 1900-01 academic year would be his last at Stanford, prompting Ross's informal press conference in his office. Soon, the drama played out in newspapers from San Francisco to New York. The San Francisco Chronicle likened the announcement of the popular professor's resignation to a "thunderbolt from a clear sky." On the morning of November 14, 1900, the Chronicle reported that the professor was forced out after arousing the anger of Jane Stanford. "Speeches against coolie labor and corporate monopoly excited her wrath," it read. "Dr. Jordan's efforts fail to save him."

The article quoted the prepared statement Ross had handed to the student reporters. (The publicity had a potential upside—it might help sales of his forthcoming academic book on sociology, Social Control.)

"I cannot with self-respect decline to speak on topics to which I have given years of investigation," Ross noted in the statement, after detailing the various events that led to his requested resignation. "It is my duty as an economist to impart, on occasion, to sober people, and in a scientific spirit, my conclusions on subjects with which I am expert, and if I speak I cannot but take positions which are justified by statistics and by the experience of the Old World.

"I have long been aware that my every appearance in public drew upon me the hostile attention of certain powerful persons and interests in San Francisco, and they redoubled their efforts to be rid of me. But I had no choice but to go straight ahead. The scientist's business is to know some things clear to the bottom, and if he hides what he knows he loses his virtue."

Jordan had not seen Ross's statement in advance, which the president now found evasive and sensational.

The next day, he released a comment forcefully denying that Ross was "a martyr to freedom of speech. Nor is there any reason to believe that his withdrawal has been due to any pressure of capital or any other sinister agency."

Cries of outrage came quickly. On the morning of the announcement, George Howard, Stanford's respected history chair and one of the founding professors, expressed his frustration to his classroom. Ross, he believed, had fallen victim to powerful money interests that were influencing Stanford. Days later, Howard released a statement that the dismissal was "an act which will cause the deepest grief and profoundest indignation on the part of every friend of intellectual freedom in the United States."

English professor William Henry Hudson agreed, adding, "the dismissal of Dr. Ross for the high misdemeanor of honestly expressing his opinion about important questions to which he has given careful and constant study is the most terrible blow which has ever befallen this university."

Man with a long white beard with a whip in one hand and a hat in the other that reads Silverite on a horse and being chased by a policeman. They are passing a sign that reads Abyss of Political Mania.

Jordan took deep offense to the charge that he and Jane Stanford had yielded, as Jordan later wrote, "to corrupt pressure." Moreover, he said, the professors "ignored the unquestioned fact that Ross' methods were extra-academic, and violated not only good taste but also accepted regulations." He called for an apology from Howard, but Howard refused.

By January, with Howard still arguing with the president, Jordan called for, and received, Howard's resignation. With this, several other professors also resigned, including Hudson, mathematics professor Charles Little, history professor David Spencer, and philosophy professor Arthur Lovejoy.

Despite what must have been an unnerving sequence of events for students, a resolution that January declared their unswerving confidence in Jordan as president of the university and their "faith in his wisdom to direct its affairs."

A committee formed by alumni also expressed support for the university. After spending two months interviewing those involved, with the notable exception of the founder, the alumni concluded there had been no infringement upon the right of free speech. Rather, the committee agreed with the view that Ross had jeopardized the university's reputation for political nonpartisanship, and likewise found no reason to believe Jane Stanford's objection arose as a result of differing opinions from Ross, "since it is in evidence that she had at that time no opinion upon either side of the particular financial theories then in issue, and since she has not abandoned her objection to his conduct in the campaign of 1896."

However, an outside committee of academics strongly disagreed. In February 1901, a panel of three prominent economists from Columbia, Yale and Brown universities, members of the American Economic Association, released its own report. In it, the panel stated there was no evidence to show that Ross could have been dismissed because of a defect in his moral character, or incompetence, or by any unfaithfulness to his duties. It concluded that Jane Stanford's objections were indeed due to Ross's opinions on the currency question and his utterances on immigration and municipal ownership.

The controversy was another test of the resilience Jane Stanford had displayed throughout her life. In 1904, she asked a committee to examine the rules relating to appointing and removing faculty. That initiative led to the establishment of what is now the Academic Council Advisory Board.

At the time of her death in 1905, Mrs. Stanford was still associated with the Ross Affair. An obituary in the New York Times called it "the only serious cloud that ever lowered over Stanford University."

"She was harshly criticized, but some of those who knew the inside facts believed she had more ground for her action than is generally known," the Times said.

In the years after Ross's dismissal, Lovejoy—one of the professors who had resigned from Stanford and ultimately went to Johns Hopkins University—teamed with John Dewey of Columbia University to establish an organization aimed at ensuring academic freedom for faculty. In 1915 the newly formed American Association of University Professors released its "Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure." Among other things, the declaration noted: "Official action relating to reappointments and refusals of reappointment should be taken only with the advice and consent of some board or committee representative of the faculty."

Despite the incident, Ross went on to establish a distinguished academic career, becoming the first sociology professor at the University of Nebraska, where he worked for five years, and then at the University of Wisconsin, where he remained until his retirement. He continued to write about the threat of immigrant labor, and he eventually embraced eugenics.

He wrote 27 books and more than 300 articles, and was widely regarded as one of the pioneers of American sociology. He served as a president of the American Sociological Society, and was outspoken on the subject of academic freedom.

Ross died in 1951 at the age of 84. Soon after his death, a tribute appeared in American Sociological Review. It praised the professor for his indefatigable energy and his contributions to the fledgling field of sociology: "Whether people accepted his views or not, he challenged them, and forcibly focused attention upon these situations and problems. He raised hell—enthusiastically, merrily, courageously."

Images, from top: Department of Special Collections and University Archives (right); Image D-07548 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives; Department of Special Collections and University Archives (2); The Granger Collection, New York (2)

Brian Eule, '01, is an author and a regular contributor to Stanford.

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