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Illlustration by David Hollenbach

The dismissal of Economics Professor Scott Neering taught the University a valuable lesson—the hard way.

By Samuel Hughes

Sidebar | Lines for Scott Nearing (1883-1983)

On the morning of June 16, 1915, Dr. Scott Nearing C’06 Gr’09 received a telephone call from his secretary at the Wharton School. She read him a short letter that had just arrived from Provost Edgar Fahs Smith.

“My dear Mr. Nearing,” it said. “As the term of your appointment as assistant professor of economics for 1914-15 is about to expire, I am directed by the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to inform you that it will not be renewed. With best wishes, I am, Yours sincerely, Edgar Fahs Smith.”

The news came as a shock to the 31-year-old Nearing, who was the only assistant professor with a favorable recommendation from the faculty not to be rehired. But it was hardly a surprise. For several years he had, in effect, been standing on top of the academy hurling denunciations at the gods, and he had no intention of heading for shelter just because lightning was forking down and his mortarboard was made of copper.

His dismissal set off the worst moral and public-relations crisis of the University’s history, one that would only be rivaled in recent years by the Water Buffalo incident. In both cases, the University acted as a lightning rod for highly charged political currents—some national, some unique to the academy. And in both, the tremendous public outcry and Penn’s reluctant self-examination would lead to a healthy reassessment of its principles.

Nobody ever questioned Scott Nearing’s brilliance or his oratorical skills. Having won a city scholarship to Penn after graduating at the top of his high-school class, he excelled as a student and on the University’s debating team. In 1905, Old Penn (the Gazette’s predecessor) reported that Nearing had received a “prolonged ovation” for his “excellent rebuttal” to Columbia University’s team in a debate about whether the Interstate Commerce Commission should be vested with authority. Nearing, who maintained that it should, pointed to several cases of “unjust discrimination” by the nation’s railroads—which, he argued forcefully, clearly needed governmental oversight.

It was a characteristic assault on the powers-that-were. Although he was born into a wealthy coal-operating family in Morris Run, Pa., Nearing soon rejected most of the bulwarks of the era’s capitalism.

The distribution of wealth, he wrote, was the “most difficult as well as the most interesting part of our science.” While American society had reached the stage where its people had learned how to produce wealth, “as yet they have never learned to distribute it so as to satisfy all the interested parties.”

In a time of seismic societal tremors, Nearing’s worldview was built on a rock of moral conviction. He “saw his role not only as a social scientist investigating modern society but as a teacher working ‘for the liberation of the individual soul,’” notes John Saltmarsh, author of Scott Nearing: An Intellectual Biography. “His economic analysis revealed that modern society was fragmenting and degenerating because of the failure of the dominant class to meet its social duty.”

“If I am rich and you are poor,” Nearing wrote, “both of us are corrupted by inequality.”

He became an outspoken opponent of child labor and inherited wealth, and would champion women’s rights and racial equality decades before either cause became popular. Yet with people he could be brutally insensitive and blunt—“an idiosyncratic ideologue from the word go,” in the words of Dr. Daniel Hoffman, the poet and Felix Schelling Professor of English Emeritus, who knew Nearing in the last decades of his 100-year life. That ideology led to his joining—and his quick expulsion by—the Communist Party in the 1920s, and ultimately to a Spartan life as an organic farmer on the coast of Maine, where he became a kind of counter-cultural hero to the young. It also led him to conclude that the Albania of Enver Hoxha was a wonderful example of a planned economy.

As a Penn student, Nearing was profoundly influenced by Dr. Simon Nelson Patten, professor of economics. After hearing Patten’s discussion on “Adam Smith and his reasoning concerning capital,” Nearing realized that he had found a teacher who “suggested to us that the established order was not all that it might be.” Patten, he later recalled, “spoke to his students constantly, not of the things that had passed, but of the things that were to be.”

When Nearing began teaching, he soon became one of the “Wharton Eight,” a group of faculty who believed that they “should make a contribution not only to our students and the University but also to the society at large,” in Nearing’s words. Patten described Nearing as one of Penn’s “most effective men, a man of extraordinary ability, of superlative popularity and a man who, to my mind, exerted the greatest moral force for good in the University.” He also noted that Nearing “had the largest class in the University—there were 400 in his class—and no one could have done his work better.”

For Nearing, the role of a teacher was that of a “sentry—an outpost in the realm of ideas.” Though some economists found his methods unscientific, he was a vigorous, prolific scholar. During his brief tenure at Penn he wrote The Solution of the Child Labor ProblemThe Super RaceWomen and Social Progress (written with his first wife, Nellie); Financing the Wage Earner’s FamilySocial ReligionSocial SanityReducing the Cost of LivingWages in the United States, 1908-10Anthracite; and Income.

He was highly regarded by his students, who would later sign petitions in droves protesting his dismissal. “Many of us do not agree with his economic theories, yet every one must admit that he is one of the few men who actually perform the service that the University expects of them,” wrote a Wharton student named Jacques M. Schwab. “He makes the college men think. A professor who can do that is, in my opinion, worth his weight in gold.”

In his autobiographical book The Making of a Radical, Nearing recalled how Wharton Dean James T. Young called him into his office and said: “Mr. Nearing, if I were in your place I would do a little less public speaking about child labor.” Nearing, who served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Child Labor Committee, believed that the “child who is working is not developing intellectually, may be degraded morally, and is apt to be stunted physically.” The low wages paid to workers, he argued, forced families to send their children into the factories and mines.

As Young’s warning suggested, Nearing was making enemies. Prominent alumni had been complaining to the editor of the Alumni Register, Horace Mather Lippincott C1897, who wrote that members of the teaching profession, especially those dealing with “economic, financial, statistical, or legal principles which underlay the practice of government, should carefully avoid a participation in exciting or controversial questions of the moment.

“Morally, the man who joins an institution thereby relinquishes his right to complete freedom of speech,” the Register added, and he should resign rather than “embarrass the management of the institution.”

Provost Smith, who was not keen on “academic people meddling in political questions,” had already set the tone.

“Suppose, for illustration, that I, as a chemist, should discover that some slaughtering company was putting formalin in its sausage,” Smith once said; “now surely that would be none of my business.”

Nearing saw his role differently. “Either the teacher is a hireling of the established order, who is receiving a fee to act as its apologist or champion, or else the teacher is a servant of the community and as such is bound to take whatever stand the exigencies of his position demand.”

In late 1913, three academic organizations—the American Economics Association, the American Sociological Society, and the American Political Science Association—adopted identical resolutions supporting the principles of “liberty of thought, freedom of speech, and security of tenure.” That led to a Joint Committee on Academic Freedom, which in turn led to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—whose first members included Nearing, Patten, Young, and Roswell McCrea, the new Wharton dean. According to the Philadelphia North American, the “direct cause” for the resolutions was the “efforts of reactionary trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to inaugurate a systematic elimination of progressive teachers.”

“I do not believe in muzzling any member of the faculty,” responded Provost Smith. “I do believe, however, that no man may go too far.”

Amid rumors that Nearing might be dismissed, McCrea said: “There is no question about the open hostility toward Dr. Nearing … on the part of certain interests.”

Chief among those interests was, apparently, Joseph Grundy, a Bucks County wool manufacturer and politician who served as president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and later became a U.S. senator. He strongly opposed any child-labor legislation, and had repeatedly crossed swords with Nearing. Given his prominence in the state legislature, which was approving increasingly large appropriations for the financially strapped University, Grundy was a force to be reckoned with.

Yet Nearing openly flirted with danger. In one of his economics classes devoted to the theory of consumption, he pinned a newspaper account of a lavish high-society dinner given by Mrs. E. T. Stotesbury of Philadelphia to the bulletin board and wrote the words Sin and Social Salvation on the blackboard. Not only was Stotesbury’s husband a wealthy trustee of the University, but her son, the late James H. Cromwell W’19, was a student—and was sitting in that class. It was an outrageous—even cruel—act, and it prompted a number of alumni to protest Nearing’s “inquisitorial examinations into the social conditions surrounding the homes and families of the students.” And yet, according to Saltmarsh, the students themselves (with the presumable exception of Cromwell), “broke into a prolonged ovation at the end of the class.”

Although the trustees voted by a nine-to-five vote in 1914 to promote Nearing to assistant professor, they also sent copies of a new bylaw warning him and other assistant professors that their appointments were for one year only. One trustee explained that Nearing’s promotion was intended to be “an appointment on probation.”

If Nearing was concerned about his status, he didn’t show it. He wrote a fiery open letter (printed in local newspapers) to a business-friendly evangelical minister named Billy Sunday, who was believed to have been brought to Philadelphia to help avert a transit strike. The “most sinister crimes against the ideals of Christ’s religion are committed by the system of industry for profit,” which paid “hideously low” wages, wrote Nearing—who then invited Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, to campus. When Provost Smith refused to allow the student Civic Club to use any University facilities for Gompers’ address, the infuriated students formed a Free Speech Club and rented a hall off-campus—only to find that their posters announcing the lecture had been torn down. Nearing took his classes off-campus to hear the talk anyway.

A few months later he supported the re-formation of a campus chapter of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. He also contributed articles to the International Socialist Review with titles like “The Parasitic Power of Property” and “The Impending Conflict.”

In the late spring, Effingham B. Morris, a trustee and president of the Girard Trust Company, personally told Nearing that there would be “no eliminations from the University faculty.” But, he added: “We will give you young fellows plenty of rope. You will hang yourselves.”

The trustees tried to pull the lever as quietly as possible, waiting until the academic year had ended and all the students and faculty had left campus. Knowing that Nearing hadn’t a chance of finding a new job on such short notice, they voted to arrange payment of his salary for another year. But since that could be “construed only as an admission of the nefarious character of their actions,” writes Saltmarsh, “they voted not to have the salary provision recorded in the minutes of their meeting.”

“We ‘young fellows’ did not propose to be hanged without a tussle,” wrote Nearing in his autobiography. He sent out some 1,500 letters “to the newspapers of Pennsylvania, the leading papers of the country, the press associations, associates in other universities, and to influential individuals all over the United States.”

“From the outset the case was national news,” he recalled. “Publicity was excellent and generally in our favor.”

“Nearing Affair National Issue,” was the Philadelphia Public Ledger’s front-page headline on June 20. “Colleges throughout Country Discuss its Effect on ‘Free Speech.’ Professors of Wide Repute Fear University Will Suffer.”

Although some local members of the General Alumni Society issued a statement supporting the trustees’ action, Penn’s reputation did indeed suffer. The New Republic cast the trustees as “black reactionaries,” adding: “The issues here are as vital as any in American life, because the Universities are coming more and more to focus the thought of the nation … They cannot do the work if they are governed by stupid rich men or stupid politicians.” Many newspapers expressed similar sentiments, though not all. The New York Times sided with the University, saying that “there is altogether too much foolish babbling on the part of some professors.”

When the fledgling AAUP took up Nearing’s cause, it brought instant prestige and publicity. The organization’s president, John Dewey, argued that if the governing boards of universities were to treat a professor as a “hired man,” they would “drive from their institutions all men of ability and backbone, and retain to teach the youth of the country only weaklings in mind and character.”

The day after Nearing was let go, Dr. Lightner Witmer, professor and chair of psychology, told Patten: “I don’t give a damn for Nearing. He and I disagree on almost everything, but this is my fight. If they can do that to him they can do it to any of us. It is time to act.” Witmer cancelled his vacation plans and spent the summer investigating and writing The Nearing Case: The Limitations of Academic Freedom at the University of Pennsylvania by an Act of the Board of Trustees.

Professor Felix E. Schelling, professor and chair of English—and, like Witmer, a political conservative—led a faculty movement to have the trustees’ decision reversed. Gentlemen, he noted tartly, “do not do such things.” The Wharton faculty demanded that Nearing be rehired, and raised the equivalent of half a year’s salary to assist him in his campaign.

Some 1,500 Penn students signed a petition protesting Nearing’s dismissal. One unnamed professor reported “serious dissatisfaction and dissension within the university and without,” adding that Penn had been “humiliated in the public view” and that “younger members of the faculty are shaken in their sense of security and allegiance to the university,” while older professors “are perplexed and dissatisfied.”

Amid concerns of an “impending exodus among the faculty,” Nearing himself urged them to stay: “The University does not belong to the Trustees,” he told colleagues; “it belongs to you, its teachers, and its students. That the Trustees have an essentially undemocratic power and have used it irresponsibly does not warrant you confirming them in it. You must think of your students and of the University’s mission.”

For months, Penn’s administration and trustees tried to ignore the furor, making little attempt to explain their decision beyond the refrain that it was in the “best interests of the University.” Finally, on October 2, 1915, the semester’s first issue of Old Penn led off with “A Letter on the Nearing Case,” subtitled: “A Letter from an Alumnus to His Fellow Alumni.” The author was Dr. J. William White M1871, a famously feisty Penn trustee. The letter was 17 magazine pages long.

White vigorously denied that Nearing’s dismissal “was part of a so-called plan to carry out a reactionary policy against free academic discussion and freedom of individual speech.” Rather, he said, “soberminded, sensible persons had received from Dr. Nearing the strong impression that he advocated the ruthless redistribution of property, that he believed in the personal iniquity of those who lived on incomes derived even from their own savings, that he thought the alternative of work or starvation should be presented even to the old, the feeble, and the diseased.”

While that impression may have been “misunderstood” by White’s “senior friends,” he acknowledged, “the fact that they had been given the opportunity to do so made me still more doubtful of his fitness to represent the University before the [people] as one of its chosen expounders of the principles of Economics.” After repeated complaints, White said, he realized it was his “duty as a Trustee to consider whether his influence on the whole was helpful or prejudicial.”

On October 16, Old Penn’s cover story was “A Statement of Principles by the Board of Trustees of the University.” Noting that a university should help students “acquire knowledge of information heretofore gathered,” investigate “every department of human knowledge without restriction,” and publish the findings “both within and without the University,” the trustees adopted “as an adequate expression of their views and purpose” a statement made by the rector of Aberdeen University in 1874: “Universities should be places in which thought is free from all fetters, and in which all sources of knowledge and all aids of learning should be accessible to all comers, without distinction of creed or country, riches or poverty.”

But they still defended their action. “When an individual teacher’s methods, language and temperament provoke continued and widespread criticism alike from parents of students and from the general public who know him only by his public utterances, the freedom of choice in selection of some other person is a right equally as inherent in the Board of Trustees … as is the right of freedom of opinion and thought, and teaching in the faculties. And this duty must be exercised for the good of the University as a whole.”

“The Nearing case was at best a tissue of mistakes and misjudgments,” wrote the late Edward Potts Cheyney, professor of history, in his History of the University of Pennsylvania 1740-1940. “It is not at all certain that Dr. Nearing should have been reappointed to a position in the University,” he added, “but neither he nor any other teacher should be abruptly separated from it without notice or discussion. Teachers are appointees, not employees of the Board.”

After the whole mess was over, Cheyney noted, Provost Smith persuaded the trustees to make a series of changes in the by-laws that provided “a more orderly procedure in short appointments and placed the responsibility for removals in the case of full professors, except for the very last step, on the Faculties, where it belonged.” Since 1915, he added, there had been “no instance of removal without the approving judgment of the Faculty.” And there have been none since he wrote those words in 1940.

Nearing’s career never recovered. Though he was hired the following year by Toledo University as professor of political science and dean of its College of Arts and Sciences, he soon sparked a furor by opposing American entry into the Great War—and by saying that “the phrase ‘freedom and justice for all,’ as recited by the innocent children,” was “humbug.” In March 1917, the Toledo trustees voted by a close margin to dismiss him.

That was the year of the Russian Revolution, and after Nearing joined the leftist People’s Council for Democracy and Peace, a Justice Department infiltrator described him as “very popular and DANGEROUS for he is looked to as being very wise.” He ran for Congress as the Socialist Party’s candidate from New York in 1918—he was known affectionately as “the professor,” and would often use a folding blackboard to make his points—but was defeated by Fiorello LaGuardia. That same year he was indicted for having written a pamphlet titled The Great Madness, which federal officials described as “clearly a violation of the Espionage Law, being a frank description of the war as a capitalist scheme.” After he delivered a riveting closing argument on his own behalf, a jury found him not guilty—though it did find the American Socialist Society guilty of publishing the pamphlet.

Nearing joined the Communist Party in 1927, but lasted less than three years before simultaneously resigning and getting expelled for his “non-Marxian conceptions.” It was, he noted, his “last institutional connection.” From there, he went back to the land, first in Vermont, then in Maine—Living the Good Life, as he and his wife Helen put it.

In the mid-1960s, Dan Hoffman and his wife Elizabeth bought an old farmhouse on Penobscot Bay in Maine, one cove over from the Nearings’.

“By now the Nearings with their ‘good life’ and their simplicity and their frugal back-to-the-land preachings were written up in the Whole Earth Catalogue,” recalls Hoffman, “and summer after summer there’d be an endless parade of Volkswagon minibuses in various states of disintegration crammed with hippie-type kids looking for the Nearings. So they were really the center of a cult.”

One year, Hoffman made a chair out of alder saplings, and along with fellow poet Phillip Booth brought it over to the Nearings’.

“I presented it to Scott, saying that this was the non-stipendiary chair of the Wharton School: the Nearing Chair,” recalls Hoffman. “Now, he was a very dour-looking man, but he really broke into a smile. The next summer I went to call, and I didn’t see it. So I asked Helen, ‘What has Scott done with the chair?’ And she said, ‘Oh, well, during the winter he cut it up for firewood and burned it.’”

In 1966, Nearing attended a peace meeting in Bar Harbor. One of the speakers was Dr. Derk Bodde, professor of what was then called Oriental Studies at Penn. After the meeting ended, Nearing wrote, Bodde came to him and said: “We always mention you around the University as the guarantor of the high degree of academic freedom that we now enjoy. Whatever the intention of the trustees when they dismissed you, the furor raised over the case stood as a horrendous warning to the University not to let it happen again.”

“My real regret is that I have been deprived of day-to-day contact with students in my chosen field,” Nearing wrote in his autobiography, which was published in 1972. “I am not bitter, vindictive, nor resentful. I look upon the whole affair as part of the cold war which has played so large a role in the history of individuals in the past half century.”

The University had changed a great deal by then. In 1973, on the recommendation of the faculty and then-President Martin Meyerson Hon’70, the trustees—led by the late William Day—invited the Nearings down to Penn. At a dinner held at the old Faculty Club, Meyerson presented the 89-year-old Nearing with a resolution. It read:

In recognition of a singular career begun as a member of the Faculty of the Wharton School, and for adhering to a belief that to seek out and to teach the truth is life’s highest aim, the Trustees have designated Scott Nearing as Honorary Emeritus Professor of Economics, effective April 25, 1973.

According to Meyerson, Nearing was “very happy” with the honorific. He mulls over his choice of words for a moment, then amends it: “I think he was overjoyed.”

The Nearings, he adds, expressed a desire that the University take over their house in Maine after their death—“keep the library there and use it as a kind of retreat for students to come up and use it in the summer.” For practical reasons, that didn’t work out. The hand-built house and property instead became the Good Life Center: “Advancing Helen and Scott Nearing’s commitment to social justice and simple living,” in the words of its Web site. But the request itself made it clear that the old warrior had finally accepted the peace pipe.

After the dinner at the Faculty Club, Nearing aired some of his political views, which were as far-left as they had ever been. “Helen was thinking that he was coming off as more of a socialist than he or she wanted him to be,” recalls Meyerson with a wry smile. “Finally she said, ‘Careful now. They may take your new professorship away!’”


And what if you were wrong about Albania?

You called child labor Capitalism’s disease

While children toiled in the coalmines of Trustees

Of the University of Pennsylvania,

Who fired you from their Wharton School forthwith—

cause célèbre! Our tenured free speech grew

Out of ‘the Nearing case.’ But not for you,

Old rebel loner, bound to Reason’s myth—

The economy is just that is all planned.

Was this what in your old age drew the young

To your walled garden, as witness to a life

Of Thoreau’s abnegations, though with a wife?

Your rows of Escarole, Romaine, Deer’s Tongue

—How comely, how proportionate your land.

From Hang-Gliding from Helicon 
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988)
©1988 by Daniel Hoffman

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