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Firing the Firebrand

In early 1936, Yale decided that one of its junior faculty members did not merit tenure—an ordinary event, except that in this case the decision became a national cause célèbre. The firing of Jerome Davis, an associate professor at the Divinity School, triggered loud protests on campus, passionate editorials in The Nation and The New Republic, and investigations by the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors. In October, Yale issued an exclusive statement to the New York Herald Tribune. Professor Davis, wrote President James R. Angell, had “not qualified for election to a full professorship in the minds of the majority of the professors … or general officers.” He added that the decision involved “no abridgement of academic freedom or liberty of speech.”


“Davis was hired to introduce students to their responsibilities as social reformers.”

Davis was a labor organizer and a staunch admirer of Stalin. Born in 1891, he spent his early years in Japan, where his parents were missionaries. After graduating from Oberlin he worked for a year in Minneapolis, lobbying to reduce the 12-hour-a-day, 7-day work week. Before the United States entered World War I, Davis served with the YMCA in Russia to improve prison camp conditions for the Germans. After the nation declared war, he helped direct all YMCA activities in Russia. He became fluent in Russian and developed good working relationships with many Bolshevik leaders.

In 1922, after receiving his PhD in sociology from Columbia, Davis joined the sociology department at Dartmouth. There he became known as an advocate of organized labor in local factories, and the Federal Coal Commission hired him to investigate the labor situation in the West Virginia coal mines.

Davis came to Yale in 1924 and continued his activism, working with the New Haven Trades Council, the state’s Legislative Commission on Jails, and other institutions. He also enlisted students to visit local factories and prisons and press for reform. “Davis was essentially hired to introduce students to their responsibilities as social reformers, and he soon developed a large student following.” says Gaddis Smith '54, '61PhD, Larned Professor Emeritus of History, who is writing a history of Yale in the twentieth century. “He was very much a 1960s figure, 40 years early.”

Davis’s position, the Gilbert L. Stark Professorship of Practical Philanthropy, had been established in 1914 to promote activism, a goal of Divinity School dean Charles R. Brown. “The rest of Yale might have been a stodgy place, but not the Divinity School,” says Smith. “However, Davis’s idea of 'practical philanthropy' was to practice an extremely politicized version of the Social Gospel, and he was not shy about proselytizing in class.”

Soon after Davis’s arrival, Yale began to receive letters of complaint. In 1926, Yale Corporation member Howell Cheney '92, '09MA, wrote to Luther Allan Weigle, the new Divinity School dean, that “New Haven men are particularly exercised by Professor Davis’s efforts to unionize the [city’s] non-union factories and employees.” In 1927, E. M. Roberts, president of Chase Roberts and Company, asked Yale president Angell: “Do you think that a man who associates with and believes in Anarchist, Bolshevist, and Communist [doctrines] is a fit person to teach in Yale College?” Several years later, an outraged mother opined (anonymously) to the administration: “Jerome Davis turned my son against his God, his home—Father and Mother. Shame on Yale, paying traitors to ruin Americans!”


Davis’s 1935 magnum opus, Capitalism and Its Culture, was “a political pamphlet on steroids.”

Opposition to Davis peaked in 1935 with the publication of his magnum opus, Capitalism and Its Culture, a sprawling book Gaddis Smith calls “a political pamphlet on steroids. Depending on the ideology of the reader, it was either hailed as a devastating critique or condemned as an unscholarly polemic.” In the concluding chapter Davis stated, “If democracy is to endure, capitalism as we know it must go.” Some members of the Yale Corporation declared themselves “violently opposed” to the book’s tenets, and the alumni magazine published an address by Angell condemning any activity “which publicly involved a teacher of the University in a political or labor quarrel.”

Despite this increasing pressure from the administration, Davis would not back down. “As one who was dedicated to following the teachings of Jesus I felt it imperative to follow the principles of justice and brotherhood, even if it cost me my position,” he wrote in his autobiography years later.

“I think Jerome is becoming an increasing nuisance and my patience is inevitably wearing rather thin,” Angell wrote to Dean Weigle.

Did Davis merit tenure? “On the basis of his work as a scholar,” says Smith, “probably not. But remember, scholarship was not the principal criterion of his job when he was hired.”

In 1925, Divinity School dean Charles R. Brown had told Davis that tenure was a reasonable expectation when his initial three-year appointment ended. But under Dean Weigle, the school began to move away from overt activism and to emphasize modern Biblical scholarship. Davis was promoted to associate professor in 1927. But in 1930 and again in 1933, the divinity faculty committee decided merely to continue the status quo by reappointing him for another three years.

In January 1936, the faculty again recommended a three-year extension. But at the Corporation meeting that month, a majority of members (at the urging of then-provost Charles Seymour '08, '11PhD, who had a very low opinion of Davis), voted to grant the controversial activist only one more year at Yale. This action was itself controversial, because it took place after two liberal members of the Corporation, Henry Sloane Coffin '97, '15DD, and Arthur H. Bradford '05, both clerics, had left the meeting. Both later expressed outrage.


“Behold, what manner of men are these who try to throttle PhDs?”

During the months that followed, students set up picket lines at every Corporation meeting and carried signs: “Behold, what manner of men are these who try to throttle PhDs?”; “Shall the 'Yale Lock' muzzle professors?”; and “Woe is me, the banker sighed, that Davis man is a thorn in my side.” The university also received hundreds of letters in support of Davis. The faculty did not offer much support for Davis personally—“He had alienated most of his potential defenders,” says Smith—but they expressed widespread concern about how his case was handled. Both the AFT and the AAUP launched investigations. The AFT found that Yale had abridged Davis’s academic freedom; the AAUP disagreed, but both organizations concluded that the actions were “a violation of the principles of academic tenure.”

Davis left Yale in 1937 and never again held a full-time university job. He served as president of the AFT, wrote many books, and in 1952 founded an organization called Promoting Enduring Peace. After World War II, his outspoken views and frequent trips to the Soviet Union placed him on the FBI’s surveillance list of Communist sympathizers.

And though few at Yale now remember Davis, he continues to exert significant influence on the university. “Davis really changed Yale,” says Smith: before the 1930s, the tenure process at Yale, as at Harvard, was ad hoc. Many full-time non-tenured professors were reappointed every three years for decades. Soon after Davis departed, Yale put in place a formal system to evaluate faculty for promotion and tenure within ten years. “The Davis case could not happen at Yale today,” says Smith.

The Stark professorship still exists. Bioethicist and AIDS activist Margaret A. Farley '73 holds what is now called the Gilbert L. Stark Professorship of Christian Ethics.  the end


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