The Ross Case



The AAUP’s first investigation of dismissals of faculty members was at the University of Utah in 1915. However, two such investigations preceded the founding of the AAUP. Each of these investigations, that of the Edward Ross case at Stanford University in 1901 and of the John Mecklin case at Lafayette College in 1913, was led by a professor who played an active part in the founding and early activities of the Association. The former was chaired by E.R.A. Seligman and the latter by Arthur Lovejoy.

The Ross case is perhaps the most well-known historical academic freedom case. Edward Ross (1866-1951, pictured above), who had been recruited by President David Starr Jordan, first fell afoul of the only trustee of the university, Leland Stanford’s widow Jane, when he publicly supported the views of presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Advocating, like Bryan, for the monetization of silver, Ross’s activities fell within his area of professional competence as an economist. Although other faculty who had spoken publicly on behalf of Republican candidate William McKinley were not reprimanded, Jane Stanford asked for Ross to be dismissed over his support for Bryan.

Jordan was able to pacify Jane Stanford for a while, but when Ross spoke out against the importation of Asian labor, he hit closer to her economic interests: Leland Stanford had employed Asian laborers in his railroad construction business. From his correspondence with Jane Stanford, it is clear that Jordan was well aware that dismissing Ross would be a violation of academic freedom and would damage the standing on the university.

Nevertheless, in 1900 Jane Stanford prevailed upon him to accept Ross’s forced resignation. Ross was able to make highly effective use of the press and public sentiment against Leland Stanford, who had been one of the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age. Following extended coverage of his dismissal, several waves of resignations from the Stanford faculty, including that of Arthur Lovejoy, were reported in the press. The American Economic Association appointed a committee of three to investigate the case. The committee was chaired by Columbia University economist E.R.A. Seligman, who later served as first chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

The AEA’s committee conducted its investigation by mail and found its efforts frustrated by Jordan’s unwillingness to respond. Nevertheless, the report of the committee concluded that there was evidence to support that Ross’s dismissal was due to his public utterances – utterances for which, in turn, the committee found no evidence that they “overstepped the limits of professorial propriety.”

Ross was able to find other employment after his dismissal from Stanford, first at the University of Nebraska and later at the University of Wisconsin. He was actively involved in the early development of the AAUP: as president of the American Sociological Society, he appointed members of a committee of the Society on academic freedom, which was one of the direct precursors of Committee A, and he also served on the national Council of the AAUP. His commitment to academic freedom extended throughout his career.

The Ross case is at times mentioned as a catalytic event for the founding of the AAUP, but it is unclear how much evidence for that there is beyond Seligman and Lovejoy’s personal involvement in both. In fact, the outcome of the Ross case was seen as a vindication for academic freedom. For instance, John Dewey’s 1902 article on academic freedom, published in the immediate aftermath of the Ross case, identified the press as one of the reasons that there was not a growing danger to academic freedom, and James McKeen Cattell noted in 1913,

Stanford University has not recovered in thirteen years, and will not recover in another generation, from the loss of prestige due to the dismissal of Professor Ross and its sequelae.


9 thoughts on “The Ross Case

  1. One interesting part of this history is that Ross was a racist, and in part Mrs. Stanford demanded his firing because he was a racist against the Chinese (whether Mrs. Stanford herself was a cynical racist who only favored Chinese immigration to provide cheap labor for her companies, is, of course, also likely). Ross was a eugenicist who invented the term “race suicide” and wrote this in 1907: “The theory that races are virtually equal in
    capacity leads to such monumental follies as lining the valleys of the South with the
    bones of half a million picked whites in order to improve the conditions of four
    million unpicked blacks.” Of course, such racism probably put him in the mainstream of academia at the time.

  2. I agree that it’s an interesting aspect of the case. William Tierney has argued that we should therefore not claim Ross as a “hero” of academic freedom. I strongly disagree, because that is a very ahistorical view and also because we claim that peer review is essential in determining whether a professor has exceeded the bounds of academic freedom. That’s the reason I cited Seligman’s report: it notes that Ross did not exceed “the limits of professorial propriety.”

    For what it’s worth, Ross did retract his racist views in his autobiography.

  3. I also disagree with Tierney on this, but I would never call Ross a “hero” of academic freedom. He was a victim, and we judge victims on their victimization, not the nobility of their character. To me, the real heroes are people like Lovejoy who resigned their jobs in protest (imagine anyone doing that today?) and then helped found an organization to help stop it. That’s the biggest significance of the Ross case, is Lovejoy, because it not only helped lead him to create the AAUP, but it caused him to jump on trains and investigate cases, which shaped the early years of the AAUP and continues to this day.

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  8. Stanford, as governor, ostensibly supported the prevailing mood in the state, which lobbied for the restriction of Chinese immigration. In a message to the legislature in January 1862, Stanford said, “The presence of numbers of that degraded and distinct people would exercise a deleterious effect upon the superior race.”

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