The Mecklin Case


(John M. Mecklin, ca. 1940, Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library)

That the AAUP made academic freedom its early focus, which happened largely by accident rather than design, was due to events surrounding its founding. If there was one academic freedom case before the founding that was specifically responsible for setting the course of the Association, it was arguably that of John Mecklin at Lafayette College.

On May 16, 1913, John Mecklin wrote to Edward Ross, who was at the University of Wisconsin, to seek assistance in finding another position:

My only excuse for thrusting myself, a total stranger, upon you, if indeed it may be called an excuse, is first the debt I owe you in my thinking and teaching and secondly the fact that in your academic career you have stood for the things that are just now under fire in my own work in this college.

The situation is briefly this. I have managed to hold the chair in this old orthodox Presbyterian college without awakening opposition. I have from time to time heard rumors. Matters, however, have recently come to a crisis. The president read some examination papers upon my course in the psychology of religion and wrote me a letter a copy of which I enclose. You will readily understand that I can hardly keep my self-respect and retain the position that I hold …

The letter that Lafayette College president Ethelbert Warfield had sent Mecklin, quoted in Lovejoy’s subsequent report, stated

The papers which you sent me on Monday are simply astonishing. They seem to confirm all that has been rumored and to give body to those rumors. … [O]bligations I can not escape make it necessary for me to ask you to give a full and clear statement with regard to your teaching and to say, in as kind a spirit as possible, that as president of the college I insist that the instruction in the department of philosophy shall be consistent with the professions made by its authorities. I shall be glad to give you every opportunity to explain your opinions and your teachings, but I ask that you do so explain them or retire from the chair which you occupy.

In addition to the use of certain textbooks that raised Warfield’s concern, his main objection was to the application of evolutionary theory in Mecklin’s classes. After being called in front of a committee of the governing board twice to explain himself, Mecklin resigned. His forced resignation was reported in Cattell’s journal Science, and Mecklin himself issued an additional explanatory statement in the Journal of Philosophy. As a result, a joint committee of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association was appointed to investigate the case under the chairmanship of Arthur Lovejoy.

Just as in the Ross case, the committee conducted its inquiry by mail and found the president unwilling to answer questions. A major difference between this investigation and Seligman’s investigation of the Ross case was that the committee commented on conditions of tenure at Lafayette more generally rather than simply trying to establish the facts of the case. Subsequent reports by the AAUP followed this example. Among the general conclusions of the committee was that

the administration of the college disapproves of the mere presentation to the students, through text-books or collateral reading, of any philosophical views which it regards as seriously erroneous, and discourages instruction which has the effect, as Professor Mecklin’s evidently had, of provoking thought and stimulating discussion and debate among the students upon philosophical and religious issues.

At Lafayette, the students’ response to Mecklin’s dismissal brought about the resignation of President Warfield. The student body had for some time been dissatisfied with the president’s old-fashioned views and had regularly disrupted his chapel services. The following scene is very vividly described in David Skillman’s history of Lafayette:

About this time chapel disorders became quite general. When the President or some member of the Faculty who was regarded as being particularly subservient to him would lead the chapel exercises, some student would take his hymn book and start to tap, tap, tap, on the back of the pew ahead. Soon the tapping in all parts of the building would become almost a roar. At other times the whole assemblage would seem to be seized simultaneously with paroxysms of coughing.

Skillman further described the 1913 commencement, which occurred shortly after the board had accepted Mecklin’s forced resignation:

When the President rose to conduct the exercises the tapping started as in chapel. When some one else had the platform, all was quiet, respectful attention. But whenever the President was on his feet, this incessant, disconcerting, disrespectful rapping all but drowned out his words. At the end of the exercises, the class, being at the end of the academic procession, turned to the left away from the first part of the formation and ran over to Dr. Mecklin’s house, where cheers brought the professor to his front porch. With tears coursing down his cheeks he addressed the boys, thanking them for their devotion to him.

After his dismissal, Mecklin taught at the University of Pittsburgh. He joined the AAUP as a charter member in 1915 and later moved to Dartmouth College, from where he retired. Mecklin published an autobiography, My Quest for Freedom, which provides additional details of his dismissal.

In addition to Lovejoy’s involvement, the Mecklin case was also cited as a reason for the establishment of a committee on academic freedom by three professional associations of social scientists. The work of that committee throughout 1914 led Seligman, who chaired it, to propose to the organizational meeting of the AAUP to take up the issue of academic freedom.

6 thoughts on “The Mecklin Case

  1. Fascinating: a century later, the same issues are still with us, with much the same student response to the administration causing faculty resignations. See my recent post, “At the College Founded in Response to the Scopes Trial, the Administration, Faculty, and Students Have Become Embroiled in a Controversy over “Origins”:

    • It’s astonishing to me how many issues are the same as they were 100 years ago. When we were discussing the Committee A report on electronic communication, we were talking about the issue of students recording teachers and posting doctored footage online. Well, the 1915 Declaration has a section on teachers being misrepresented in the press, discussing whether classroom lectures should somehow be privileged.

      • If I am not mistaken, the Digital Millenium Communications Act grants copyright status to an author’s work as soon as it is in some manner “recorded” whether in print, electronically, etc.

        Therefore, faculty might wish to provide themselves with some legal protection from such described abuse by students in the classroom by always recording their own lectures onsite. Digital hand-held recorders, for example, make this a simple task. Additionally, the faculty member should inform the students of this practice in writing on the syllabus and caution them that any reproduction of any portion of the classroom lecture for other than limited strictly personal use (or whatever parameters the faculty-author and the DMCA may impose) constitutes a violation of copyright law and prosecution may be pursued. Enrollment in the course constitutes an acceptance of these conditions, etc.

        Of course, for seminars or other forms of teaching besides lecturing, the “authors” for such a recording would also include the students themselves who might then also need to consent for any use of any recording outside of the classroom itself. In short, the whole exercise is also one of instruction in the respect due to an author and his/her intellectual property, teacher and student alike.

  2. One irony of the Mecklin case is that the AAUP today would probably refuse to get involved in the same type of case that led to its creation, because Mecklin chose to resign. All of which suggests that the AAUP ought to have a broad approach to the kinds of cases it considers, and not have narrow rules about faculty must do to deserve defending.

    • I think the change is actually in terminology. In descriptions of “dismissals” at that time, you often see cases of presidents “requesting” resignations, which are then offered. Ross gave Starr a letter of resignation, which he only accepted later. I think these resignations are more about the culture of the time than about strict matters of employment law. In the end, they were dismissals if they were requested by the president.

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