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A Multi-Campus University in Exile

Then and now

The New School opened on February 10, 1919 in the name of academic freedom — a cause it heroically defended a second time when Hitler rose to power. In April 1933, Alvin Johnson, the New School’s director, called on American intellectuals to protest the dismissal of hundreds of professors in Nazi Germany who had just lost their jobs for “racial” and political reasons, while he set out on his own to help as many of them as he could. No leader of any other university moved as quickly or as boldly as he did.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler had become chancellor of a nation still governed by democratic institutions. On March 23, the legislature agreed to grant him dictatorial powers, after a suspicious fire burned down the main chamber of the Reichstag. On April 1, Hitler announced the first Jewish laws and on April 7, the Civil Service Restoration Act, evicting Jews and unreliable gentiles from universities and research institutes.

On April 14, Johnson wrote to his good friend Agnes de Lima. It had not taken him even a week, he told her, to persuade the New School’s Board of Trustees to open a university in exile. On April 24 he launched a fundraising drive and by the middle of May he had the money he needed to support a small faculty of refugee scholars. Classes began on the 2 nd of October.

When Johnson presented his idea to the Board of Trustees, he suggested hiring a core faculty of between twelve and fifteen, who specialized in the social sciences. With time and money that number would grow. Having spent the last six years co-editing The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, a massive international effort with contributions from distinguished German scholars who had now lost their academic positions, Johnson knew that he could “select as brilliant a group as were ever brought together in any institution.”[i] By the time the war ended in 1945, The New School had provided visas and jobs for nearly 200 refugees in a wide range of disciplines and not only from Germany, but from throughout Occupied Europe.

There are several accounts of the founding of the University in Exile. None of them, however, not even Johnson’s own, looks at his original, more ambitious plan for rescuing German scholars. During the spring and summer of 1933, Johnson tried to interest the leaders of other American academic institutions in following his lead and creating faculties of exiled professors at their universities as well, each with a different disciplinary focus, yet all affiliated with one another under a “federal charter of incorporation.” As Johnson explained to Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, he imagined The New School specializing in the social sciences and Chicago in the physical sciences. Together they would ask the presidents of other universities to build faculties of refugees in the arts, philosophy, and psychology.

“We could work out a plan, for the government of such a delocalized institution,” Johnson wrote on May 22, “which would make clear its cooperative character.” Hutchins agreed that the idea was “a good one and [I] shall endeavor to follow it through.” However, he cautioned, he had just “received a setback [which] may be fatal to our plan in Chicago:” When Hutchins proposed opening a university in exile to a wealthy German Jewish friend of the institution, the “key-man here…was entirely opposed to bringing any Jewish professors to America, on the ground that it might lead to the development of anti-Semitism in this country…. He is opposed to your project and also to mine.” [ii]

Johnson urged Hutchins not to give up. He would find the money for him in New York. If Chicago made a commitment, other universities would join as well. They had the influence to “center popular attention where it belongs, in the acquisition by the United States of new and valuable intellectual resources, under an institutional form that emphasizes cooperative rather than competitive considerations.” Untenured faculty would stop worrying about losing their jobs, university trustees about having to veto the idea for fear that the cost would divert money allocated for other priorities. Finally, Johnson argued, the plan would minimize the risk of anti-Semitism. “The Jew as Jew would drop out of the picture.”

Although the leaders of a number of other colleges and universities eventually responded to the crisis in Europe and invited refugee scholars to their institutions as well, they rejected Johnson’s proposal to create a multi-campus university in exile. With a few exceptions, they each welcomed one or two refugees on temporary contracts with modest salaries. But that was as far as they went. They had little interest in creating complete faculties of refugee scholars and/or organizing cross-campus networks among participating universities. They preferred to work independently of one another, accepting scholars for two years, who came with endorsements by the International Institute of Education and stipends from the Rockefeller Foundation.

By the time the New School’s University in Exile opened in October 1933, Johnson had abandoned his multi-campus plan. The idea, however, did not disappear entirely. On the eve of the New School’s centennial celebration, Professor of Psychology Arien Mack has reinvented a variation on the theme — quite by accident, she adds. On September 6, 2018, Mack opened The New University in Exile Consortium to respond to the current refugee crisis, the gravity of which has reached similar proportions to the one the world faced in 1945. A longtime editor of Social Research — the journal Johnson founded as a voice for the University in Exile in 1934 — Mack has built a consortium of fourteen colleges and universities, each of which is hosting at least one refugee scholar, from Turkey and Syria primarily, but also from Azerbaijan, India, Iran and eastern Ukraine. The participants attend a weekly seminars conducted over the internet. They also come together several times a year, as they will again at the end of April to take part in a conference on the current plight of dissident academics in their home countries.

As The New School marks its centennial year in 2019, it has changed a great deal from what it was a 100 years ago, as every vital institution does. But it still remains faithful to its founding commitment to defend the rights of persecuted intellectuals, at home and overseas. The New University in Exile Consortium proudly embodies this project.

Judith Friedlander is a former dean of NSSR and Walter A. Eberstadt Chair of Anthropology. She is the author of A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile (Columbia University Press 2019). Her New School centennial reflection “ Why left and right both get the meaning of academic freedom wrong appeared recently in the Washington Post.

To read an excerpt of A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile, click here. 


[i] Alvin Johnson to E.R.A. Seligman correspondence, April 24, 1933, New School Archives.

[ii] Alvin Johnson to Robert M. Hutchins correspondence, May 22, 1933, Robert M. Hutchins

Papers, University of Chicago Archives.

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