On the Origins of the University in Exile

An Excerpt from “A Light in Dark Times”

The New School for Social Research opened in 1919 as an act of protest. Founded in the name of academic freedom, it quickly emerged as a pioneer in adult education — providing what its first president, Alvin Johnson, liked to call “the continuing education of the educated.” By the mid-1920s, the New School had become the place to go to hear leading figures lecture on politics and the arts and recent developments in new fields of inquiry, such as anthropology and psychoanalysis. Then in 1933, after Hitler rose to power, Johnson created the University in Exile within the New School. Welcoming nearly two hundred refugees, Johnson, together with these exiled scholars, defiantly maintained the great traditions of Europe’s imperiled universities. 

In her new book, A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile, Judith Friedlander reconstructs the history of the New School in the context of ongoing debates over academic freedom and the role of education in liberal democracies. As the New School prepares to celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary, A Light in Dark Times offers a timely reflection on the legacy of this unique institution, which has boldly defended dissident intellectuals and artists in the United States and overseas. Read a passage from A Light in Dark Times, adapted for Public Seminar, below.

Historians may quibble over the precise number of refugees Johnson welcomed to the New School, but everyone agrees that he took in many more scholars and artists than any other academic institution in the United States. The most frequently cited figure is 182. Most of them taught in Continuing Education for brief periods of time before finding more permanent positions elsewhere. Committed as he was to saving as many refugees as possible, Johnson’s top priority remained the University in Exile, a model he hoped other academic institutions would adopt.

In Johnson’s grand scheme of things, Americans should do more than save the lives of individual scholars, as important as that was. They should also rescue the institution that gave rise to German scholarship. At stake, he proclaimed, was the future of civilization. No piecemeal solution would do. If Americans dispersed the exiled professors across the country, they would save the lives of valued members of the German academic community but deprive them of the intellectual support they needed to maintain the great humanistic traditions of Europe.

Johnson had another reason for wanting to create a university in exile. For years, he had been trying unsuccessfully to add a graduate division in the social sciences to the New School, but he did not have the resources to do so. As he explained in Pioneer’s Progress, he knew of lawyers, bankers, and businessmen taking courses in Continuing Education who wanted to understand the theories behind legal systems, finance, and market economies and to do empirical investigations of their own: “These men had something important to say but did not know how to say it.” Johnson firmly believed that the New School could “mobilize the disorderly mass of lay ability if we had a group of graduate instructors.” Now, with the growing crisis in Germany, he would be able to raise the money he needed to build an outstanding social science faculty while he championed a cause he believed in deeply and that spoke directly to the founding principles of the New School.

As the associate editor of The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, Johnson had spent many hours reading the work of European social scientists. The more he read, the more interested he became in what they were doing, particularly the Germans, who he believed were head and shoulders above their counterparts in the United States. Johnson explained what he meant in a letter to Columbia University sociologist Robert MacIver: The Germans saw economics as “a mighty historical force . . . [not] just a calculus of utilities and disutilities.” They saw political science as “not just a speculation on the rights and wrongs of man, but a record of the adjustment of man to the complications of political living; sociology, not a desperate attempt to be enrolled in the physical sciences, or to escape into social work, but an interpretation of the mass feelings and mass actions of men.”

Johnson acknowledged that the United States had also produced a number of great social scientists whose work showed the same kind of theoretical breadth as that of the Europeans he admired — Thorstein Veblen for one, but he was an “epiphenomenon,” easily dismissed by Americans in ways Europeans did not dismiss their own. In Germany, “everybody had to know Max Weber.” If Johnson succeeded in creating his University in Exile, the faculty would be “capable of retaining the continental academic values and adapting them without mutilation to the American tradition.” To retain those values meant recognizing the centrality of philosophy to all the disciplines: “In the continental universities,” Johnson wrote, “the base of all instruction, even in the physical sciences, was philosophy. . . . Here [in the United States] philosophy is a course among other courses, and seldom the really attractive course. You could get a Ph.D. on the architecture of haystacks without ever being able to distinguish between Aristotle and Eugene Field,” he added sardonically, referring to the popular nineteenth century humorist and poet of children’s verses.

Excited by his idea, Johnson wanted to give it a name that would capture the imagination of funders; one as compelling as Saint Peter’s in Chains, the famous church in Rome whose name nobody forgets. When he came up with the University in Exile, he knew he had found what he was looking for because it was “the university itself that was being exiled.”

Given his long-term plans for building a permanent graduate faculty, Johnson was going to have to raise additional funds beyond this emergency campaign to support his refugee scholars for the first two years. To do so, however, would create “a permanent financial burden for the New School.” When he asked the trustees to endorse his idea, he promised to recruit a second board of trustees to oversee the new initiative. The existing board would have no additional financial responsibilities. This of course meant that Johnson was committing himself to a project that would demand an enormous amount of his time for many years to come — not exactly what he had been planning to do before Hitler passed the Civil Service Restoration Act: “I am going in the wrong direction, since my goal [was] ease, and the leisure to write and reflect.” But there was no turning back. “One gets an idea and has to see it through.”

By the middle of April, the trustees had endorsed Johnson’s plan to raise $120,000 to support up to fifteen scholars for two years at $4,000 per year or twelve at $5,000. Once he had their blessing, Johnson asked his old friend Edwin Seligman to help him raise the money by reaching out to his colleagues and wealthy friends, many of whom were of Jewish origin. Johnson delivered one hundred copies of this fund-raising letter to Seligman, in which he explained the urgent need for establishing a university in exile.

Dear Professor Seligman:

I am writing to ask for your help in a matter which deeply concerns both of us. . . . I refer to the case of the German university professors who have been ruthlessly dismissed in the mad anti-Semitic rage of the present German government. You have seen some of the letters that are coming to the Encyclopedia from them. . . . It is still incredible to me that any government, however fanatic, would cashier men like these whom all the world regards as among the ablest and most creative scholars anywhere to be found.

But to the point. Merely vocal protest will help these men little if at all. I therefore propose a protest which will arrest the attention of every person interested in scholarship, namely the prompt establishment of an institution to be known as “The University in Exile.” Because everything turns on prompt action, if the protest is really to count, I propose to confine it to the social sciences — broadly interpreted — a field which is also the center of the battle. . . .

I propose to invite fifteen of the proscribed professors to the New School. They will select their own Dean, arrange their own curricula and establish here a center where German university methods may be taught as efficiently as they were in any German university. With all the resources we have on the Encyclopaedia staff, we can select as brilliant a group as were ever brought together. . . .

It must be done promptly. The world is quick to forgive invasions of academic liberty by a forceful government. It long ago forgave Mussolini. It will never forgive Hitler so long as we have a working University in Exile. . . .

Seligman attached a cover note to the letter and mailed it off.

Johnson then left for the nation’s capital. From Washington he wrote to de Lima, describing how he had “been working so furiously” that he had little time to do anything else: “There may be some difficulty in getting the professors out of Germany and into the United States. That is why I am trying to see the State and Labor departments. They are hard to get at, but I think I’ll manage it.”

Back at the New School colleagues started gathering the names of scholars whom they knew needed help. Everyone understood that the New School would only recruit social scientists, but for Johnson that could easily include a scholar who specialized in the arts, particularly someone such as the musicologist Erich von Hornbostel, who was doing collaborative research with the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer. Even though Hornbostel had turned down the New School three years earlier, Clara Mayer predicted that he would accept this time. On May 4, she informed Henry Cowell that Hornbostel had contacted Franz Boas at Columbia to let the anthropologist know that he had lost his job and was eager to find work in the United States: “Dr. Johnson will certainly invite him if the money can be found.”

On May 6, Johnson wrote to de Lima:

My head spins so hard with my University in Exile. I write letters and letters, have interviews, arguments from morning to night, interminably. But I am taking one fortification after another, and as things look now I’m going to get that university. There are alternative plans to fight with — Einstein’s Jewish University in London and plans for a committee to insinuate these exiles one by one into the various universities. I’ve taken Einstein’s key man away from him and invited Einstein into my camp. I’ve started to dissolve it by capturing some of its keys. So my hopes are looking up. . .

You may wonder what drives me on into a venture that has so much possibility of perplexity and labor in it. Hanged if I know. It’s a brilliant idea, isn’t it? A University in Exile. The conception of such an idea is a delight: the parturition follows by a law of nature.

In the same letter, Johnson boasted that he had already raised $7,500 despite the fact that he had “hardly begun to try.” On May 11, he reported having $17,000 and gaining the endorsement of the American Jewish Committee, which had previously distanced itself from anti-Nazi campaigns out of fear of stirring up anti-Semitic passions in the United States. Now that he had the support of the committee, it was time to go to the press: “I am going to talk with Arthur Sulzberger, son-in-law of Ochs and supreme authority on the Times.”

When Johnson wrote to de Lima on May 11, he said nothing about the huge anti-Nazi demonstration that had taken place in New York the day before. Had he participated? The New York Times covered the story on the front page of the morning’s newspaper: one hundred thousand people had marched from Madison Square Garden to Battery Park in a “six-hour protest over Nazi policies.” Sponsored by the American Jewish Congress — not to be confused with the American Jewish Committee — the demonstration had attracted a wide range of political and religious leaders. Among the speakers were Mayor John O’Brien, Major General John O’Ryan, and members of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese.

Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, had scheduled the demonstration to coincide with the day Nazi students began their national book burning campaign. In Berlin alone they destroyed more than twenty thousand “anti-German” and “anti-Aryan” volumes. When Wise spoke at the protest, he proclaimed that May 10 would “stand as a tragic day in the annals of the German people for they have done an ignoble deed, which after a time they will choose not to remember, but which history will not let them forget.”

On May 13, The New York Times announced that the New School was going to open the University in Exile: “Faculty of Exiles Is Projected Here.” The article explained that Johnson would sponsor “fifteen Jewish and liberal professors recently ousted from German universities” — adding that he would publish the names of the professors once arrangements had been finalized. Johnson told the reporter that “several German professors of world-wide fame in their fields” had already expressed “a willingness to come.” Given their stature, they would attract students “who might otherwise be tempted to go to Germany for their education.” Finally, the article described Johnson’s fund-raising campaign, publishing the names of distinguished Americans who had joined his outreach committee. In addition to Seligman and John Dewey, the members included a former Supreme Court justice (Oliver Wendell Holmes), a future Supreme Court justice teaching law at Harvard (Felix Frankfurter), the governor of Connecticut (Wilbur Cross), and the president of the University of Chicago (Robert M. Hutchins).

Johnson also told de Lima, in his letter of May 11, that he planned to return to Washington later in May to “take the German ambassador [Hans Luther] by the beard and make him promise either to let the men out of Germany or give me a publicity handle that will be worth grabbing.” If he could get “anything like a consent from [Luther],” he would send a representative to Germany right away and begin recruiting faculty. Needless to say, Johnson did not get what he wanted, nor did he follow through with his threat. Luther had many friends in Washington and in the wider academic community.

While the director of the New School was calling on academics to join his protest, Hitler’s ambassador was giving speeches at U.S. universities to reassure faculty and students that professors in Germany were doing just fine — with the exception of an occasional troublemaker. Luther urged members of the academic community to ignore the alarmist propaganda they were reading in the press and maintain their strong ties to German universities.

Johnson spent most of May sending letters to colleagues and wealthy friends around the country, asking them to contribute whatever they could to his protest. One of these letters, modeled on the one he had written for Seligman, was cosigned by Horace Kallen and addressed to the philosopher’s extensive network. Johnson also reached out to university presidents, asking them to lend their names to his fund-raising committee. On May 29, he wrote to Joseph Ames, president of Johns Hopkins University, describing the University in Exile as “a protest against invasions of the principles of educational freedom to which we all adhere,” adding that the “protest will count much more effectively if it commands the approval of educators like yourself.” To which Ames replied two days later: “I have had to make it a rule not to allow the use of my name in connection with any project, however much I may approve of it.”

Johnson had more success with Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. Hutchins joined the fund-raising committee right away and expressed interest as well in Johnson’s more ambitious idea of establishing universities in exile on campuses across the country, each with a different academic focus but all affiliated under a “federal charter of incorporation.”

Adapted from A LIGHT IN DARK TIMES by Judith Friedlander (Columbia University Press). Purchase a copy on the Columbia University Press website here, and on Amazon here.

Judith Friedlander served from 1993 to 2000 as dean of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science at the New School for Social Research, where she held the Walter A. Eberstadt Chair of Anthropology. She also served as dean and professor at SUNY Purchase and Hunter College (CUNY), from which she retired in 2017. Her books include Being Indian in Hueyapan and Vilna on the Seine.

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