I first came across the story of the Canwell Committee hearings in 1986, when the obituary of former UW President Raymond Allen crossed my desk. It was not your everyday “obit.” Here was a man who was President of the University of Washington for five years and later chancellor at UCLA, yet the writer had spent most of the article talking about “un-American activities” hearings and the firing of three UW professors.
Growing up in the 1950s, I was aware of the McCarthy era, but I wasn’t familiar with witch hunts on college campuses. I had no idea that the aftermath of the Canwell hearings set a precedent other campuses would follow. Tenured professors could lose their jobs, not because they were poor teachers or broke some faculty code, but simply because they were members (or alleged to be members) of the Communist Party.
“It was not the first time in history that the confusions of honest people were picked up by cheap baddies who, hearing a few bars of popular notes, made them into an opera of public disorder,” writes Lillian Hellman in her memoir of that era, Scoundrel Time.
Some universities would be happy to forget that these hearings ever happened, but the University of Washington is not afraid to examine its past. This January there will be a series of lectures, panel discussions and even a play about the hearings from 50 years ago. President Richard L. McCormick and Regent Dan Evans plan to be among the participants.
At the end of her memoir, Hellman castigates those “honest Americans,” like Allen, who were sincere anti-Communists but played into the hands of unscrupulous politicians. She notes that they never stepped forward to admit their mistakes. “It is not necessary in this country; they too know that we are a people who do not remember much,” she writes.
With regard to the UW, Hellman is wrong. Several years ago President William P. Gerberding formally apologized for the faculty firings. As this issue and the January events testify, rather than forgetting, the UW is an institution that is remembering much about its mistaken past.