Miller, Hasse, and academic freedom

Submitted by martin on 19 October, 2021 - 4:43
Academic freedom

In discussing the case of David Miller and Bristol University, I chose the example of Helmut Hasse, a celebrated mathematician sacked by the British occupation authorities in Germany in 1945 because of his right-wing nationalist views, as a comparison test case.

Partly because I knew about it, but partly because no reader is likely to find Hasse's views other than vile. Hasse, to my mind, provides a test case for how Miller's could be considered wrong even while denouncing his political views. And likewise we can criticise Sussex University professor Kathleen Stock's noxious trans-sceptic campaigning without wanting the university to sack her (which, it seems, few people are demanding anyway).

Richard Courant, a Jewish mathematician (and left Social Democrat) who fled Germany in 1933, had known Hasse well. In exile he become hostile to the accommodating Hasse. He wrote: "I found [Hasse's] wild and quite open pan-German convictions quite sinister… To my knowledge he has not behaved nastily to anybody".

Bristol University has said, without detail, that Miller's sacking is on grounds of his "behaviour" conflicting with the university's "duty of care" to students. We can't judge because neither the university nor Miller has released details. We oppose sacking on "ideological" grounds; we would oppose sacking if the case on "behaviour" is inadequate; and yet we do not "defend David Miller" in any general way.

University professors are not ordinary workers. They have authority over junior academics, ancillary staff, and students. If they abuse those they have authority over, then we would want their union (if they're members) to put their case, explore adjustments and mitigations, etc., but in the end we see no absolute right for them to continue in post despite abuse.

(Substantial abuse, that is, as with “gross misconduct” as threshold rather than just “misconduct”: if any incident of bad behaviour can bring sacking, then we are all vulnerable).

There's an extra factor with university professors: academic freedom, autonomy for universities and research from political controls, freedom to theorise even if many (or we) find it offensive. Suppressing that autonomy in a capitalist society, even if in the short term it weeds out someone unpleasant, cannot but end up favouring ruling-class views over subversive and oppositional views, including our own. To push for suppression in the hope of weeding out right-wing or fake-left mavericks is at best short-sighted. And, after a socialist revolution, we would not want university faculties purged, either.

We're generally against employers sacking workers for their political views. In a capitalist society, employers are… capitalists. Or they are public officials doing capitalistic functions. A drive to get employers to sack political undesirables is certain mainly to hit us (undesirables from a capitalist point of view), even if here and there it might get an unpleasant right-winger removed.

In and after a socialist revolution, we'd seek wide replacement of managers by worker-elected people. That'd be partly to do with individuals' political views on workers' rights, equality, democracy, etc.; but the criterion would be mostly about behaviour, rather than "theoretical" views, and we'd seek to get the sacked managers reasonable jobs elsewhere.

That's because we value liberty, and because we want to minimise the percentage who oppose socialist revolution because for them it means personal ruination.

Immediately, in Britain, backing a drive to remove unpleasant academics would be more likely to get sackings of visiting academics from Israeli universities (of any views other than denying Israel's right to exist), than any good result.

Those thoughts informed my conclusion about Hasse, against whom there were no big charges of abusing individuals and none on academic competence. The charge was essentially that, instead of quietly going along with the Nazis, as of course almost all university professors who remained in post in Germany through 1933-45 did, he had vocal right-wing nationalist views.

The cases of David Miller and Kathleen Stock, a professor at Sussex University with only marginal calls to sack her rather than criticise her on grounds of her noxious trans-sceptic ideas, are different from Hasse's, but the same criteria as with Hasse, clear-cut in his case, I think, but murkier in theirs, apply.

With university professors, the issue of job competence plays differently from with most of us. In a factory, we argue for a worker who is incompetent (maybe from age or ill-health) not to be sacked, but to be moved to lighter duties, with wage safeguards. The equivalent with a university professor who is incompetent might be some "research associate" job, which in terms relevant here of prestige, access to publishing and lecturing and supervising opportunities, etc., is tantamount to sacking.

With Miller and Stock there is a grey area here, because much of their recent "academic" writing has been, more or less, exposition of their political views. I'd argue that the value of not giving bourgeois authorities (even under student pressure) censorial powers means we should be very cautious about "ideological" sackings, even if proposed in terms of academic competence.

Tracking back to the Hasse analogy: Ludwig Bierberbach was the leading active-Nazi mathematician of the time. Bieberbach ran a course entitled "Great German mathematicians: a race-theoretic approach". He launched a journal, Deutsche Mathematik, with clearly racist articles, devoted to promoting "German" mathematics (synthetic, intuitive, discursive) as against unsavoury "Jewish" or "French" maths (analytic, abstract, the worst sort being Noether's and Artin's abstract algebra).

He supervised exams wearing Nazi uniform. He actively sought sacking and facilitated Gestapo arrests of Jewish mathematicians. (Sackings were a matter of law rather than university policy, since professors were "civil servants", but applying the law was tortuous).

Bieberbach was removed from his academic posts in 1945. There were valid grounds both of abusive behaviour and of competence. (His full name, by the way, was Ludwig Georg Elias Moses Bieberbach. Go figure).

The contrast with Hasse (besides Hasse's greater stature as a mathematician) is that Hasse in his political views was a conservative nationalist, thus inclined to favour the Nazis, but I know of no big charge against Hasse about personal behaviour. Or in competence (he worked in abstract algebra himself).

Hasse was helpful to the great algebraist Emil Artin in fleeing Germany. Artin was anti-Nazi, but at first, like many, wanted to keep his head down and continue his work. He was advised by colleagues to shut his classroom door to avoid passers-by hearing his acid comments on the Nazis. He fled in 1937 because of the threat to his Jewish wife.

Hasse continued friendly to his (Jewish) mathematical mentor Kurt Hensel who, retired by 1933, stayed secluded and unharmed in Germany until his death in 1941. Hasse wrote a warm obituary of Hensel which the Nazis blocked from publication.

Bieberbach or Hasse: which is the analogue for Miller (or Stock)? The arguments about academic freedom, and not conceding to the state or university administrations censorial powers likely to be used most often against us, indicate a high bar for accepting that unpleasant political views have infected academic work so much as to justify sacking.

Chris Reynolds, London

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