A new center for the study of academic freedom has been established at New York University’s Division of Libraries. The Frederic Ewen Academic Center will sponsor scholarly research and public programs to raise awareness of threats to intellectual freedom. The Center, funded by a major gift from Herbert Kurz, chairman of the board of the Presidential Life Insurance Company, is housed at NYU’s Tamiment Library, an archive devoted to research on labor history and the history of other progressive political movements.
“By naming this Center after Frederic Ewen, we remember a man who championed the rights of scholars to teach and write without fear of discrimination,” said Carol A. Mandel, dean of the NYU Libraries. “We also honor Herbert Kurz’s lifelong commitment to the ideals of freedom and fairness. This generous gift expands NYU’s capacity to collect and preserve archival, audio, and video materials about academic freedom.”
The Center will focus on three main activities: expanding the NYU Libraries’ academic freedom collections and facilitating access to them; sponsoring programs that promote a public dialogue about the threats to academic freedom; and providing support for scholars and documentary filmmakers so that they can explore this subject.
Ewen, a popular Brooklyn College professor of English literature during the 1930s and 1940s, was a forceful advocate for freedom of thought. He played an important role in unionizing the faculty of New York’s city colleges, spoke out against the rise of fascism in Europe, and supported the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War.
In 1940 Ewen was one of seven teachers who refused to testify before a New York State legislative panel, known as the Rapp-Coudert Committee, which was investigating allegations of subversive activities in the city’s public schools and colleges.
At the time, Ewen said that the decision to investigate the educational system “is actually an attack on the things that the system stands for and has fought in the last 20 years to obtain.” When he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, he again refused to testify and was forced to resign from Brooklyn College.
After being blacklisted, Ewen began to organize lectures and dramatic readings in union halls, theatres, and other venues in order to support himself. He assembled a team of blacklisted actors including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Randolph, Morris Charnovsky, Phoebe Brand, and Howard Da Silva that created productions based on the works of James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Anton Chekhov. In 1967 Ewen published a critically acclaimed biography of Bertolt Brecht.
In 1988, Brooklyn College formally apologized to Ewen and other professors dismissed during the Cold War years. Ewen’s papers are now housed at NYU’s Tamiment Library and will be made accessible through the new academic freedom center.
“The Center not only honors the memory of Fred Ewen but also all scholars persecuted for expressing unpopular views,” said Kurz. “The history of Rapp-Coudert and McCarthyism shows that the academics who were affected included some of the best and brightest in their fields. Their expulsion was a deep loss to their students and New York City’s educational system.”
Kurz attended Brooklyn College during a period when faculty members were being dismissed for their political beliefs. He worked for civil liberties and progressive social change. After establishing Presidential, Kurz, in 1992, financed the ongoing Frederick Ewen lecture series on academic freedom, civil rights, and freedom of the press at Brooklyn College. “My quest for an academic freedom center at a major university continued,” said Kurz. “It is now being rewarded with this success at NYU.”