May 3, 2017

IAS Looks to Its Past While Facing Threats From Current Climate

Though it may seem far removed from the noise of the contemporary world, the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) has a long history of combating threats to its scholars and their work. Recent executive orders by President Trump attempting to enforce travel bans and immigration orders have prompted the mobilization of an IAS History Working Group that recently published articles to provide illuminating historical reflections on the current political climate.

“Knowledge of this history,” one article stated, “should serve as a call for vigilance in the face of policies such as travel bans and immigrant deportations, as well as attempts to curb scientific inquiry and cut funding to arts and humanities and endowments that now threaten the autonomy of research and the pursuit of a dignified human life.”

The article, titled “The Institute’s Founding Ethos in Our Precarious Present: On Scientific Progress, the Autonomy of Scientific Research, and the Mobility of Researchers,” described the rescue efforts and the sanctuary tradition of the Institute in the years leading up to World War II.

Founded in 1930, “at the most inauspicious of times,” IAS was able to benefit from the availability of leading German university scholars and provide sanctuary for them, with help from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Carnegie Foundation.

“We find ourselves today, nearly nine decades after the Institute’s founding, at another inauspicious juncture,” the article warned. “Global political forces in power from Turkey to the United States are posing serious threats to the autonomy of scientific research and the mobility of researchers, undercutting two cardinal conditions for scientific progress. Walls, fences, bans, blocks, restrictions, cuts, and expulsions are slowly becoming run-of-the-mill terms for us to navigate in an increasingly precarious political landscape.”

Revisiting the Institute’s history to study individuals and scientific cultures that “reconstitute themselves and enrich common human heritage“ after they have gained sanctuary from authoritarian nationalist forces, the History Working Group looked back to its founders.

The Institute’s first director, Abraham Flexner, followed the urging of influential faculty members, particularly the mathematician Oswald Veblen, to welcome and protect new refugees.

In January 1933 Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and soon afterwards initiated a purge of civil servants of non-Aryan descent or suspect political sentiments. His actions caused an upheaval that produced a wave of refugee scholars seeking to emigrate, with a particularly strong effect in the fields of mathematics and natural sciences, where many Jews had chosen to pursue scholarly careers.

The Institute had already recruited Albert Einstein and John von Neumann just before Hitler’s rise to power, and Flexner, initially concerned about the need to accommodate American scholars before accepting immigrants, gradually became more and more involved in international assistance projects.

In a 1938 letter he cautioned against extreme nationalism, “Let us keep firmly in front of our eyes our real goal, namely the development of mathematics, not American mathematics or any other specific brand of mathematics, just simply mathematics.

“Hitler has played into our hands and is still doing it like the mad man that he is. I am sorry for Germany. I am glad for the United States.”

Commenting on a shift in culture and scholarship from Europe to the United States, Flexner prophetically noted, “Fifty years from now the historian looking backward will, if we act with courage and imagination, report that during our time the center of gravity in scholarship moved across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.”

The challenges of welcoming foreign scholars, however, were significant, as the Institute and its leaders continued to struggle to overcome financial and logistical barriers.

In a 1941 letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, Einstein lamented the political and bureaucratic difficulties: “A policy is now being pursued in the State Department which makes it all but impossible to give refuge in America to any worthy persons who are the victims of Fascist cruelty in Europe. Of course this is not openly avowed by those responsible for it. The method which is being used, however, is to make immigration impossible by erecting a wall of bureaucratic measures alleged to be necessary to protect American against subversive, dangerous, elements.”

And again in the 1950s during the McCarthy investigations, in response to a political climate which was increasingly hostile to scientists and teachers, Einstein spoke out, this time in a letter to a magazine where he stated that if he were a young man again he would not want to become a scientist. “I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler,” he wrote, “in the modest hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.”

Einstein continued to speak and write in defense of democracy, human rights, academic freedom, and “the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true.”

Noting “an unsettling contemporary ring” to many of these historical commentaries, the Institute’s History Working Group concluded, “Our own troubled times have many aspects in common with the dreadful period of the McCarthy investigations: the attacks on freedom of academics, teachers, and the press, the silencing and censorship of government workers, the idea that the United Stated is threatened by certain creeds. It is worth describing the dire sequence of past events, and learning from Einstein’s clairvoyant and courageous response to them, in order to best address the present situation.”