CHAMPAIN, Illinois – While the topic of premarital sex among college students may seem unfair today, an outspoken expression of an opinion about it in a student newspaper in 1960 was so offensive that it abruptly ended the career of a college professor.
Although biology professor Leo Koch will never work in higher education again, his legacy has been to reevaluate the First Amendment and protect academic freedom for researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Illinois professor writes in a new book. These changes will benefit classics professor Revelo Oliver – an anti-communist and white nationalist – enabling him to withstand the outbursts of anger spurred by his language and provocative ideas to keep his job in academia.
In “Dangerous Ideas on Campus: Sex, Conspiracy, and Academic Freedom in the Age of John F. Kennedy” (University of Illinois Press), author Matthew C. Ehrlich, Professor Emeritus of Journalism at US University, examines the intersections between gender, politics, and academic freedom in higher education by revisiting Consider the cases of these controversial scholars.
“The Koch and Oliver cases represent an important shift in the understanding of academic freedom,” said Ehrlich. “Through them, we can see the context of the ongoing battle over the beliefs and values that still divide our society as well as the efforts of different groups to ignite, spread, contain or quell explosive ideas.”
Ehrlich’s analysis examines the prevailing Christian beliefs and moral values of the time that attempted to control students’ sexuality and set standards for discourse, as well as the political climate that was filled with anti-communist skepticism in the wake of the Red Scare of the 1950s.
“While people sometimes long for a supposed golden age when universities faced less political and economic pressures than they do today, that was not really the case,” said Ehrlich. “Universities, especially public universities like the United States University, have always been under tremendous economic and political pressure.”
Despite the polar contradictions in their political views, in many ways Koch and Oliver were mirror images of each other in their roles as “campus agitators and public agitators,” Ehrlich wrote. The outspoken and unconventional Koch has long been a concern for campus officials, and his unit has already decided not to renew his contract when it expires.
But Koch’s exit from college was swift when he wrote a letter to the editor of the student newspaper The Daily Illini in March 1960 criticizing a “Sex Ritualized” column. Written by two students to promote an upcoming lecture series on sexuality and Christian values, the column laments how sexual expectations and a college dating culture interfere with the development of healthy relationships between men and women.
According to Ehrlich, Koch’s response took a “light poke at (the student authors)” a narrow, if not completely clueless, perspective “on the gender of the student.” Koch suggested that with “modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available … there is no good reason not to condone sexual intercourse among those mature enough to engage in it.”
Outraged parents shouted, two university trustees and a Baptist minister named Ira Latimer—who had suspected Koch being a communist—demanding Koch’s dismissal. Within days, university president David Dodds Henry—who called the letter “abusive and abhorrent”— relieved Koch of his duties, and the university announced he would be discharged at the end of that academic year.
After a formal hearing, the trustees agreed to expel Koch. However, the College Board’s Committee on Academic Freedom investigated the incident and issued a report recommending that Koch be disciplined for writing the letter but was not fired.
Koch’s dismissal and his struggle to reinstate him would become a major cause, sparking vigorous debate in the national media and higher education about the limits of academic freedom and the rights of the First Amendment faculty to speak outside their walls as private citizens.
In 1963, the American Association of University Professors reprimanded the United States University for violating Koch’s due process rights. In response to the censure from the Arab American University, US officials have begun to re-examine and revise the university’s statutes, bolstering academic freedom provisions for campus scholars, Ehrlich writes.
The university’s response, therefore, would be very different a few years later when Oliver created a similar uproar by writing a sensational op-ed entitled “Marxmanship in Dallas” that sparked startling allegations about the late President John F. Kennedy and other high-ranking officials. .
Published in the far-right John Birch Society’s American Opinion in February 1964, just weeks after Kennedy’s death, Oliver’s column—laden with curses like “crickets” and “insects”—claimed that JFK was a traitorous agent of an international communist plot bent on overthrowing the United States According to Oliver, JFK was murdered by his co-conspirators after becoming a political burden.
Ehrlich wrote that despite Oliver’s explosive claims, the university defended his right to voice them. Oliver remained in college and continued as a political speaker and writer.
“It was evident that the United States was wrong to fire Koch and just as entitled to defer to the professional judgment of the faculty rather than to the discipline of Oliver. This principle must be adhered to today even in the face of severe challenges to faculty independence.” “Far from protecting only liberal faculty, academic freedom also protects faculty on the other end of the political spectrum. Oliver Revelo is a prime example of this.”
Ehrlich also touched on the recent case of Stephen Salita, a scholar whose offer of a tenure faculty position at US University was cancelled after he posted angry tweets about Israel.
Ehrlich concluded that imposing strict standards of civility would only be counterproductive, stifling the free exchange of ideas critical to universities’ vital academic research.
Instead, Ehrlich urged readers to maintain their belief in the ideal that former USU Dean of Students and Dean of Women called “Miriam A. The Truth.”