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Posted on Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 12:37 p.m.

U-M professor fired for political views returns to campus 57 years later

By Kellie Woodhouse

Fifty-seven years after being fired from the University of Michigan for his political views, mathematician Chandler Davis returned to campus under much brighter circumstances.

Davis — who was fired from U-M in 1954 for creating and distributing literature for the Communist Party and jailed in 1960 for refusing to cooperate with a congressional investigation into his political actions— was honored Tuesday during a lecture by U-M English literature and American culture professor Alan Wald.

U-M’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts this year awarded Wald, a longtime lecturer at the U-M, a professorship. The English department allowed Wald to name the professorship after a person of his choice and Wald, commending the former professor for his bravery, chose Davis.

Davis taught mathematics at U-M from 1950 to 1954, during the Cold War era. In 1953, Davis, then in his twenties, was caught distributing pamphlets about the Communist Party. At the time, being affiliated with the party was considered subversive.


Chandler Davis

Photo courtesy of Alan Wald

Knowing this, Davis nonetheless used his full name to sign a check to the printing company that published the pamphlets. Today, Davis says that throughout his involvement with the Communist Party, he was fully aware of the risk of being fired or subpoenaed by Congress.

In fact, before his own firing, Davis watched more than 50 of his acquaintances and friends become blacklisted, jailed or fired because of their political beliefs.

“I was familiar with that risk, several of my friends had already been fired. I knew what was up,” says Davis, now 85. “That was just the kind of thing that happened in that day.”

In the spring of 1954, the university launched an investigation into Davis’ activities, along with an investigation into the political affiliations of two other professors. That fall, Davis was subpoenaed to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities and subsequently fired by U-M.

Davis says that although he was an active communist, “I didn’t bring politics into my classes.”

In all stages of the investigation, Davis refused to cooperate with authorities, but instead asserted his right to free speech protected under the First Amendment.

Other individuals targeted by the Committee on Un-American Activities pleaded the Fifth Amendment, which allowed them to refuse to answer questions on the grounds that the answer could incriminate them.

Davis, however, chose a different path.

“Most people took the Fifth Amendment so they wouldn’t risk going to prison, but Davis took the first amendment because it was a freedom of speech issue,” Wald said. “He behaved consistently about his right to hold his own political views and discuss them when he felt like it, as opposed to when other people demand that you discuss your politics.”

Davis says he refused to cooperate because he “was concerned about the effect that (the committee) had on people’s ability to discuss society and politics. It closed down discussion.”

In the fall of 1954, Davis was criminally convicted of contempt of Congress. After exhausting all he appeal options, he served six months in federal prison starting January 1960.

Davis, blacklisted after his firing at U-M, says that in the years following his testimony he was unable to find employment as a professor.

“We were impoverished for a while,” Davis said of his family.

As a result, Davis moved his family to Canada in 1963 and has lived there ever since, working as a lecturer at the University of Toronto. He is now retired.

“I sometimes describe myself as a refugee,” Davis says now. “But I did what I felt was the right thing in 1954 and haven’t regretted it since.”

In the more than half-century that has passed since his unlawful firing, Davis has never received an apology from U-M.

“The regents haven’t noticed us,” Davis says. “Whatever they said in the way of apology… wouldn’t do me any good because I’ve had a good life in Canada, but it might do the University of Michigan some good.”

“It’s not good to leave a record like this,” Davis continued.

Wald said that while naming his professorship after Davis “is a gesture or reconciliation” by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, it’s not enough.

“It’s close to an apology, but I think it would be better if the president of the university issued a public apology,” Wald said. “Other universities have done more, they have issued apologies.”

U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald declined to address the issue.

Wald said it’s important for U-M to acknowledge Davis’ firing in some way.

“They made a mistake that had a negative affect on academic freedom,” he said. “They can't ever do it again.”

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.”



Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 6:35 p.m.

Have things really changed on college campuses when unpopular things are expressed? The place to freely exchange ideas is very selective about which ideas can be exchanged - extremely closed-minded, one might say. In the past few years, across the nation, tenured professors have been fired for speaking or writing unpopular statements, and more have been denied tenure because they offended Alan Dershowitz, a man who prides himself on being the upholder of human rights and law. Times change, entrenched people don't.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 1:37 p.m.

I'm dumb founded. Corporations are an IT. Can the present management team for the IT apologize? You bet they can. It's up to them and they don't do anything until the public forces them. Academics are the ame as other corporarte managers. Doesn't anybody see the parrallels of this to same-sex marriages, banning inter-racial marriages, and punishing people for different political views? Don't we see how easy it is to do the same to Muslims? Don't we know put citizens in jail because they were of Japanese desent; but we didn't do the same to Germans. It's perjudice folks. Grow up and get it over it. We all have it and it's recognizing it and it's harm to ourselves and others. Now it's about benefits to same sex marriages. I'd expect a knowledge base out of A2. Arguements / discussions of merit & reason. An understanding of the principles that guide our society not a bunch of techocrats arguing about the Angels on the head of a pin. Your right, I don't believe there are any Angels on a head of a pin.

EMU Prof

Sat, Sep 17, 2011 : 2:55 a.m.

Yes, we did do the same to the Germans, and same-sex marriage proponents aren't armed with atomic weapons.

G. Orwell

Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 2:48 a.m.

"In 1953, Davis, then in his twenties, was caught distributing pamphlets about the Communist Party. At the time, being affiliated with the party was considered subversive." Today, being affiliated with the Tea Party is being subversive. That is because the Tea Party threatens the established monopoly of power between the Democratic and Republican parties. Both controlled by the same interests. We have a one party system pretending to be two separate and opposing parties. That is why the real Tea Party is being attacked from both the controlled left and the right. The real Tea Party is the only anti-war party. Certain corporations and media do not like that.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 4:44 a.m.

Agreed. I can tell you right now in Michigan, the corporate insiders are scheming in ways to recapture control of their GOP organizations which have been taken over to a certain extent by the Tea Party. The Tea Party has mostly been a good thing nationwide but it can backfire as it did in Delaware where Michael Castle, the sure winner of a U.S. Senate vacant seat got upset in the primary by a Tea Party-endorsed doofus who lost in a landslide to the Democratic nominee.

David Briegel

Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 4:17 a.m.

The only anti-war candidate is Ron Paul. He has no chance at anything. The rest are deluded puppets of the Perpetual War Profiteers!

Will Warner

Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 2:32 a.m.

"A very large percentage, perhaps even a majority, of American artists and intelligentsia were communists at that point. In what sense do you claim self-delusion was necessary?" Well, by 1954 even Nikita K. knew the horror communism had wrought on the USSR, and would admit it to the world two years later. By 1954, the iron curtain had imprisoned the people of Eastern Europe for seven years. People were fleeing by the hundreds of thousands through West Berlin and shortly that figure would be by the millions. (By 1961 an eighth of the East German population had escaped that way, which forced the GDR to build the Berlin Wall -- the most ignominious admission of failure in the history of mankind.) By 1954 only a willful blindess could prevent one from seeing that the dream of the workers paradise had failed and permit one to ignore the crimes committed in its pursuit.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 4:38 a.m.

Agreed. However, Davis' father was a CPUSA member and this in all probabilty led to his support of Marxism. Secondly, He has a First Amendment right to express his beliefs - which is what the Supreme Court eventually held after his conviction. No one today is prosecuted under the Smith Act for being a CPUSA member.

Will Warner

Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 1:58 a.m.

"Most think Communism and Dictatorship are interchangeable, due to the fact that all communist governments happen to be dictatorial." Communist countries don't just happen to be totalitarian. There are necessarily totalitarian because, as communist theory states (admits?) the success of the project requires the emergence of "the new man," a human being more noble than the pitiful, self-interested creature produced by evolution. But when somehow the "new man" fails to materialize, idealogical zealots have no choice but to ratchet up the coercion. All aspects of life must be shaped toward the re-education of men. His bourgeois notions must be eradicated. Totally.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 4:49 a.m.

Exactly, the Marxist stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat goes on indefinitely and is run by political leaders who benefit as dictators who are themselves "pitiful, self interested creatures" who seek to perpetuate their positions at the expense of the common man. The racheting up of coercion leads to the Gulag Archipelago system chronicled by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 10:38 p.m.

The sad part of this story is that Chandler Davis was one of America's brightest mathematical scholars, earning a doctorate from Harvard while in his early 20s and going on to publish numerous research papers during his long career in Canada as an academic. Dr. Davis was imprisoned in 1960 and developed some of his key research while incarcerated. No major outcry over his conviction and sentence, however Junius Scales, a U.S. Communist Party member and labor organizer who had his Smith Act conviction under the membership clause of that law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961 and who was in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons that year was granted executive clemency by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and was released that year to go onto employment with the New York Times.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 12:09 a.m.

To me, it is sad that this took place over many years and deprived many, many people of their rights. People may have been quiet, because they feared being arrested themselves. It is sad that a country that professes to be the most democratic in the world has had many "witch hunts" like this, depriving citizens of their freedoms in the name of protecting those freedoms.

EMU Prof

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 10:13 p.m.

1953: Stalin was still alive and, in all likelihood, planning his next 'purge' (massacre.) Perhaps Prof Davis should not have been fired, but it's at least debatable, and this is not a simple story of a good guy vs. an evil institution. And it's not a simple matter of academic freedom either. After all, you probably wouldn't be allowed to use your classes to recruit for Al-Qaeda, or distribute their literature on campus. Nor would an untenured professor be allowed to pass out pamphlets for the Nazis.

EMU Prof

Sat, Sep 17, 2011 : 2:11 a.m.

No, a tenured professor would probably be fired for such things. A person with tenure can still lose his/her job. As for Trotsky, why some people think that the commander of the Red Army in the Russian Civil War (which consumed more lives than the First World War)--a man who called criticized Stalin for being a "Thermidorian" (i.e., too conservative)-- would have been a tolerant and humane leader is bewildering.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 5:59 p.m.

How about a tenured professor


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 10:29 p.m.

As Rusty Shackleton said above, "Many communists were opposed to Stalin." Trotsky was one of them.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:23 p.m.

During the McCarthy Era, people were investigated, spied upon and brought before Congress, sometimes losing their jobs and being incarcerated, merely because they knew persons who were communist. It was a very frightening time when the government deprived people of their basic constitutional rights based on gossip and innuendo. McCarthy and his cohorts never defined communism. They only warned us to be afraid. Similar things happened with Hoover, the FBI, and the files kept on anyone who protested the Vietnam War or fought for Civil Rights of all US citizens regardless of color, ethniciity and/or religious beliefs. Now it is all the anti-Muslim rhetoric and calls to be afraid. We are asked by Homeland Security to report any "suspicious" activity by neighbors or acquaintances. We always stand on a slippery slope regarding our freedoms. Too often people are convinced to voluntarily surrender those rights because of fear. As Roosevelt said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:14 p.m.

The key piece of this story is Davis' comment that he did not bring his politics into the classroom. The University should apologize. This was a free speech issue. Today, professors are encouraged to politicize everything, and the result is a much less valuable education. The University should apologize for that as well.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 8:31 p.m.

I'm willing to bet the vast majority of those commenting on this article don't have the faintest clue as to what Communism is. All they know is what their government told them to believe during the Cold War. BTW, the weekend, sick time and vacation days at work, safe working conditions, minimum wages, child labor laws, the list goes on.. all brought to you by Communists. You're welcome.

EMU Prof

Sat, Sep 17, 2011 : 2:21 a.m.

Perhaps (though I doubt it) in the US, but in Europe Communist parties routinely opposed increased wages, safe working conditions, etc. because they thought it would lessen the misery of the workers and thereby thwart the revolution that the laws of history demanded. As for child labor laws, in England they resulted from pressure by religious charities.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:28 p.m.

It's those same capitalists who are sending your job overseas where people are working for $25 for 55 hours of work in a week. No, it is not adequate to live on their economy. Ther was also often other work available before these same capitalists did like Walmart and undersold everyone else until they went out of business. Then, of course, prices went up and small farmers and businessmen were bankrupt and all their employees laid off.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:21 p.m.

Actually, when the capitalists have their way they drive down the price of labor (our wages). Labor costs are the most expensive part of running a business. Get rid of the cost of labor and you increase your profit. Remember the Southern states pre-Civil War? No, if capitalists had their way most of us would be slaves.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:12 p.m.

Yes, but the check you receive comes from capitalists. You're welcome.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:29 p.m.

The actions against Davis were the product of McCarthyism and could not be upheld today. The United States Supreme Court in the Yates opinion in 1957 gave broad First Amendment Free Speech Clause protections to member of the Communist Party of the USA to advocate their beliefs in the abstract without running afoul of the Smith Act that forbade subversive beliefs being disseminated. While I disagree with Mr. Davis' politics, his right to express his beliefs was vindicated long ago by our High Court.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 10:26 p.m.

The Smith Act was unconstitutional. It deprived people of their First Amendment Rights, a blow to freedom.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:41 p.m.

@demistify: Mr. Davis was criminally convicted of contempt of Congress based upon questioning regarding allegedly subversive activities that were outlawed by the Smith Act. He did not, as the article indicates, plead the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination but rather his First Amendment Free Speech Clause rights. It was the criminal case that led to his loss of employment at U-M.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:11 p.m.

I believe there was recently such a congressional investigation regarding Muslims. The CIA and NYPD joint effort to spy on Muslims in their homes and places of worship also falls into the same category as McCarthyism.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 8:57 p.m.

McCarthyism had nothing to do with it. Joe McCarthy was a demagogue who claimed to be a Communist-hunter but never found a one. None of the people he attacked were real Communists, like Davis. Malcolm Muggeridge, the editor of the British humor magazine "Punch", wrote a parody of a McCarthy hearing in which he proved that McCarthy was a Communist agent. The long-defunct Smith Act was nowise involved. Invoking the First Amendment is a stretch. It provides the right to express beliefs (not necessarily actions) in an appropriate venue without being arrested. It does not guarantee a job (even in academia).


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:12 p.m.

What I find even more amusing is had he moved to a Communist Country like China or Cuba is they would have executed him for speaking his mind.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 12:47 p.m.

Save your breath. The hysterical right will never get it. Why actually study something when you can just jump around, shouting that someone is a Nazi AND a Commie?


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:38 p.m.

Here, he was not executed, he was merely imprisoned.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:33 p.m.

Pinochet, the Saudis, Somoza were all dictators and all capitalist. Pinochet and Somoza, both supported by the US government slaughtered thousanads of their own people. We intervened in Nicaragua to stop the Socialist Democracy established by the Sandinista Revolution.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 8:12 p.m.

Communism v.s. Capitalism Dictatorship v.s. Democracy Most think Communism and Dictatorship are interchangeable, due to the fact that all communist governments happen to be dictatorial. But in theory those two can be overlapping, but not necessarily interchangeable. For example, (i) China had both communism and dictatorship under Mao, but is much more capitalist than communist nowadays. (ii) Taiwan was dictatorial, but capitalist 3 decades ago.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:07 p.m.

I wonder if there'd be quite so much sympathy for Davis if he'd been a National Socialist a couple decades earlier instead of a Communist? There's not a whole lot of difference between the two ideologies. Heck, Communists murdered even more millions than Nazis did. All to create the New Soviet Man and a better world. Omelette, broken eggs and all that. At least he wasn't one of those scary Christians, or something.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 3:17 p.m.

@Skyjockey "There is no other religion in this country more openly mocked and derided." As it should be! It's a Bronze Age myth that not only makes no sense, it is believed by people who deny facts, evidence and science. It's a ridiculous religion. As is Islam, and don't even get me started on Judiasm. Don't worry, I classify your religion and Islam in the same category: absurd and foolish. And I rarely miss an opportunity to mock both. Your argument would stand up to scrutiny if we didn't have Under God in the Pledge. In God we trust on the money. A national Christmas Tree lit every year. If I didn't have to sit through every politician, at the end of speech, say something about God blessing America. Bill O'Reilly got you good.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 1:13 a.m.

Christian loving? The United States?? Surely you must be joking. There is no other religion in this country more openly mocked and derided. Make a crack about Islam and you're labeled a bigot (and more than likely get a few death threats). Drive around town with a Darwinified Jesus fish on your Prius and you'll be the hit at your next faculty mixer. Christian loving United States..... lol. That's a good one


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 1:07 a.m.

Curious how every nation communists took over turned into a totalitarian dictatorship. Every last one. Just because Lenin's "useful idiots" were surprised doesn't make them any less guilty of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Communists mass murdered class enemies. National Socialists mass murdered racial enemies. Internationalist vs. nationalist. All by design. I'm sure many National Socialists could make the same excuses that the Trotskyites do. The difference is that many, many people who should be smart enough to know better still make excuses for the most murderous ideology the world has ever seen. And an awful lot of them have tenure or a press pass.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 8:33 p.m.

And how many people has the Christian-loving, Capitalist United States killed around the world?

rusty shackelford

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:25 p.m.

As even the most cursory glance at a history book will show, many communists were anti-Stalin. Start with the most basic reading : <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:05 p.m.

Canada? Why not China or Cuba? Its funny how these Communists dont want to live in a real Communist country, why not.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 5:55 p.m.

If you want to be a communist, move to a communist country. The U.S./U of M can't be everything for everybody. You can't expect to be able to distribute that kind of literature as a professor and get away with it. His firing was just, because he pushed his personal views on others. U of M should not apologize. If a pro-life or anti- gay marriage professor was passing out literature they'd be called a bigot and probably get fired too.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:36 p.m.

A truly democratic country does not fear its citizens who adhere to other ideologies.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 7:17 p.m.

@Rusty &quot;The University allows freedom of expression for faculty in large part thanks to people like Davis who stood up for their rights.&quot; That is quite comical. We owe a communist a thank you for standing up for our rights? If I remember correctly, communism took away people's rights of free speech. Took away people's rights of having private propert. Took away people's rights name it, they took it away. If there is anyone to thank for our rights today, it should be our soldiers who have defended our country in every war up to this day. They are the ones we should be thanking, not some communist.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:46 p.m.

Wasn't a Asst. AG banned from U of M property because of his speech ?

rusty shackelford

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:23 p.m.

Yes, the statement is false. The University allows freedom of expression for faculty in large part thanks to people like Davis who stood up for their rights.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:13 p.m.

No First Amendment for you!


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:12 p.m.

Rusty...I don't see anywhere that he claims to have been persecuted. Just making a statement.Do you think his comment is false ? Do you think if a professor did hand out pro-life or anti-gay marriage pamphlets the U would tolerate it ? Just asking

rusty shackelford

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 5:57 p.m.

Must be fun to pretend to be persecuted for your beliefs while criticizing those who actually were.

Tom Todd

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 5:45 p.m.

I Believe Snyder is a Communist.


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : 5:56 p.m.

Snyder is a Facsist


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:04 p.m.

Snyder is a self professed capitalist.

Smart Logic

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 6:34 p.m.

Oh yeah because just about anything the Republican party does remotely jives with communism, right? If you posted under your real name I am sad for you because the community now knows how ignorant your opinion is.

Will Warner

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 5:34 p.m.

I'm not defending the firing or the witch trials, but, really, by 1954 there was no excuse for being a communist, especially for an educated person. It would have taken an astounding degree of willful self-delusion.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 9:02 p.m.

It took willful self delusion to be in accord with McCarthy and his bunch. They apparently knew little about communism as a philosophy. They saw it as a political system in contrast to democracy. Actually, it is an economic system opposite capitalism. Our government at the time demonstrated that it was not democratic.

Charlie Brown's Ghost

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 5:49 p.m.

Being educated is not the same as being wise or knowledgeable. This guys shows that very highly educated people can be just as messed up as non-educated people.

rusty shackelford

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 5:40 p.m.

That's false. A very large percentage, perhaps even a majority, of American artists and intelligentsia were communists at that point. In what sense do you claim self-delusion was necessary?


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 5:17 p.m.

... You must mean the Mary Sue Coleman doesn't feel she has to apologize because gets free baby powder?

Long Time No See

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 5:17 p.m.

U-M should apologize.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 5:17 p.m.

Davis says he refused to cooperate because he "was concerned about the effect that (the committee) had on people's ability to discuss society and politics. It closed down discussion." And now he's working for an institution very much like the one that convicted him of contempt. How is the U different? Oh that's right they just lifted those lifetime trespass bans....


Fri, Sep 16, 2011 : midnight

He came back to accept a award.


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 10:51 p.m.

Fifty-seven years after being fired from the University of Michigan for his political views, mathematician Chandler Davis returned to campus under much brighter circumstances


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 8:58 p.m.

Per the article, Davis is retired from the U of Toronto.

Peter Jameson

Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 4:56 p.m.

I figured U of M would want as many communists on their side as they can get. Then again, mary sue coleman is on the board of johnson and johnson. Ever wonder why she wants everyone to quit smoking?


Thu, Sep 15, 2011 : 4:44 p.m.

Corporations don't apologize.