A century ago this spring, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents initiated an extraordinary trial of professors.
Among the most prominent victims was Harry Kirke Wolfe, who had graduated from the university in 1880 and later earned his doctorate at the University of Leipzig in Germany under the direction of Wilhelm Wundt, the central figure in the 1870s emergence of psychology as a scientific discipline distinct from philosophy.
Wolfe brought the new scientific psychology to the University of Nebraska in 1889, initiating the work that led ultimately to the founding of the Psychology Department. In 1895, he helped bring child study expert George Washington Andrew Luckey to Nebraska to found the new Department of Pedagogy. This led to the 1908 founding of the Teachers College (now the UNL College of Education and Human Sciences), where Wolfe founded and briefly headed the new department of educational psychology.
An early proponent of active learning, critical analysis and lifelong inquiry, Wolfe encouraged his students, all undergraduates, to form and justify their own ideas.
He founded and maintained one of the first psychological laboratories in the United States and actively encouraged student research. He also highlighted the relevance of the new science of psychology to issues of education and human welfare. Many of his students, including a number of women, went on to earn doctorates and make major contributions to psychology and education.
After the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, popular and political pressure was brought to bear on the University of Nebraska to ensure that its professors were sufficiently patriotic and its curriculum sufficiently attuned to the war effort.
On May 28, 1918, the Board of Regents initiated a public hearing in the law building to consider charges of “hesitating, halting, and negative support of the government” against what turned out to be more than a dozen professors, including Wolfe and Luckey, whose loyalty was suspect or whose courses were not sufficiently anti-German in ideology.
The hearings lasted two weeks and generated intense publicity. One by one, before a panel of Regents and a large crowd of Nebraska citizens, the professors faced hostile questions about their patriotism and their teaching.
Newspapers across the state called for the university to “clean its house.” The governor concurred. Chancellor Samuel Avery acknowledged problems with Professor Luckey’s “attitude.” The newly founded American Association of University Professors concluded that academic freedom did not protect the teaching of ideas that might undermine the war effort.
On June 18, the Board of Regents announced its verdicts. Three professors, including Luckey, were asked to resign. Wolfe, though still employed, had been disgraced and humiliated as a teacher whose classes undermined the patriotic values of Nebraska youth. He died unexpectedly, apparently of a heart attack, on July 30.
A century later, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents has a new “free expression” policy that authorizes individual campuses to sharply restrict speech in the public areas of the campus. The new policy also cautions faculty not to introduce “controversial matters” into their classes. UNL recently sent all faculty members a notice extending the reach of its unconstitutional speech code into the classroom, specifically authorizing punishment of any speech that fails to meet vague standards of respect and civility.
Wolfe’s last published article, which appeared the month of his death, addressed the relation of education and individuality. “Society,” he wrote, “should now be strong enough to do justice to the individual and not seek to crucify or to dwarf him. There is no institution in society worth preserving that cannot withstand all attacks of individual iconoclasts.”
“Too much obedience,” Wolfe warned, “may ruin character, may dwarf the intellect, may paralyze the will of children and of adults.”