The Case of Edward A. Ross
Editor’s Note: University professors in the United States today seldom engage in public speech that may even remotely threaten their employment. This is partly due to the fact that close to three-quarters of teaching faculty are non-tenured contract workers, and thus readily recognize their lack of tenure protections. Yet the many who have earned tenure regard it as more of a guaranteed sinecure than a guard against potential administrative retaliation for personal beliefs and/or public statements.
In fact, the institution of tenure in American higher education is largely rooted in the controversy surrounding Stanford University’s dismissal of Professor Edward A. Ross in 1900 for his public speech. Ross was a highly-regarded economist, sociologist, and even an early mass media critic. Jane Stanford, widow of railroad magnate and university founder Leland Stanford, was disturbed by Professor Ross’ political views, evident in the popular faculty member’s enthusiastic public support of the Populist Party’s “free silver” platform of the 1890s, and his subsequent condemnation of “Chinese cheap labor.” Following these remarks Ms. Stanford successfully pressured university president David Starr Jordan to terminate Ross’ employment.
The retaliatory firing of Ross became known as the “Ross case” and is historically recognized as a principal motivating factor in Professors John Dewey and Arthur O. Lovejoy’s founding of the American Association of University Professors that advocated for tenure across the US higher ed landscape.
As the following article from Stanford’s alumni publication (somewhat tepidly) chronicles,
At the time of her death in 1905, Mrs. Stanford was still associated with the Ross Affair. An obituary in the New York Times called it “the only serious cloud that ever lowered over Stanford University.”
By Brian Eule
In 1900, Jane Stanford forced out a respected faculty member. Was he a martyr to academic freedom or a racist gadfly who deserved what he got?
ON A TUESDAY AFTERNOON in November 1900, Edward Alsworth Ross gathered several student reporters in his campus office. Ross, 33 years old and a Stanford economics professor of seven years, had joined the university just two years after its opening. He was a captivating sight, 6-foot-5 and nattily dressed in a suit that favored his athletic physique.
Ross was popular with students and esteemed in his field. David Starr Jordan, the university’s first president, had recruited him not once but twice. Plucked from Jordan’s former home at Cornell, Ross was emerging as a scholarly star. Now, his time at Stanford was coming to an abrupt end.
Ross held a lengthy written statement he had prepared for the San Francisco newspapers. He handed it to the students.
“Well, boys,” he said, “I’m fired.”
ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN YEARS LATER, the reasons for Ross’s departure remain in dispute. The matter was precipitated by a series of public pronouncements Ross had made on political matters between 1896 and 1900, a practice that put him at odds with university co-founder Jane Stanford. Was he forced out because of his outspoken opinions or because he broke rules prohibiting partisan advocacy? What is not in dispute is that Mrs. Stanford insisted that Ross be sacked despite the vigorous objections of Jordan, who finally relented.
Ross’s dismissal drove a wedge between Stanford faculty and the administration and resulted in a spate of resignations by other professors. More broadly, it galvanized efforts to codify protection of academic freedom and indirectly led to the establishment of tenure. As it turned out, that hastily arranged press conference in Ross’s office was a seminal moment in the history of higher education.
LONG BEFORE HIS NAME became synonymous with academic freedom controversies, Edward Ross was an enigmatic figure. Born to a farmer and a schoolteacher in Illinois, and orphaned at age 10, he was taken in by neighbors on a nearby Iowa farm. His new family viewed him as a prodigy, praising him so extravagantly that some boys in the area thought him pampered.
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An interesting side note to all of this is that Jane Stanford died of strychnine poisoning in 1905 under suspicious circumstances. She was still involved in disputes with Jordan and by that time wanted to fire him, as well. Jordan made strenuous efforts–successful for about 80 years–to cover up the murder. Stanford always reported it as a heart attack. The truth–that she was murdered–did not come out until the 1980’s.