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Academic Freedom letters

Identifier: MS-0432

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Scope and Contents

This collection consists of four letters, 3 carbon copies and 1 hand-written. Two of the carbon copies came from letters written by Robert W. Williams to Zecharia Chafee, Jr. The other carbon copy is Frank Ober's letter to Harvard President James Conant, with a hand-written draft of William's reply to Chafee on the backs of each page. The third letter is Chafee's hand-written letter to Williams. The letters are stapled together in one bunch. The inclusion of Ober's letter adds context for the letters exchanged between Chafee and Williams and helps underscore the intense fear of communism and the suspicion of academia's liberal views that was present in 1949.


  • Creation: 1949


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is housed off-site and requires 48-hours' notice for retrieval. Please contact Special Collections for more information.

Collection is open for use.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. Researchers are responsible for determining any copyright questions. It is not necessary to seek our permission as the owner of the physical work to publish or otherwise use public domain materials that we have made available for use, unless Johns Hopkins University holds the copyright.

Biographical / Historical

The Academic Freedom Letters were created in 1949 during the Communist scare at Harvard University. Frank Ober, a wealthy Harvard alumnus and partner in the law firm of Ober, Williams, Grimes and Stinson in Baltimore, wrote to Harvard President James B. Conant threatening to cease donations to the Harvard Law School Fund if Harvard would not take a stronger stance against faculty who were accused of communist activities. Harvard's policy was to defend academic freedom by refusing to dismiss any faculty with communist connections unless they had been convicted of gross misconduct such as espionage. Ober, who had drafted an anti-communist piece of legislation in Maryland, was angry that Professor John Ciardi has given a speech at a fund raiser for the Progressive Party to oppose the Ober bill. Another Harvard professor, Harlow Shapley, chaired a peace rally in New York City. To Ober's mind, both of these actions constituted conspiracy to over throw the US government.

President Conant requested Harvard statesman Grenville Clark to take on the task of writing to Frank Ober to explain the school's position. Conant also asked Harvard's legal expert Zecharia Chafee Jr., to write to Frank Ober's partner Robert W. Williams, also a Harvard alumnus, and ask him to intercede with Ober. Chafee was unsuccessful in gaining Williams' support. Williams' reply to Chafee indicated that he agreed with Ober's position. The letter also expressed Williams' own fear of the possible spread of communism and terrorism in the United States and his concern that Harvard's position tied the University to communism in the public view.

Harvard dismissed neither professor and continued to maintain its stance on academic freedom and communism.


0.167 Cubic Feet (1 legal-sized folder)

Language of Materials



This collection consists of four letters relating the intense fear of communism and the suspicion of academia's liberal views that was present in 1949.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

There is no known acquisition information for this collection.


Accession number 1988-89.27


For further information on the Ober-Williams letters, see Sigmund Diamond's Compromised Campus: The Collaboration of Universities with the Intelligence Community, 1945-1955.

Processing Information

Finding aid written by Holly Callahan, August 07, 2008.

Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Repository

The Sheridan Libraries
Special Collections
3400 N Charles St
Baltimore MD 21218 USA