RR: I was at Chicago until ‘52, and then I was at Yale from ‘52 to ‘56. I remember watching the Army-McCarthy hearings at Yale. Chicago was perhaps the left-most American university except maybe CCNY and Columbia. When the communists took Czechoslovakia in ‘48, I was a member of the Chicago student senate (or whatever they called it). I introduced a resolution of sympathy with the students of Charles University who’d been killed by the Communists. It was killed 40-2, because it was seen as lending aid and comfort to the capitalists. It was viewed as red-baiting. In those days, Chicago students genuinely believed that saying anything nasty about Stalin counted as red-baiting. The student newspaper was communist, and eventually it turned out that the editor had been registering for one credit a quarter. He was getting paid, believe it or not, by Moscow gold. He was being paid by the party to run the student newspaper. When McCarthy came along and said the Communists had infiltrated everywhere, he could produce lots of similar examples. But, of course, Chicago was not typical of the American academy at that time. I spent my time at Chicago making red-baiting remarks, as I had been brought up to do. I became unpopular with my fellow students for making them.
Admittedly, I have pretty much no evidence one way or the other, not being a historian of the university at midcentury, but given the current state of campus politics, one is hard pressed to believe that this university was ever the “left-most American university,” or that only 2.5% of elected students would have voted to condemn a Communist action. The university I know today seems more apolitical than anything else, and is certainly at least as marked by the pro-market Milton Friedman heritage as by any kind of leftist politics. To be sure, there’s a vague memory that SDS was big in the ’60s and that there was a building occupation in 1969, but even if you read the 2008 newspaper article commemorating that event, the sense is that the student body was quite diverse and far from monolithically radical. The time Rorty describes, of course, was twenty years before that, just as the Cold War was getting started — at a point when I suppose American views of the USSR may have been temporarily relatively positive, in the aftermath of the US-Soviet war-time alliance.
My guess is that Rorty is exaggerating in his description of late-40s communist sympathies at the University of Chicago; I doubt it was ever as widespread as he makes it out to be. In his description, you get the impression that pretty much 100% of students other than Rorty himself were communists, which strains credibility. Indeed, it seems exemplary of the hyperbolic mindset of someone who feels so politically outnumbered that they begin to imagine that they are the only one on their side surrounded by nothing but their opponents. “OMG, we’re surrounded by Communists!” — wasn’t that a popular trope of American political hysteria in the 50s?
Nonetheless, even if Rorty’s report is only half true, it’s enough to suggest that the politics of the university’s student body have shifted dramatically over the years. It would be interesting to know more about the historical and sociological reasons why that has happened.