The Koch Affair

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In his article,Walter Feinberg refers to the
university’s firing of Professor Leo Koch.
Koch was fired by the president of the university,
David Dodds Henry, during the
academic year 1959-60. Koch was fired
because he responded to a letter to the editor
in the Daily Illini bemoaning the fact
that there was so much “petting” (a 1950s
word for feeling the body of one’s date) going on at fraternity
and sorority parties. Koch argued that if mutually consenting
students could have sex without being ostracized or
penalized, one would not see this kind of activity at parties.
Unfortunately for Koch, a right-wing religious zealot had
a daughter attending the university who sent her father a
copy of Koch’s letter. At the time, the university was seeking
authority to launch a major bond issue (always the bottomline
in matters like this). The zealot contacted the administration,
other parents, and law-makers in Springfield arguing
that the university should not be permitted to issue the
bonds so long as it had people like Koch on the faculty. He
declared that Koch’s letter was part of a communist plot to
destroy the morals of American youth and he demanded that
Koch be fired. Since Koch was a biology professor in what
was then called the Division of General Studies, he was not
tenured. But he was still entitled to academic freedom and
freedom of speech.
Both the ACLU and the American Association of University
Professors (AAUP) entered the case in defense of Koch.
David Danelski, then a U of I political science professor
whose specialty was constitutional law, was one of the
lawyers who worked on the ACLU’s legal brief against the
university. Danelski later told me that he was called into the
office of the chair of the political science department and
told that he did not have a future at the U of I because of his
work on the case. Danelski, a superior teacher whose course
in constitutional law I had taken, felt he had to leave the university,
much to the benefit of his subsequent students at
Yale, Cornell, and Stanford. As usual, the abuses compound
when someone abused seeks remedy, and the university was
the big loser.
In addition to the organizational support for Koch, students
and at least one faculty member (Professor Harry
Tiebout of the philosophy department) demonstrated for
Koch’s reinstatement. I was among them.We carried a coffin
labeled “Academic Freedom” to the front of the University
YMCA where we had a little rally and a symbolic burial.We
felt it was too risky to have a rally on university property.
Indeed, students were warned by the administration that
there would be severe sanctions if they joined a traditional
parade that used to march down Green Street with pro-Koch
The national AAUP found that Koch’s firing was a severe
infringement of academic freedom. When President Henry
refused to relent, the university was placed on the AAUP’s list
of universities and colleges that were flagrant violators of
academic freedom. The list was regularly published in the
AAUP’s reports to its members. After several years, the local
chapter of the AAUP decided to pressure the national organization
to remove the university’s name from the embarrassing
list. They argued that the U of I was not as bad as the
others on the list, and that the university had agreed to purchase
an insect or butterfly collection from Koch. By that
time, I had returned to the university to teach and was an
active member of the local chapter. I opposed the local’s
position, but the leadership of the local was adamant. They
were successful in getting the national AAUP to take university
off of that list even though the university had not
extended to Koch the only adequate remedy, reinstatement
and recognition of his rights under both the U.S. Constitution
and the canons of academic freedom. This had an enormous
impact upon me as a young assistant professor, and
was one of the reasons for my leaving the local AAUP chapter
to participate in the formation of a different organization
that would not be so compromising, the Union of Professional
Employees (UPE). I am very pleased that the local
AAUP chapter has now taken such a forthright position in
defense of faculty rights.
Belden Fields graduated from the U of I in January 1960
and has taught political science there since 1965.

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