An Affair to Remember

On the morning
of June 16, 1915,

Dr. Scott Nearing C’06 Gr’09 received a telephone call from his secretary at the Wharton School. She read him a short letter that had just arrived from Provost Edgar Fahs Smith.

“My dear Mr. Nearing,” it said. “As the term of your appointment as assistant professor of economics for 1914-15 is about to expire, I am directed by the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to inform you that it will not be renewed. With best wishes, I am, Yours sincerely, Edgar Fahs Smith.”

The news came as a shock to the 31-year-old Nearing, who was the only assistant professor with a favorable recommendation from the faculty not to be rehired. But it was hardly a surprise. For several years he had, in effect, been standing on top of the academy hurling denunciations at the gods, and he had no intention of heading for shelter just because lightning was forking down and his mortarboard was made of copper.

His dismissal set off the worst moral and public-relations crisis of the University’s history, one that would only be rivaled in recent years by the Water Buffalo incident. In both cases, the University acted as a lightning rod for highly charged political currents—some national, some unique to the academy. And in both, the tremendous public outcry and Penn’s reluctant self-examination would lead to a healthy reassessment of its principles.

Illlustration by
David Hollenbach



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