University Centers for Rational Alternatives

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The University Centers for Rational Alternatives (UCRA) was set up in 1968 by Sidney Hook, Miro Todorovich and others in response to the rise of student radicalism in the late 1960s.[1] In April 1969 the group's executive committee adopted resolutions urging University faculties to adopt 'in advance guidelines of action' in order to prevent the occupation of University premises.[2] The group published a monthly journal entitled Measure.[3] UCRA lobbied academics to join their organisation by sending a letter to various academics which stated that the organization would:

'defend academic freedom against extremism, to promote the activism of non-extremists in all aspects of civic affairs, to foster rational treatment of contemporary problems, and to combat attacks on the democratic process' particularly 'terrorist attacks and multiple varieties of putschism' such as at San Francisco State, and also 'many other extremist resorts to disruption, Intimidation and violence'.[4]

UCRA argued that the student radicalism of the late 1960s represented a new 'Mcarthyism of the left'.[5]

At the time Chomsky denounced this approach in the following terms writing that he thought it was 'quite ill-conceived and that may lead to repression of student activism and destruction of what I deem the few possibilities for significant social change. I have in mind a letter (which I did not receive, though a number of my colleagues did) from the Coordinating Center for Democratic Opinion headed by Sidney Hook and a number of other people. [The organization is now called University Centers for Rational Alternatives.]'

'The letter speaks', noted Chomsky, of 'the dangers of appeasing this movement, pointing out that appeasement is both "morally intolerable and practically disastrous." And it says that "the main thrust" of the new organization is to be "to protect and advance the freedom and democratic integrity of academic life," to struggle against the "extremist challenge," "to support the university as an open center of free thought and speech – as a meeting house of many viewpoints – not as an enclave of enforced conformity or a totalitarian beachhead in a democratic society."'[6]

Chomsky continued:

It would be very difficult to find anyone who would reject these goals. It would be difficult to find anyone who would be in favor of a university that would be an "enclave of enforced conformity" or who would oppose the view that the university should be "an open center of free thought and speech." But in another and more serious sense it represents, I think, an extremely dangerous, even perhaps vicious development; no doubt inadvertently, but I think objectively. When I see things of this sort, what immediately comes to mind is some advice that A. J. Muste gave to pacifists about a half century ago. He said that their task is to
denounce the violence on which the present system is based and all the evil, material and spiritual, this entails for the masses of men throughout the world. So long as we are not dealing honestly and adequately with this 90 per cent of our problem, there is something ludicrous – and perhaps hypocritical – about our concern over the ten per cent of violence employed by the rebels against oppression.
I think that's a sensible remark. And in fact, even if the criticism of "McCarthyism of the left" contained in this letter and similar statements were entirely accurate, still I think Muste's words would be quite appropriate. It would be surprising that that much attention should be given to this minuscule element in the problems of society and the problems of the university.[7]


A report in Time Magazine in August 1970 described the context:

Student radicals anxious to make college "relevant" will not be the only ones concerned with the future of the university this fall. On campuses across the country, small groups of professors are gathering to make sure that the old-fashioned pursuit of learning does not get lost in the shuffle.
Prominent among these groups is a loosely organized enterprise, University Centers for Rational Alternatives, which got started after the Columbia University student disorders of 1968 and is now gaining new support in the wake of Kent and Jackson State. It does not aim for a mass membership. But, says Washington's Catholic University Politics Professor James Dornan, "It's amazing what a few can accomplish—as the leftists have certainly proved."
The main business of the university is education, argues UCRA President Sidney Hook, professor of philosophy at New York University. "Intellectual unrest is not a problem but a virtue," he says, "and no university can have too much of it. The problem, and the threat, is not academic unrest but academic disruption and violence, which flow from substituting for the academic goals of learning the political goals of action. The university," he adds, "is not responsible for the existence of war, poverty and other evils."[8]

According to the Time report the group was engaged in the following activities:

The group's present plans call for a flexible response to new threats and for amplifying some of last year's unorganized response to campus violence. One goal will be opposition to the so-called "Princeton Plan," which would close campuses for two weeks in the fall so students can work in political campaigns. Another is the prevention of student "strikes" similar to those that closed hundreds of colleges last spring.
The group also has some ideas about the control of campus violence. A school's students and faculty, Hook suggests, should meet at the beginning of each year to spell out guidelines for legitimate protest. After that, he argues, the rules should be strictly applied.
UCRA's members are not without experience. At Catholic University and Northeastern University in Boston, they were instrumental in defeating Princeton Plan resolutions. On other campuses they worked to keep colleges open and to establish democratic means of deciding when classes should be suspended. At St. Louis' Washington University, UCRA Director Gray Dorsey, a law professor, filed suit on behalf of four students kept from classes by a student strike. The suit is pending and UCRA members are considering the same strategy elsewhere.[9]

By 1973 Time was reporting that 'Today the students are subdued'. It also noted tat the UCRA 'now has 3,000 members among 'faculty and administrators on 350 campuses, continues to carry essentially the same banner.'[10]

UCRA held a conference on 21-22 of September 1973 entitled 'Philosophy of Curriculum' at Rockefeller University. The conference was designed to discuss the extent to which 'relevance, values and career training should permeate the higher educucation curriculums'. Sidney Hook questioned whether students were being taught to be 'probing and incisive', arguing that the student of the day were 'gullible,' 'superstitious' and vulnerable to 'demagogic appeal', and 'empty show and eloquence'.[11]

The beginnings of the threat from progressive educaton was beginning to be felt and the UCRA was organising against it: 'the threat faced by scholarship today may be more insidious than that posed by rock-throwing students.':

The vice president for academic affairs at Columbia University, Oriental Scholar Theodore deBary (not a member of U.C.R.A.), raised the alarm as keynote speaker at the New York conference. "In the calm that has mysteriously come over our campuses," he said, "it may seem melodramatic still to speak of the 'university crisis.' " ... For Sidney Hook, a founder and first president of U.C.R.A., the chief threat to liberal education has been the galloping movement for the abolition of curriculum requirements. A former philosophy professor at New York University, Hook proposes a program of required undergraduate studies that would include such predictable basics as communications skills, some knowledge of scientific method, historical forces and literature. But he also wants students to learn how to judge what they see and hear. "Is it expecting too much of effective general education that it develop within students a permanent defense against gullibility?" he asks. "It is astonishing to discover how superstitious students are, how vulnerable to demagogic appeal, to empty show and eloquence."
At the New York conference there was widespread support for Hook's contention that universities have an obligation to set priorities for their students. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb of Brooklyn College deplored a "nihilistic tendency" to argue that "all ideas are equal." Harvard Social Scientist Nathan Glazer complained that the problem in his field is that priorities are always shifting. But even in this most inconstant area of liberal education, Glazer argues, it is possible to determine essentials if scholars will only try.[10]

Criticism of Affirmative Action

In 1981 Miro Todorovich testified to a senate committee on behalf of UCRA arguing that affirmative action in universities was tantamount to the 'systematic vandalism' of higher education by federal regulators. Todorovich argued that 'With a growing sense or horror, many of us in the academy watched what can only be called systematic educational vandalism against the universities,'. Supporters of affirmative action at the committee denied the charges that the practice was 'a system of inflexible quotas that give preference to minorities or women requardless of merit'.[12]

Sidney Hook also criticised the practice in a 1986 letter to the New York Times. He argued:

Granted that society in the past has been guilty of immoral discrimination against minorities - blacks, Orientals, Jews, women and others. But it is illiberal and unjust to try to redress the effects of past discrimination by punishing innocent parties in the present whose ancestors had no part in imposing the patterns of discrimination in the past. If society in the past has been guilty of discrimination, then the costs of reparations should be borne by society as a whole to the extent that there can ever be adequate reparation rather than by innocent persons in the present.
In my own field of occupational interest, I know of young white males who have even been denied interviews by gutless chairmen, eager to fill numerical goals for minorities and women. These young men were compelled to abandon their disciplines to earn a living. In other disciplines where minimally qualified American blacks are not available, blacks from some African countries, who have never suffered discrimination at the hands of Americans, have been hired to fulfill the numerical goal for minorities.
When the bars against racial discrimination were dropped in the area of professional sports after the Jackie Robinson case, the rule of selection became merit or excellence. No one counts the proportions of blacks, whites or yellows on any team in relation to the numerical distribution of races in the general population. By all means, let us have remedial efforts to bring everyone willing and able up to the starting line.
But after that, one principle of merit, one standard of excellence, should be fairly applied to every-one regardless of their race, religion, sex or national origin. Anyone who denies this has a right to call himself anything he pleases except a liberal.[13]


UCRA was funded by the following grants:


Sidney Hook | Miro Todorovich | Daniel Patrick Moynihan | Zbigniew Brezinski | Nathan Glazer


Measure | John M. Olin Foundation | The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation


  1. Page 30; Column 3, UNIVERSITY CENTERS FOR RATIONAL ALTERNATIVES INC, New York Times, 17-January-1972
  2. Page 74; Column 3, UNIVERSITY CENTERS FOR RATIONAL ALTERNATIVES INC, New York Times, 20-April-1969
  3. Bob Wiemer, When language is drafted to serve a political agenda, St. Petersburg Times, 9-November-1991
  4. Cited in Noam Chomsky, In Defense of the Student Movement,, 1971, Accessed 27-February-2010
  5. cited in Noam Chomsky, In Defense of the Student Movement,, 1971, Accessed 27-February-2010
  6. cited in Noam Chomsky, In Defense of the Student Movement,, 1971, Accessed 27-February-2010
  7. Noam Chomsky, In Defense of the Student Movement,, 1971, Accessed 27-February-2010
  8. Education: Rational Alternatives Time Monday, Aug. 31, 1970
  9. Education: Rational Alternatives Time Monday, Aug. 31, 1970
  10. 10.0 10.1 Education: Crisis Amid the Calm, Time, Monday, Oct. 08, 1973
  11. Page 36, Column 1, UNIVERSITY CENTERS FOR RATIONAL ALTERNATIVES INC, The New York Times, 23-September-1973
  12. Ed Rogers, Washington News, Unites Press International, 11-June-1981
  13. Sidney Hook, LETTER: ON AFFIRMATIVE ACTION; Punishing the Innocent Is Unjust Redress, The New York Times, 7-June-1986
  14. Recipient Grants, University Centers for Rational Alternatives, Media Transparency, Accessed 27-February-2010