Timeless Leadership Lessons From Alvin Johnson, His Stand Against The Nazis, And Decisiveness Under Pressure

Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. You probably don’t know who Alvin Johnson is, but you should. As director of The New School, he saved almost 200 exiled academics before it was too late.

Timeless Leadership Lessons From Alvin Johnson, His Stand Against The Nazis, And Decisiveness Under Pressure

We’re obsessed with the future. In a world of constant stimulation, it’s hard to imagine doing anything but face forward. Our environment demands it. But sometimes it can be helpful to catch your breath, and reflect on the accomplishments of those who came before us. The circumstances may be different, but the lessons remain the same.

Alvin Johnson

Take the case of Alvin Johnson, the former Director of The New School and editor of The New Republic. Johnson built his way from the small farm town of Homer, Nebraska, to the forefront of New York City’s Intellectual scene. It was there that he founded the University in Exile, and facilitated the rescue of nearly 180 European academics and their families as they fled Nazi persecution–at a time when nobody else wanted them.

In 1933, The New School for Social Research, which Johnson co-founded in 1919, was thriving. The New School’s offerings of adult education–the first of its kind in America– were paying off. The school weathered the Great Depression, and just one year earlier had constructed a futuristic building in the heart of Greenwich Village– a testament to the bold vision of the school. Students came in droves to see lectures and art exhibits, The New School was quickly becoming one of New York City’s cultural hotspots.

While things were fine in New York, Johnson’s mind was elsewhere: his friends and colleagues in Germany were in perilous situation. Having seized power, the Nazi party stood poised to purge the country’s universities of dissenting opinions. Johnson knew that if he didn’t take action quickly, it might be too late to save them.

Act decisively and trust your instinct

In April, the danger became reality. Jewish and Socialist scholars were outed and dismissed, some even thrown in jail. Their positions filled by who Johnson called In his autobiography, Pioneer’s Progress, “Nazis whose intellectual qualifications consisted in their fervor in parroting Hitler’s ignorant mouthings.” The removed scholars were not only out of work, but in grave danger.

Johnson had no obligation to do anything. Most universities didn’t bother. But instead of standing idly by, Johnson sprang into action. He founded the University in Exile, a new division of The New School to serve as a haven for fleeing scholars–it would be a European university in the heart of Greenwich Village. With the financial backing of the Rockefeller Foundation, he raised enough money to bring one dozen scholars to New York in just six months–a ticket complete with housing and a salaried teaching position.


Within the decade, that number would rise to 178. Among them, Leo Strauss, Hans Speier, Max Wertheimer, and Hans Staudinger. Johnson’s altruism catapulted The New School to the forefront of american academic thought.

Never compromise your principles

The New School was born in controversy. Uptown at Columbia University in 1917, president Nicholas Murray Butler declared that expressions of dissatisfaction for World War I, or government policies originating from faculty would be seen as treasonous. A handful of faculty resigned in protest, and moved downtown. They vowed to open a school dedicated to academic freedom–they would call it The New School.

In the early 1930s, many universities were rife with similar problems. Instead of understanding the threat of Nazism, some were even inviting Nazi leaders to their campuses. As told in Peter Rutkoff and William Scott’s New School: A History of The New School for Social Research, The New School–and Alvin Johnson–refused to bar controversial scholars for fear of what they might say.

“Time and again, the Rockefeller Foundation, trying to find positions for the scholars it sponsored, confronted this problem and the related problem of American political conservatism. Individuals whom the foundation had supported during the 1920s and then rescued at great expense could find no place in established American universities. As much as the foundation wished to scatter their refugees across the United States, the fact remained that only The New School welcomed them. At The New School, neither their Jewishness nor their democratic socialism made them uncongenial.”

So what can we learn from Alvin Johnson and the University in Exile eighty years later? Arm yourself with foresight–and don’t be afraid to speak up for what’s right, even if you’re the only one saying it.


[Image: Flickr user Jeff Attaway]

About the author

Former Editorial Assistant Miles Kohrman helped run Fast Company's homepage and completed miscellaneous tasks around the newsroom. He is a 2013 graduate of The New School.