AAUP president Cary Nelson recently e-mailed his membership about an important new venture for the academic union. Proclaiming “this is not your grandparents’ AAUP,” Nelson celebrated the work of the “Department of Organizing and Services,” which had discovered “a faculty band from Ohio performing original songs about the ironies of current academic life.”
Perhaps Nelson should spend less time thinking about new songs and focus more on the central task of “your grandparents’ AAUP”—upholding the principle of academic freedom. In two recent, high-profile controversies, the self-described “tenured radical” has seemed intent on transforming the AAUP from an organization devoted to promoting academic freedom into a battering ram to perpetuate the groupthink that dominates so many quarters of the contemporary academy.
The first episode occurred in July, after NYU extended a visiting professorship in human rights law to Thio Li-ann, a professor at the National University of Singapore. The appointment generated understandable controversy after revelations that Li-ann, while a member of the Singapore parliament (a body not known for its commitment to human rights in any event), had wanted to continue criminalizing gay sex acts, on the grounds that “diversity is not license for perversity.” Li-ann eventually decided not to come to NYU, using as an excuse the poor enrollment of her courses.
As the controversy brewed, Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik drew from Nelson a highly unusual conception of academic freedom:
Nelson also said that in a tenure decision, he would judge a candidate—however offensive his or her views on unrelated subjects—only on a question of whether the person’s scholarship and teaching in his or her discipline met appropriate standards. But in a hiring decision (whether for a visiting or permanent position), he said, it is appropriate to consider other factors, and . . . professors can appropriately ask prior to appointments, [Nelson] said, whether hiring someone whose views on certain subjects are “poisonous” could limit “the department’s ability to do its business.”
In other words, for the president of the AAUP, academic freedom is a limited right, enjoyed by two groups of faculty members: (1) professors whose views align with the majority on political or pedagogical issues, and therefore needn’t worry about being attacked for their “poisonous” perspectives; or (2) tenure-track and tenured professors who are certain that they will never want to work someplace else at any point during their career.
In Nelson’s academy, any professor, anywhere in the country, who might want to move onto another institution—and therefore would be subject to a “hiring decision” at a future date in his or her career—needs to be careful about what he or she says, because any remarks, on any issue, could be used to deny them a new position. Volokh Conspiracy’s David Bernstein appropriately eviscerated this argument.
Nelson’s statement about “poisonous” views as grounds for non-hiring also seemed to contradict the AAUP’s caution against using “collegiality” in the personnel process, since “a distinct criterion of collegiality also holds the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion.” Nelson’s remark didn’t make clear what differentiated an “uncollegial” from a “poisonous” viewpoint, but the principle remains the same—surely a distinct criterion of refusing to hire someone on the grounds of allegedly “poisonous” views would hold the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion.
Nelson’s assault on academic freedom continued last month, when the New York Times discussed demands from some Berkeley “activists” that the University of California’s Law School fire John Yoo, because of the dubious (at best) arguments presented by Yoo as a member of the Bush administration. (Yoo had received tenure at Berkeley before Bush was elected, and was on leave during his time on Washington.)
The law school’s dean, Christopher Edley (himself hardly a conservative) understood the threat to academic freedom posed by the protests against Yoo. In a thoughtful e-mail sent to the campus, Edley noted, “Assuming one believes as I do that Professor Yoo offered bad ideas and even worse advice during his government service, that judgment alone would not warrant dismissal or even a potentially chilling inquiry.” Even Brian Leiter, normally a vociferous defender of the majority viewpoint in the academy, conceded, “If ‘research misconduct’ or ‘intellectual dishonesty’ were interpreted to cover what he has done then there would be nothing left of academic freedom, since every disagreement on the merits of a position, especially a minority position in the scholarly community, could be turned into a ‘research misconduct’ charge that would lead to disciplinary proceedings and possible termination.”
The issue, however, was far from settled to Nelson. Indeed, the AAUP head appeared to demand the very inquiry that Dean Edley warned would be “potentially chilling.” Upon seeing protesters calling for Yoo’s dismissal, Nelson said that he introduced himself “as president of the American Association of University Professors and explained to them that Mr. Yoo had to receive due process, that the dean could not act unilaterally. They were happy to adjust their demands and argue instead that appropriate hearings commence immediately.” Incredibly, Nelson positioned his behavior as a defense of academic freedom.
Even more troublingly, Nelson used his anti-Yoo remarks to engage in a broader assault on the concept of academic freedom. The president of the AAUP asserted that “moral and political” considerations “are clearly fair when deciding whether or not to hire a faculty member in the first place. You have a right not to hire someone whose views you consider reprehensible.”
Imagine if this approach had applied to the early 1950s—a period generally considered a low point in the history of academic freedom in the United States. At the high tide of McCarthyism, surely a majority of most academic departments considered communism to be morally and politically “reprehensible.” The Nelson standard, therefore, appears to justify the decision of many such departments not to hire former members of the Communist Party. After all, according to Nelson, these ardent Cold Warrior faculty members had “a right not to hire someone whose views [they] consider reprehensible.”
Of course, given the overwhelming political and ideological imbalance in the contemporary academy, especially in the humanities and some social sciences, Nelson knows that his standard would not now be used to exclude job applicants on the far left fringe. Indeed, it’s not hard to anticipate how the AAUP president’s new standard would play out. An otherwise superbly qualified applicant who had supported Israel’s right to self-defense against suicide murderers? Such a “reprehensible” moral viewpoint would constitute grounds for rejecting the application. A candidate who had publicly opposed the use of racial preferences in personnel decisions? An equally “reprehensible” moral viewpoint, and grounds for rejecting the application. An applicant who had donated money to George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns? Surely that would be politically “reprehensible” conduct, justifying a department’s decision not to extend a job offer.
In short, for the elected president of the AAUP, academic freedom means little more than the freedom of academics to agree with the majority on moral, political, and pedagogical questions. Upon reflection, perhaps Nelson should spend more time ferreting out songs for union organizing events. That way, he can leave the defense of academic freedom to people who are actually committed to the principle.