“This isn’t another message about higher education in crisis.This is a message about what higher education should be.” So reads the urgent email that faculty across the country received recently from the American Association of University Professors. A hundred years after the organization’s founding, the AAUP’s leaders are worried that people don’t understand what higher education is for and why it needs to be preserved. Too bad the AAUP don’t seem to understand, either.
The “Centennial Declaration” that they’re asking members to sign begins by noting that “the university is a public good, not a profit-making institution, and corporations or business interests should not dictate teaching or research agendas.” Of course, the idea that the university must remain independent of business interests isn’t new. Some of the earliest fights over academic freedom involved wealthy donors who didn’t want to see professors ranting against them in the classroom or in print. But much has changed since then. For one, there isn’t much daylight between a profit-making institution and a non-profit one that sits on an endowment of hundreds of millions of dollars.
There’s also the matter of the university as a public good. Even as the AAUP demands that universities keep or increase their share of public dollars and demand better working conditions for faculty—“University management should resist public education cutbacks”—professors demean the free enterprise system that makes public support (including private donations) possible. Not only do university faculty regularly indoctrinate their students with the notion that business is, well, a dirty business, they even seem averse to preparing their students for employment.
According to the AAUP leadership, “The main aims of teaching are the dissemination of knowledge and the fostering of creativity; learning is not just about developing ‘job skills.’” God forbid! Perhaps, though, one of the aims of teaching might be developing job skills? And by job skills, we mean not simply the ability to assemble PowerPoint presentations or compile spreadsheets, but the ability to read comprehensively, write coherently and calculate accurately. Because according to employers, plenty of kids don’t seem to be graduating from college with that bare minimum.
And it’s no wonder. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) shows that more than half of seniors at public universities’ so-called flagship campuses do not complete a single extended, comprehensive writing assignment during the entirety of their senior year. About a third of these students spend ten hours or fewer each week studying or doing homework. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, over one-third of first-year college students report spending more hours each week under the influence of alcohol than preparing for class.
And let’s be clear: The faculty are responsible. Indeed, the perpetually partying students are all getting fine grades in their classes thanks to professors who’d rather not make waves by failing them.
In some ways, of course, the writers of the AAUP declaration pretend as if nothing has changed in the past century. “The main aim of research,” they write, “is to create new knowledge, and academic freedom is essential for the free search for truth and its free expression.” Similarly, the authors of the original 1915 AAUP Declaration of Principles noted that the original threats to academic freedom were “ecclesiastical” and later came from “vested interests,” that is, the businessmen who funded the universities. They’d didn’t imagine the threats that would come from within the university.
Nowhere in America is speech more stifled than on college campuses these days. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education aptly explains, “Freedom of speech is under continuous threat at many of America’s campuses, pushed aside in favor of politics, comfort, or simply a desire to avoid controversy. As a result, speech codes dictating what may or may not be said, ‘free speech zones’ confining free speech to tiny areas of campus, and administrative attempts to punish or repress speech on a case-by-case basis are common today in academia.” And professors are just as culpable as administrators.
Meanwhile, universities seem to have strayed further and further from their original missions. While the AAUP still maintains that teaching and research are the primary functions of colleges, it is clear that research has far surpassed teaching in terms of the way it is rewarded in the academy. Moreover, the importance of both is being continuously diminished by other priorities. “After teaching and research, the third mission of universities is about engaging communities and addressing social disadvantage, and not just about ‘enterprise engagement’ or ‘economic development.’” When did addressing social disadvantage become the responsibility of university professors? And why, one might wonder, is that to be praised over (or even separated from) “economic development”?
The truth of the matter is that American professors have gotten themselves into this pickle. They have through their acceptance of lower standards and elimination of general education requirements made college education less rigorous, more obscure, and completely haphazard. The centennial declaration demands that faculty governance continue to be a “cornerstone” of any university. “The authority of faculty in hiring decisions, promotions, and curricular matters should not be compromised by donors, trustees, or administrators.” People might pay more attention to such demands if American professors hadn’t spent the last century squandering that responsibility.