Tag Archives: AAUP

Title IX Tramples Free Speech and Fairness, So Now What?

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has just dipped its oar in the dank water of Title IX.  The AAUP’s draft of its new document, The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX, leaves much to be desired.  But welcome to the fight, AAUP.  We’ve been wondering when you would show up.

From 1972 to Now

A refresher.  How did we get here?

Title IX is Title IX of the Higher Education Act, which was added to the 1965 Act as part of its 1972 reauthorization. The key sentence in it is, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

That seemed simple enough at first. Don’t discriminate against men or women on the basis of their sex, you American colleges or universities, or we will cut off your federal funds. “Financial assistance” referred primarily to federally guaranteed students loans, codified as Title IV of the Higher Education Act. By 1972, almost all colleges and universities had become addicted to the money flowing in from those loans.  The loans officially went to the students, but the dollars went to the college bursar offices, and the colleges had to be pre-approved by the Department of Education as worthy recipients.

So Title IX had instant clout. But it was also a bit murky.  Clearly it didn’t apply to single-sex institutions.  What forms of discrimination did it legislate against?  The answer emerged slowly, first through regulations issued by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1975 and later through litigation. The 1975 regulations suddenly made it clear that Title IX was going to be used to advance women’s sports on campus. But it took years of litigation to arrive at what Title IX would really mean: the destruction of many men’s sports teams to ensure that women’s sports were in parity with men’s sports.

Title IX soon began to grow in new and unexpected directions, sometimes in conjunction with court decisions that didn’t initially appear to have anything to do with higher education.  A good example is the Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1986, which defined “hostile environment” for sexual harassment cases under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  It would take several more decisions and some creative thinking on the part of regulators to get to the idea that wherever an environment can be described as “hostile” there also is a Title IX discrimination case waiting to be framed and fitted out.

“Hostile environment” was supposedly limited by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education in 1999 to “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” sexual harassment, but OCR has seen no need to get so fussy.  It sees “hostile environments” created by harassment pretty much wherever it likes.

Complaints about how Title IX now runs roughshod over due process, academic freedom, and basic fairness are now legion. The basic picture is that the mere expression of some words and ideas is now at risk of being conjured into a Title IX complaint on the grounds that those words and ideas make some people uncomfortable.

Dissents

My organization, the National Association of Scholars, has been criticizing the new Title IX regime for years.  We also have an older history of wrestling with the excesses of the feminist-inspired attacks on academic freedom. NAS isn’t alone in this.  FIRE is a stalwart ally, among others. NAS’s 2014 “Compendium of Key Sources” on sexual assault provides a good summary as well as a gateway to other materials.

The AAUP has also on previous occasions ventured into this topic, most notably in its 2012 “Campus Sexual Assault: Suggested Policies and Procedures.” But the AAUP’s brand new statement ventures in a somewhat unexpected direction.  It seems, at least to some of its first readers, like a stronger check on OCR policies.

“A Slew of New Problems”

The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX impressed The New York TimesInside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education the same way:  as a complaint that Title IX rules have gone too far and are stifling free speech.

The New York Times leads with “broadening definitions of inappropriate sexual behavior” having “a chilling effect on academic freedom and speech.”

Inside Higher Ed leads with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) creating “a slew of new problems with implications for free speech and academic freedom.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education headlines, “AAUP Slams Education Department and Colleges Over Title IX Enforcement,” and leads with the sexual assault rules that “trample faculty members’ rights to academic freedom, due process, and shared governance.”

All three see the AAUP as boldly stepping forward to declare that the Title IX enforcement regimen has gone too far.  It is now chilling/compromising/trampling free speech—which doesn’t sound especially good.  Has the AAUP suddenly come to the realization, long since achieved by millions of other Americans, that Title IX rules and enforcement have gone crazily overboard?

Let’s not be hasty.

Two of the journalistic watchdogs of higher education are quick to add zag to their zig:

The New York Times: The AAUP “does not mean to underestimate the gravity of sexual harassment complaints.”

Inside Higher Ed: “The Office for Civil Rights brought needed attention to the problem of sexual assault and harassment on college campuses.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, however, sticks closely to the theme that the AAUP has launched a relentlessly tough-minded criticism of OCR’s Title IX overreach.

What’s the truth of the matter?  Has the AAUP consulted its moral compass and found the true north of presumption of innocence, due process, fair treatment of the accused, respect for evidence, and freedom of expression?  Or has it offered a temporizing defense of some of its principles some of the time, provided that they don’t get in the way of the feminist social justice agenda?

Feminists Burnt by Feminism

Alas, when we turn to the report itself, it is more the latter.  The major problem that the AAUP raises with Title IX rules is that they have more than once been turned against well-meaning women’s studies professors and other campus feminists. The “abuses” signaled in the title of the report exist at an abstract level for much of the report: “OCR has given only limited attention to the due process rights of those accused of misconduct.” [p. 17] But when AAUP gets down to specifics, we hear very little of the hapless male students thrown under the Title IX bus on flimsy or no evidence.

Instead we have accounts of the travails of Professor Patty Adler at the University of California, Boulder, who was Title IX’d for having her undergraduate teaching assistants in her Sociology class, “Deviance in US Society,” act out roles in class as “Eastern European ‘slave whore,’ pimp, a ‘bar whore,’ and a high-end escort.”  For this Professor Adler found herself accused by students of sexual harassment and was pressured by her dean to accept an early retirement.  The dean eventually backed down but Adler, “deeply affected by the chilling academic freedom climate,” retired anyway after one more semester.  [pp. 23-24]

AAUP’s second example: Louisiana State University early childhood education professor Teresa Buchanan, drummed out of her job after complaints from students about her “salty language.” Some of her students, preparing for careers teaching very young children, didn’t care for “F*** no” interjections, her use of “a slang term for vagina that implies cowardice,” and similar indiscretions.  Buchanan defended herself saying, “The occasional use of profanity is not sexual harassment.” But Title IX rules are pretty tough.  Buchanan is suing. [pp. 24-25]

Not So Fun Home

Another incident the AAUP draws attention to is the closing of Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate.  The closing “coincided” with controversy about the use of the “lesbian coming-of-age story,” Fun Home, as a common reading at the university. Fun Home had garnered “trigger warnings” at three other colleges, and a Title IX administrator at a university in another state in a previous year had issued a memo that warned that some students might have had “traumatic experiences” that teachers using “materials containing instances of violence related to power, control or intimidation” should take into account.

So, a memo by a Title IX administrator at a university in one state; a “trigger warning” on a book in three other universities in different states; and the closing of a Women’s Studies center at yet another university add up to what?  In the AAUP’s audacious analysis: “the fact that the serious study of sex and sexuality are becoming increasingly vulnerable fields of study.”

Kipnis’ Conniption

The AAUP report also devotes some attention to Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis, who was Title IX investigated after some students took umbrage at her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in which Kipnis leveled some criticisms at the “new paradigm” of sexual harassment rules.  In the article Kipnis styled herself a strong feminist:

For the record, I strongly believe that bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square. Let no one think I’m soft on harassment. But I also believe that the myths and fantasies about power perpetuated in these new codes are leaving our students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life, because that’s simply part of the human condition.

But Kipnis ended up fighting—in the AAUP’s words—a “bureaucratic ordeal” or in her own words, a “Title IX Inquisition.” Kipnis won, but clearly Title IX was being put to uses that feminists didn’t intend.

Male Victims

The AAUP does find some male victims of Title IX. A University of Kansas student had to fight expulsion after he made tweets on his private account deriding his former partner as a “psycho bitch.” Chemistry professor Craig Anderson was Title IX’d after a lab assistant accused him of using aggressive and vulgar language. The AAUP rushed to his defense because Bard College failed to provide him due process. On the other hand, Title IX completely failed to catch University of California Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who met his comeuppance as a repeat harasser only when BuzzFeed broke the story.

There is a great deal more to say about the AAUP’s statement, issued as a “draft” and presumably open for further changes. But one thing at a time. The one thing to start with is that the AAUP is mostly upset that the new Title IX rules are producing “friendly fire” casualties. It was meant to punish men, regardless of their guilt or innocence. To accomplish that it set the evidentiary bar so low that some women faculty members are tripped by it as well.

Some of the cases the AAUP cites make that point well enough. Others entail some stretching. But the main thing is that AAUP has paid so little heed to the larger story of Title IX tyranny: the rise of bureaucrats that can and do ruin the educational careers of male students and some faculty members on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations and sometimes even in the face of exculpatory evidence.

The Distant Shore

I am, on balance, happy that the AAUP has decided to dip its oar in these waters.  It is better that it is half-heartedly alarmed about the rolling disaster of Title IX regulation than it sit back in smiling approbation of the new regime. But I don’t think the AAUP’s oar will propel us very far across the fetid lake. AAUP doesn’t like Title IX’s collateral damage. It is rather less concerned with its main targets.  What we really need is a thorough housecleaning at OCR; the retraction of the noxious “Dear Colleague: letters; and in due course the abolition of OCR itself, which has been a deep and continuing source of injustice in higher education.

The AAUP Takes a Sharp Left Turn

Along with many others, I received an email last week from Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors. Because the AAUP is best known for defending academic freedom, valued by both liberals and conservatives, and because it represents the academic profession as a whole, it has cultivated a reputation for nonpartisanship.

Fichtenbaum was in touch about the AAUP’s Centennial Declaration, which, far from being a throwaway, constitutes a “charter of values that should define the colleges and universities of the twenty-first century.” It is also the most nakedly partisan document to emerge from the AAUP in recent memory.

According to the Declaration, higher education faces one and only one enemy, “corporations or business interests,” which, the document implies, seek to “dictate teaching or research agendas.” The Declaration goes on to observe that “Research is not just about enhancing the profit margins of corporations.”

All is in tune with Fichtenbaum’s address to the AAUP’s 2015 meeting, which sets higher education’s woes at the feet of a nebulous “corporate agenda” that “seeks to destroy the ability of higher education to serve the common good,” or of “forces that seek to privatize higher education and use it to promote their own narrow interests.” Fichtenbaum insists that we must place this corporate conspiracy against higher education in the context of a broader “neoliberal attack on working people,” which includes “the rule of markets, cutting taxes on the wealthy, reducing public expenditures that support working and middle class families, mass incarceration of African American males, deregulation, privatization, and the elimination of public goods.” The goal of the AAUP in the next century is to become “part of a social justice movement.”

It is therefore not surprising that two days after I received the Fichtenbaum email, I received another from Gwendolyn Bradley, a senior program officer at AAUP, with a call for proposals to present at AAUP’s 2016 conference. They are inviting “reflection on racial, social, and labor justice in higher education.”

No one who has been paying attention to higher education over the past decade will think that concerns about the “corporatization” of higher education are the exclusive province of the left. Devotees of liberal education, whether they are on the right or the left, are concerned that colleges and universities preserve alternatives to, rather than merely serve and ape, the present order, and corporate capitalism is certainly one prominent aspect of that order. But to home in on and declare oneself the enemy of “neoliberalism,” and shady “corporate interests” is to set the AAUP squarely to the left of the present day Democratic party. It is also to dramatically oversimplify the problems that higher education faces. And it is to forfeit whatever reputation for nonpartisanship the AAUP may once have had.

Two Controversial Professors

The AAUP—the American Association of University Professors—held its annual Conference on the State of Higher Education at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. June 10-14.  A few subway stops away, the Heartland Institute held its tenth International Conference on Climate Change at the Washington Court Hotel, June 11-12.  I suspect that I am the only person to attend both.

Both events dealt with the issues of academic and intellectual freedom.  Both focused on current threats to such freedoms.  Both pictured a world in which politically-motivated foes of free expression are using their wealth and power to silence legitimate dissent.

But, of course, these events were polar opposites.  The AAUP was gearing up to pass a resolution to censure the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for rescinding its offer of an academic appointment to Steven Salaita.  The Heartland Institute was championing the work of Dr. Willie Soon, the solar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who came under attack by Greenpeace and the New York Times after he published an important article in Science Bulletin.

Both controversies have received ample coverage, though I think it is quite possible, even likely, that people who know a lot about one may not know a lot about the other.  A primer:

Steven Salaita. He was a tenured associate professor of English at Virginia Tech who in October 2013 received an offer for a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, contingent on the board of trustees’ approval.  On August 1, 2014, the university’s vice president of academic affairs and its chancellor wrote to Salaita informing him that they were not proceeding with the appointment.  Salaita appealed to the trustees who on September 10, 2014, voted 8 to 1 not to reconsider his appointment.  Salaita soon after filed a lawsuit which is on-going.

The reason that the university gave for withdrawing its offer of an academic appointment was that Salaita’s inflammatory public statements about Israel would hamper his ability to teach and the university’s ability to attract students, faculty and staff.  The president of the University of Illinois Robert Easter summarized this view when he asked the board not to approve Salaita’s appointment:

“Professor Salaita’s approach indicates that he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions could be given equal consideration, regardless of the issue being discussed…I am also concerned that his irresponsible public statements would make it more difficult for the university … to attract the best and brightest students, faculty and staff.”

The decision created a furor and quickly drew the attention of the AAUP.

Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon. A plasma physicist, he has served as a non-tenured employee of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics since 1991, where he previously did his post-doctoral work.  In 2003 Soon published a paper in Climate Research in which he argued that the 20th century was not the warmest in the last millennium.  The paper occasioned much controversy, and in 2011 Greenpeace using documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests attacked Soon for receiving over $1 million in funding from petroleum and coal interests.

In January 2014, Soon was the co-author on another paper, “Why Models Run Hot: Results from an Irreducibly Simple Climate Model,” which takes exception to the “consensus” climate models that predict significant global warming because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.  In February, directly following the publication of this paper, the Guardian and The New York Times making use of material provided by Greenpeace and “an allied group,” Climate Investigations Center, ran attacks on Soon for supposedly failing to disclose his sources of funding and for “conflicts of interest.”

Wishing Settlers Get Lost

The speech that gave rise to the University of Illinois’ action against Salaita consisted of his numerous statements on Twitter in 2014 that were, as Inside Higher Education put it, “deeply critical of Israel” to the point of striking some “as crossing the line into uncivil behavior.”  Perhaps the most famous of these was Salaita’s comment on June 19, after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped (but before they were found murdered), “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not:  I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”  Salaita’s rants have struck many readers as anti-Semitic, but he stoutly denies this. Salaita’s caustic and often extremely uncivil tone is not limited to his tweets.  Many of his reviews and his other academic writings are in a similar vein.

The scholarly paper that landed Soon on the front page of The New York Times and in many follow-up stories in the liberal media contains nothing rhetorical or demeaning.  It is a straightforward scientific argument. The abstract runs in part:

Between the pre-final and published drafts of the Fifth Assessment Report, IPCC cut its near-term warming projection substantially, substituting “expert assessment” for models’ near-term predictions. Yet its long-range predictions remain unaltered. The model indicates that IPCC’s reduction of the feedback sum from 1.9 to 1.5 W m−2 K−1 mandates a reduction from 3.2 to 2.2 K in its central climate-sensitivity estimate; that, since feedbacks are likely to be net-negative, a better estimate is 1.0 K; that there is no unrealized global warming in the pipeline; that global warming this century will be <1 K; and that combustion of all recoverable fossil fuels will cause <2.2 K global warming to equilibrium.

The text of the article itself continues in this vein.

One might think the effort to drum a senior physicist out of the academy through a campaign of public smears and innuendo would concern the AAUP at least as much as the decision by a university not to proceed with the appointment of an ardent polemicist. But that is not the case.

I was at the AAUP conference for two sessions devoted to the topic of academic freedom. Salaita was a major theme in one of the sessions—on “Social Media, Civility, and Free Expression on Campus”—and a secondary theme as the second session on “Versions of Academic Freedom.” Willie Soon was never mentioned, although at the end of the second session some audience members edged towards the topic.  A professor from Florida State University complained that the Koch Foundation is violating academic freedom by paying for some faculty positions in the economics department there.  And another member of the audience followed up by avowing that the Koch brothers are terrible people whose fossil-fuel riches are used in part to deny climate change!

‘Consensus’ Science

Climate Change conferees likewise had nothing to say about the travails of Steven Salaita, though here the parallel breaks down.  The Climate Change conference was not aimed at an all-embracing view of academic freedom.  It was focused on the specific contentions that a self-interested establishment is impeding the publication of accurate climate data, well-designed scientific research, and scrupulous economic analysis.  It was also focused on the ways in which reasoned debate and criticism of “consensus” science and regulation are being stymied.  Salaita was not relevant.

The Role of Civility

I have tried to strike a non-partisan tone in these descriptions but I don’t mean to imply that I am a neutral party.  I was invited to the AAUP event by my friend John K. Wilson, who has regularly asked me to AAUP events that I might enrich the conversation with some views that would probably otherwise go unvoiced.  This year my NAS colleague, Executive Director Ashley Thorne, also gave a talk in which she defended the ideal of “civility” as part of what we should expect in academic discourse.  Her fellow panelists and the audience were unpersuaded.

Civility to them is one of the masks that the powerful use to suppress free, creative, dissenting, and unorthodox ideas and speech.  For my part, I urged the idea that academic freedom is to be valued as the means by which the university encourages the pursuit of truth, and that the attempt to deploy the rhetoric of academic freedom as a cover for engaging in political advocacy is a misuse of the concept.  My fellow panelists and the audience also found little attraction in that approach. Pursuit of truth, it seems, is another mask that the powerful wear when they set out to suppress dissent.

At the Conference on Climate Change, the National Association of Scholars was the recipient of several enthusiastic endorsements from speakers who drew attention to our report, Sustainability:  Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.  Our table full of handouts was emptied of everything we brought on the first morning.  And the Heartland Institute included a 12-page summary of our 260-page report in the bag of materials that all conferees received. Given that our report takes no stand at all on climate change,” this was a remarkably warm reception. All we did was call for universities to allow open debate that included skeptics of the climate “consensus.”

I find it hard not to be moved by the plight of Willie Soon and other scientists who have become, in effect, “enemies of the people,” for their determination to pursue research that runs against what the climate consensus establishment prefers. The canard that “97 percent” of climate scientists agree with the so-called consensus has been shown up as an artifact of shameless manipulation of the research record.  But no matter: it is repeated endlessly in an effort to make these non-conforming scientists look ignorant, silly, or corrupt.  They are, to the contrary, serious and seriously smart people who have also shown a certain measure of courage.

Science or Politics?

Whether their dissents are accurate will be determined in time to come.  If they are right, the climate consensus is a house of cards built more on political aspirations than on good science.  But, right or wrong, they deserved to be heard and do not deserve to be subject to the sort of ad hominin attack exemplified by what happened to Willie Soon.

So what are academic and intellectual freedom?  They aren’t quite the same thing.  Academic freedom is germane to the university where the disciplined pursuit of truth by rational inquiry and scrupulous examination of the evidence needs to prevail over all orthodoxies of opinion.  Academic freedom can only persist within a community that enforces on itself some degree of compunction about how things are said, including deference to the reality that no matter how strongly we believe in the validity of our own opinions, we may be mistaken and it behooves us to listen with respect to other views.  Intellectual freedom is broader than academic freedom.

It is germane to a free society where every individual ought to enjoy the right to make up his own mind about important questions and where manifestly false opinion or eccentric belief enjoys a wide zone of toleration.  We need not fall silent when confronted with views with which we disagree.  Neither academic freedom nor intellectual freedom entails indulging folly by saying nothing.  But we should never expect to throw someone in jail for an errant opinion or preempt their right to have their say.  If we choose to answer folly, we should do so with our own speech—which just may turn out to involve even greater folly.

The AAUP is celebrating the hundredth year of its founding declaration, its Statement of Principles, which remains one of the great documents in higher education.  Ironically, the AAUP has long since repudiated most of the Statement of Principles, which said all too much about the responsibilities of professors, the need for a scholarly spirit, temperate language, and staying within the guardrails of the professor’s actual expertise.  But no matter, the founding principles of the AAUP are still alive.  In D.C. last week, they were to be found just a few subway stops away.

A Campus Dress Rehearsal for McCarthyism?

radosh article.jpgThe American Association of University Professors (AAUP) made its name as a respectable association dedicated to promoting the interests of the academy and protecting the academic freedom of professors. Now, judging from its regular publications, it has morphed into something quite different—an association dedicated to promoting the agenda of the academic left.

The July-August issue of  the AAUP’s regular publication, Academe, reads like a straightforward and one-sided primer for leftist activism. It includes an article on “How to Radicalize Students,” and another endorsing the recent protests in Madison, Wisconsin against Governor Scott Walker. But the most troubling article in the issue is “The Dress Rehearsal for McCarthyism” by one Carol Smith, identified only as a retired faculty member at The City College of New York-CUNY. The would-be dress rehearsal, Ms. Smith argues, took place in the mid-1930’s, and revolved around what Smith says was “a conservative backlash against the political gains of the New Deal and against labor unions,” carried out under the guise of an investigation of so-called “Communist subversion at the public colleges.”

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What Is The AAUP Up To?

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Cary Nelson, current president of the American Association of University Professors, has a new book dealing with academic freedom and its relationship to broader structural problems in higher education. No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom is interesting and important, but also frustrating. It provides remedies to the problems confronting academic freedom at the same time that it reflects some of the problems it purports to remedy. Nelson is compelled to criticize the nation’s faculty members for their lackadaisical support of academic freedom at the same time that he feels obliged to vehemently defend higher education from critics who attack higher education for this very reason. Balancing these positions makes sense if one carefully distinguishes valid and invalid attacks, and Nelson often succeeds in doing so. But too often his defenses of higher education come across as special pleading for the professoriate as a class, thereby weakening his claims.
Once upon a time the AAUP was the nation’s leading supporter of academic freedom. In recent decades, however, its prestige has slipped. A couple of years ago the Chronicle of Higher Education featured articles on this reversal of fortune, citing such matters as the AAUP’s bureaucratic inertia, the association’s perceived complacency about the chilling effects of political correctness, and broader trends in higher education that have made faculty members less knowledgeable and appreciative of the organization’s efforts. Leaner and meaner, FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, founded in 2000 in Philadelphia) has replaced the AAUP as the nation’s most vibrant fighter for academic freedom. FIRE is conscientiously non-ideological, but its eagerness to take on the policies of political correctness that suppress freedom has made it a favorite of the right in addition to the civil libertarian left.
Nelson’s ascendancy to the presidency of the AAUP represents the organization’s effort to regain its past glory. He is a prolifically published, self-proclaimed “radical” (for academic freedom and other causes), a claim that makes him a left-wing answer to FIRE in terms of commitment. Among Nelson’s impressive list of publications we find Manifesto of a Tenured Radical and Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left. Nelson’s left-wing legacy is important to his arguments because his approach to academic freedom is steeped in a broader leftist framework.

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Not Your Grandparents’ AAUP

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.”

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Moderating The AAUP And MLA?

At its annual meeting, the American Association of University Professors declined to vote to criticize Israel, yet voted to condemn Iran. In December, the MLA rejected a statement defending critics of Israel and replaced it with a much-milder statement defending contentious Middle East research. They also resisted condemning Ward Churchill’s firing, and instead only objected to the manner in which his investigation was carried out. What’s next? An admission that David Horowitz might occasionally have a point?

No, something more nuanced seems underway, at least in the AAUP—a prudential retrenchment away from outre pronouncements to focus on more practical, yet still contentious, and undoubtedly political work.

The AAUP vote on Iran condemned the government’s policy of denying higher education to those of the Baha’i faith. A resolution condemning Israeli policies that have prevented students in Gaza from leaving to attend to their studies was returned to the AAUP committee for review. Critics questioned why Israel was being targeted when countless states have similar restrictions on travel and education in place.

The AAUP also voted to oppose loyalty oaths and state proposals that equated intelligent design with traditional science—understandable in each case. Another vote opposed state efforts to permit the extension of concealed carry permits to university campuses.

Now, on balance this all does seem consciously more moderate than we’ve come to expect, but when the AAUP begins to congratulate itself for its foreign policy heterodoxy it’s difficult not to grow suspicious. Inside Higher Ed reported “When the AAUP ventured into foreign policy, its votes could prove surprising for association critic David Horowitz, as Cary Nelson, the AAUP president noted.” The Iran vote, centered on Baha’i students, isn’t especially surprising, nor, in fact, is their delayed action on the Israel question. After all, in 2005, the AAUP condemned the British Association of University Teachers’ academic boycott of Israel. Yet it seems undeniable that there’s a new awareness within the organization, and others, of the harm that nakedly political declarations can provide.

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Change At The AAUP?

Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne write on the upcoming AAUP Presidential Election at the NAS site. Cary Nelson, the current President, is facing Tom Guild, a professor emeritus of legal studies at Oklahoma State University. Guild is railing against the organization’s fiscal troubles under Nelson’s leadership, and “insider” posture. Thorne interviewed both candidates; here’s a sense of the field of disagreement:

Guild maintains, “On matters of politics, religion, or other matters of opinion, there should be no orthodoxy imposed in the name of free speech,” but it’s difficult to determine exactly where Guild stands when it comes to academic accountability. The main clues to his posture are his distaste for Nelson’s conduct and his desire to break up the “closed club.”

When asked about the label, Nelson did not deny that the AAUP is a closed club. He claimed instead that Guild is posing as a newcomer when he is really an inside club-member. “He’s a bit like one of those Washington insiders who claim to be from the Fiji islands. He is in fact an insider and nothing more or less than that.”

Who to trust? The NAS is not taking a position, but wishes sorely for a shift from the organization’s current posture, which, of course, licensed the alarming “Freedom In the Classroom” statement last year. This, remember, asserted, as Peter and Ashley write, that “truth is nothing more than what is found by agreement within an academic sub-discipline.” A bland assertion, but unsettling as the central statement of a work on academic freedom; as Wood and Thorne observe:

De-centered, deconstructed truth necessarily accompanies the new AAUP version of academic freedom. Faculty members accountable to no one will believe and declare that truth is what they say it is. Thus it is that academic freedom becomes a cudgel to beat anyone who criticizes – a license to intellectual mobbing.

Read the full account.

AAUP To Critics: What, Us Biased?

Last summer, AAUP president Cary Nelson announced that the AAUP would be issuing a back to school statement on academic freedom in the classroom. Now that statement has gone public – and it makes for very interesting and informative reading.

Written by a subcommittee of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, “Freedom in the Classroom” acknowledges that professors have been accused in recent years of indoctrinating rather than educating, of failing to provide balanced perspectives on controversial issues, of creating a hostile learning environment for conservative or religious students, and of injecting irrelevant political asides into class discussion. And as such the statement is ostensibly meant to address the very real issues surrounding faculty classroom conduct that have arisen of late. As anyone who follows higher ed news knows, concerns about whether professors are abusing their pedagogical prerogatives have been repeatedly voiced; and, as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and other groups have repeatedly noted, those concerns should be addressed in a manner that is simultaneously respectful of students’ rights to learn and professors’ academic freedom to teach as they see fit. The AAUP is right to take up the issue of classroom speech, and it is right to seek to parse exactly where faculty academic freedom begins and ends.
The trouble, though, is that the AAUP’s statement does not take seriously the questions and complaints to which it purports to respond. A small but telling indicator of the larger problem: When interviewed about the statement by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nelson said that it is ultimately designed to encourage professors to say to outside critics, “Don’t mess with me.” In other words – by Nelson’s own admission- it’s less a rigorously reasoned policy statement than it is a confrontational ultimatum disguised as a policy statement. This maneuver was not at all lost on The Chronicle’s Robin Wilson, who wrote that while the statement “is billed as a tool to help professors decide what they can and cannot safely say in the classroom – particularly when it comes to hot-button cultural and political issues,” it comes across “more like a defense of the professoriate in the face of heavy criticism” coming from outside the academy.

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