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.