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.

Nelson told Wilson that the statement aims to “stiffen the spines” of administrators who might feel pressured to establish “kangaroo courts” to investigate what faculty say in class. “We need to take back the classroom and reestablish faculty rights to have the classroom be an intellectually challenging space,” he said. But Nelson’s “man the barricades” bravado mischaracterizes the issue at hand, casting a situation that calls for careful, precise clarification about what kinds of pedagogical behavior are and are not appropriate as a simple case of territorial defense against unwelcome intruders. Likewise, his exclusive focus on “faculty rights” amounts to a refusal to acknowledge that academic freedom is not a system of unqualified rights, but is, rather, to borrow the AAUP’s own words, a set of “duties correlative with rights.” As ACTA president Anne D. Neal told the Chronicle, the AAUP’s new statement is flawed by its “bald unwillingness to acknowledge academic responsibility as well as academic rights” and by its steadfast refusal to address troublesome evidence of academics’ failures to self-regulate, such as when students complain that their professors are compelling them to adopt certain viewpoints in order to complete assignments, earn good grades, and even graduate.

As Neal’s observations suggest, Nelson’s problematic comments on the statement mirror problems within it. Framed as a response to “critics [who] argue that the professoriate is abusing the classroom,” the statement unfolds as contentious effort to justify the status quo rather than a substantive set of pedagogical guidelines for faculty. Each section aims to dismantle a particular criticism that has been made of academics’ classroom conduct, and so spends more time on defensive rhetoric than on constructive commentary.

Many of the statement’s examples are thus red herrings that obscure real issues. For instance, the statement attempts to refute charges that “instructors introduce political or ideological bias in their courses by neglecting to expose their students to contrary views or by failing to give students a full and fair accounting of competing points of view” by deconstructing the concept of “balance” and by reverting to arcane aspects of literary history to illustrate the point that “What facts, theories, and models an instructor chooses to bring into the classroom depends [sic] upon the instructor’s sense of pedagogical dynamics and purpose” – even though no one is debating whether one George Eliot novel necessitates mention of another, or whether a course on Romantic poetry can usefully include Harlem Renaissance poets. While the statement correctly observes that professors must be free to frame their courses as they see fit, and that they need to be able to draw on diverse materials to facilitate learning, it avoids grappling with the very real problem of how doctrinaire instruction should be identified and addressed.

Likewise, the authors are right to note that the mere assignment of a text does not signify endorsement and does not signal how it will be taught. But their example – the Committee for a Better North Carolina’s objection to UNC Chapel Hill’s use of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed for its freshmen reading project – does more to obscure the issue than to illuminate it by casting criticisms of freshman reading projects as uniformly animated by a confused belief that students are being wronged when they are asked to read material that challenges their beliefs. A better treatment of the issue would have contrasted UNC’s legitimate assignment of a controversial text – which, the authors note, could be discussed in a range of ways – against Baruch College’s 2006 approach to its freshman reading project, which involved pressing students to subscribe to particular viewpoints and which briefed faculty on how to guide students toward predetermined political conclusions.
The AAUP’s statement proposes the reasonable argument that indoctrination only occurs when faculty “teach particular propositions as dogmatically true.” But in framing that point around the non-example of the UNC controversy, the statement falsely suggests that charges of classroom indoctrination are chimerical. When, for example, humanities and social science courses assume- individually and collectively – the “truth” of social constructionist theories of gender, or when they take for granted the supposition that capitalism is responsible for suffering and oppression, faculty may be said to be guilty of indoctrination by the AAUP’s own lights – of teaching “particular propositions as dogmatically true.” The statement’s qualifying claim, that “Indoctrination occurs only when instructors dogmatically insist on the truth of such propositions by refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them,” loses force when one considers that students cannot contest views unless they know they are contestable. One-sided teaching – within and across classes – models an etiquette of conformity, deprives students of the tools to recognize opportunities for argument, and ensures that they lack the wherewithal to frame dissenting views.
On this note, we might ask why the report gave such short, misleading shrift to the case of Emily Brooker, a Missouri State social work student who was required by a professor to endorse political views that she did not herself hold, who was disciplined when she refused, who sued the University for violation of her rights, and whose case eventually resulted in an external audit of the school of social work that documented a “toxic environment” in which students were routinely bullied into accepting prescribed views. And Missouri State is not alone. On the same day that the AAUP issued its defense of professors’ pedagogical rights, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) published a report on how endemic political litmus tests are to social work education, showing, among other things, how top public universities require social work students to sign the equivalent of a loyalty oath in order to enroll. (As this article was being written, the NAS also issued a detailed annotation of the AAUP’s statement, which includes a similar treatment of the Brooker case; any overlaps between the NAS commentary and this one are serendipitous, incidental signs of like minds responding simultaneously to the same document.)

As the examples above suggest, the statement fails to deal with the academic and intellectual consequences of an ideologically one-sided professoriate. In concentrating on the academic freedom of individual professors to teach controversial and contentious material and even to teach their own opinions about that material, the statement ignores the cumulative impact of that activity when college teachers are overwhelmingly oriented toward one side of the political spectrum. Quoting a half-century-old comment by former AAUP Committee chair Edward Kirkland, the statement celebrates the value of professors each pursuing their own opinionated truth in the classroom. But such a dynamic only works when professors espouse very different views. Only then can students acquire a sense of balance by studying with faculty whose outlooks vary broadly. We do not have intellectually diverse faculties today – or disciplines. This is another problem the AAUP statement sidesteps. Moreover, in focusing minutely on individual professors’ classroom rights, the AAUP statement avoids mentioning the responsibility of colleges and universities to ensure that a broad range of views really is reflected on campus so that debate can thrive and students can explore a variety of perspectives.

This omission is especially worrisome when one considers that one of the statement’s signatories, Yale law professor Robert Post, has written eloquently on precisely this point. Academic freedom, Post notes in Beshara Doumani’s Academic Freedom after September 11, really has nothing to do with “rights” in the First Amendment sense of the term; it is not intended to “liberate professors from all forms of institutional regulation” but is, instead, a “professional freedom” designed to “ensure that faculty within the university are free to engage in the professionally competent forms of inquiry and teaching that are necessary for the realization of the social purposes of the university.” The real logic of academic freedom, Post convincingly argues, is obscured when we talk about it in terms of rights. Academic freedom as the AAUP originally conceived it, he notes, describes the kind of professionalism required of academics if the university is to fulfill its proper function; that professionalism, in turn, is subject to regulation to ensure that academics “comply with the requirements of the ‘scholar’s method.” Post goes on to observe that insofar as academic freedom has been reformulated as an individual professorial right, the balance the concept aims to maintain is lost – and, insofar as that balance is lost, so the university system violates the public trust.

Taken together, the AAUP statement’s omissions and deflections tell us much about the AAUP’s attempt to secure the autonomy of professors in the classroom. Academic freedom – as the AAUP itself has historically noted – cannot meaningfully exist in the absence of intellectual variety and the robust debate to which that variety gives rise. What the AAUP is ultimately defending in its statement is not academic freedom, then, but a problematic status quo in which professors are more concerned with safeguarding their power than with ensuring that what happens in the classroom is all it should be. Responding to a desire on the part of embattled academics to insulate themselves from criticism, “Freedom in the Classroom” is less a defense of academic freedom than a strategic manipulation of the concept of academic freedom to rationalize a wholesale rejection of the very reasonable suggestion that academics should be accountable for regulating themselves.

The AAUP’s distracting concentration on non-issues and its determined avoidance of real ones ultimately reveal both a shaky command of the facts and a disrespect for those who take seriously the correlative rights and responsibilities that comprise academic freedom. It also exposes a fundamental dishonesty within the AAUP itself. As Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein has noted, in a recent issue of the AAUP’s bimonthly magazine Academe, women’s studies professor Julie Kilmer discusses the threat of conservative student activism and openly reflects on the importance of proselytizing in the classroom. Far from evincing the slightest self-consciousness about whether her desire to convert students to her views is appropriate, she offers a philosophical rationale for doing so as well as practical tips. The AAUP would have us believe that faculty academic freedom is being threatened by largely baseless outside criticism – but in publishing its “take back the classroom” statement alongside the unprofessional and misguided pedagogical exhortations of professors such as Kilmer, the AAUP simply lends credence to the criticism it discounts.

Reading between the lines, what the AAUP statement tells us is that the academy’s governing ethical body is working overtime to avoid explaining its failure to create intellectual climates that are truly diverse. In its misdirected and sometimes irrelevant examples, the statement announces that the AAUP does not want to do more than pay lip service to the idea that teachers should not politically harangue students or otherwise introduce irrelevant material into class. A “cease and desist” notice directed at critics, the statement indicates that the academy is not at all serious about finding out what actually happens in the classroom, and is very serious about putting up smokescreens that continue to allow the classroom to function as the academic equivalent of a bedroom – a private place where no one but teachers and students can rightfully go, and where only the teacher has the authority to decide what is and is not appropriate.

All of this is especially disappointing when one considers how very much the academy and its critics have in common. Consider this section of Michael Berube’s Inside Higher Ed piece endorsing the AAUP statement:

… sometimes these critics have a point: there are indeed college professors who think that the principle of academic freedom covers everything they do and say in the classroom, regardless of whether it has any bearing on the course material. (Those professors need to read the AAUP statement, as well.) Certainly, no professor of analytic number theory has any business subjecting his students to a soliloquy about the war in Iraq, and no professor of introductory cosmology has any business fulminating about illegal immigrants. And no professor of anything has any business haranguing or intimidating students – for any reason. … The 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles notes that professors ‘should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.’ In 1970, the AAUP clarified this guideline, explaining that ‘controversial’ matter, in and of itself, is not a problem; rather, irrelevant material is the problem. … The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is ‘controversial.’ Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.

Berube is a staunch critic of non-academics who charge that some professors are less than responsible in the classroom. And he is loyal officer of the AAUP. And yet, his words here could have been written by a group such as ACTA – in fact, words very like these have been written by ACTA, the NAS, and others many times over.

It’s crucial to register that there is a lot of overlap, a lot of consensus, about what is and is not appropriate in the classroom. Organizational allegiances and procedural debates aside, we are all in agreement about the importance of rounded, wide-ranging, nuanced classroom discussions that do not shy away from controversial matters but instead treat them fully. Likewise, there is a broad consensus about the necessity of such rounded, full, courageous discussion to an education that prepares students for meaningful participation in democracy. ACTA, the NAS, FIRE, and a range of other outside critics have never, for example, accepted the canard that students have a right not to be offended, and that the classroom should not challenge their cherished assumptions. In this, these organizations share important foundational beliefs with the AAUP. But such convergences get lost in the “us-them” rhetoric that mars the AAUP statement and that too often characterizes discussions about academic freedom and accountability.

In the end, the AAUP statement provides a strong example of just how much we all lose when we disregard or deny this common ground. Rather than taking seriously the charge that academics have shown a distressing tendency not to police themselves when it comes to classroom conduct, the AAUP treats classroom misconduct as a hypothetical – an unproven possibility that stands a statistical chance of occurring. Arguing that “recent challenges to ‘freedom in the classroom’ are being advanced to further a particular political agenda,” the AAUP labels such challenges a “modern menace” and concludes that “the vitality of institutions of higher learning has been damaged far more by efforts to correct abuses of freedom than by those alleged abuses.” But such denials are the real damage. In issuing a statement that tries to minimize and discount legitimate criticisms, the AAUP finally only offers additional evidence of the academy’s unwillingness to hold itself accountable.

Erin O’Connor

Erin O’Connor is a research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

3 thoughts on “AAUP To Critics: What, Us Biased?

  1. Did the AAUP take a position on the withdrawal of the speaking invitation to former Harvard president Lawrence Summers? It would seem, to the casual observer, that they would have supported his right to deliver his views and the right of the university system to invite him to present them. But….

  2. The AAUP has spammed me twice in the last week.
    I am not a member of the AAUP, and have not been for a number of years, so there is no preexisting business relationship in any reasonable sense. Apparently the AAUP has compiled a huge collection of email addresses of faculty members, and is regularly spamming them. By doing so, it has put itself on the level of penis enlargement spammers and “Nigerian” scammers, and its statements are now regarded with the same credibility.

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