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.
No University Is an Island has several real virtues. First, Nelson’s commitment to higher education and academic freedom is compelling. He knows that academic freedom cannot prevail unless individuals and groups are willing to stand up for it under pressure with the requisite commitment, knowledge, and courage. In this respect, he resembles the founders and leaders of FIRE. No University Is an Island reflects the understanding and commitment of someone who has earned his or her knowledge the right way, the hard way, in the trenches of the academic freedom battlefield.
Second, Nelson does a convincing job of linking the status of academic freedom to other practices and rights. He calls on faculty members to believe in academic freedom and to back this belief up with commitment. And he shows how shared governance and tenure are necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for the maintenance of academic freedom as a force. Shared governance boils down to faculty members (in the form of faculty senates and delegated committees) having a significant role in determining university policy and procedures that directly affect academic freedom and intellectual life; and tenure provides the job security and basis for the sense of shared community that fosters collective action in defense of core principles. Nelson’s understanding of the interdependence of these factors is astute, and a necessary antidote to accounts that focus narrowly on academic freedom in isolation from these other powers.
Third, Nelson shows how broader structural changes in higher education and American society more generally are undermining the conditions upon which academic freedom thrives. The sense of campus citizenship has declined, partly due to the rise of “neo-liberalism”—a force Nelson constantly derogates. Neo-liberalism entails the ascendency of market and monetary forces and relations at the expense of intellectual values, and the enfranchisement of corporate administrative policies based on an obsession with raising and saving money. Neo-liberalism undermines respect for the humanities and interpretive social sciences (which are not cash cows), and contributes to the emergence of “two-tiered: faculty appointments, in which tenured faculty coexist precariously with “contingent” faculty—part timers and non-research appointees whose pay and rights are limited compared to faculty backed by tenure-track appointments. Contingent faculty now outnumber tenure track faculty, creating a situation of resentment in which support and respect for tenure are eviscerated.
Fourth, Nelson shows more respect for student autonomy and self-reliance than many higher education critics. He understands that students are not as susceptible to brainwashing as many critics on the right claim, and he is aware that university life is more complex than the stereotyped images too often proffered by such critics.
A growing number of faculty members from across the political spectrum are alarmed by the points just discussed. Unfortunately, there are several aspects of No University Is an Island that thwart Nelson’s project. First, though Nelson acknowledges dangers stemming from the left and provides some telling examples of political correctness run amok, his general account of the dangers to academic freedom is decidedly weighted in one ideological direction. He makes some telling points against such conservative critics as the ubiquitous David Horowitz, Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees, and the National Association of Scholars, mainly because they advocate interventions from outside the academy that threaten to undermine and politicize the freedom of higher education institutions, and because they sometimes do not see the trees for the forest. But he does not adequately fathom how some of these critiques actually dovetail with his own, especially critics’ accusations that too many faculty colleagues have stood passively by while activist administrators and faculty members have persecuted those who oppose campus orthodoxies. And though he gives FIRE some credit for its work on speech codes (p. 226), he very seldom mentions the organization, and implausibly claims that only the AAUP can be the true “savior” of academic freedom (p. 97).
An example Nelson highlights from his own department at Illinois in his chapter on “Political Correctness” is indicative in this respect. He presents a case in which racial hysteria was fraudulently manufactured by a faction in order to undermine the appointment of a professor from New Zealand. He draws the appropriate direct conclusion from this incident. “Exquisitely intelligent, ethically meticulous, and discriminating faculty members turned into the obverse of themselves: bullies, liars, and opportunists. The process was more like a reenactment of Lord of the Flies than department democracy at work.” (p. 123) But he does not connect the dots by appreciating how such incidents weaken his defense of higher education against conservative and libertarian critics.
Addressing broader matters, Nelson issues a clarion call for the establishment of “social justice: on campus. Among other things, his notion of social justice consists of the unionization of faculty members and graduate students, and the passing of a “living wage” for all university employees. Perhaps these are worthy and advisable aspirations. (I leave this discussion to other occasions.) But Nelson’s arguments on their behalf raise as many questions as they answer.
For starters, the concept of social justice is notoriously contestable (for example, is it best represented by Nozick or Rawls?), yet Nelson does not explore this fact—an odd omission in a book dedicated to academic freedom and the intellectual pluralism that principle entails. The same can be said regarding unionization and the concept of a living wage. The advisability of such measures is hotly debated, with strong arguments vying on various sides of the issue. Yet Nelson is surprisingly sanguine about such disagreement, seemingly assuming that his own progressive perspective is self-evidently valid. He also advocates that instructors often discuss social justice issues concerning their institutions in class, regardless of the subject matter at hand. He avers that students need to be aware of the real world impact of their institutions’ practices, which is a fair and even noble concern. But making such discussion part of each class threatens to politicize classes across the board, and open the faculty to complaints that they are violating their duty to teach the subject matter for which students have paid handsome sums.
Nelson’s position on teaching social justice points to a related problem. He provides a ringing defense of academic freedom, but is reticent to discuss the legitimate limits to this freedom. His definition of academic freedom is very loose: “my assurance that I can do as I choose in my teaching and research.” (p. 3) Faculty discretion in teaching should be very strong, but there are limits based on professional norms of responsibility. Recently a physics teacher at Ottawa University in Canada informed his students the first day of class that he would not be teaching physics, but rather methods in political activism. Surely even Nelson would draw a line at such audacity, but he does not provide standards for doing so.
An example of Nelson’s unbalanced emphasis on faculty rights is his treatment of the notorious 2005 case in Columbia University’s department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures. Students alleged that some pro-Palestinian professors indulged in bullying and intimidating students who questioned their positions. Many academic freedom supporters, including Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice (and me) ultimately sided with the faculty members in this case because of our respect for faculty academic freedom and concerns about the precedent the case could set. But we came to this conclusion only after agonizing over the competing claims of student rights and the respect we have for principles of professional competence. Nelson, however, sides with the faculty members without addressing the obvious counter-arguments at hand.
Nelson’s advocacy of political action in support of academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure should be shared by faculty from a variety of viewpoints. But his leadership and cause would have more credibility were he wise enough to rise above his own partisanship—a lesson that applies to conservatives as well. He understands that many of the problems in higher education today arise from either the politics or the complacency of faculty members, but he cannot wean himself from his sixties-oriented belief that the enlightened professoriate is an antidote to an essentially unjust and unenlightened political culture: “American culture—a culture otherwise destined to be set in fascist stone.”(p. 103) Such professional self-righteousness thwarts what is often a penetrating analysis of the problems afflicting academic freedom in the United States. If war is too important to be left to the generals, academic freedom is too important to be left exclusively to those with broader political agendas.