The AAUP Strikes Out . . . Again

The AAUP recently produced a new journal devoted to exploring the state of academic freedom on today’s college campuses. As customary with anything from the AAUP in recent years, the publication was as notable for what it didn’t contain as what it did, in that it offered no mention of the internal threat to academic freedom coming from the ideological and pedagogical majority on most college campuses.
That said, the essays did provide an occasional surprise. As Erica Goldberg at The Torch pointed out, the article by Delaware professor Jan Blits (who opposed the university’s infamous residence hall indoctrination program) provided an example of an area in which all friends of academic freedom should agree—that increasing the power of administrators, especially residential life administrators, over curricular and other academic matters poses a grave threat to academic freedom.
The other essays in the journal, alas, didn’t rise to Blits’ level. Robert Engvall produced a screed against merit pay—even as he conceded that “some people oppose merit pay because they aren’t that good at what they do.” Nonetheless, he illogically maintained, “opposing merit pay in the university setting is absolutely vital to protecting the essence and quality of that setting.” We should go to the barricades, apparently, for the tenured radical who, upon receiving tenure, stops producing any scholarship.

Dan Colson, an English graduate student at University of Illinois, entitled his essay, “Paranoia and Professionalization,” and the essay certainly revealed a paranoid view of academic affairs. Colson suggested that university efforts to encourage students to vote constituted political indoctrination, since they didn’t take into account the view of anarchist students. He demanded academic freedom for graduate students to bring their political views into the classroom—since “academics are among those most qualified to define politics and who have distinctive reasons why their politics should not be restricted”—all while seeming dismissive of the rights of undergraduates who might disagree with his political perspective. He lambasted restrictions on political discussions in class, claiming such policies would be unfair to “a university professor in Gender and Women’s Studies, Political Science, English, History, or any other discipline regularly teaches lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues from a progressive political stance.” He contended, without offering any evidence, that “blind logic will say that teaching capitalism is apolitical, while teaching Marxism is political, which is what some conservative activists already claim.” In Colson’s world, academic freedom means not just professors but also graduate students should be free to orient their teaching to advance their political agendas, and then to cite the concept as a shield when people criticize their actions.
In another essay, Judith Gappa and Ann Austin invoke the shibboleth of “diversity” to simultaneously demand more money for professors and a less burdensome workload—including extending the tenure from seven to anywhere between nine and twelve(!) years.
The highlight of the journal, however, comes from AAUP stalwart Ellen Schrecker. In the world according to Schrecker, far-left ideologues are not wildly overrepresented in the academy but instead are besieged, scarcely able to hold off the widespread conservative demands for their universities to fire them.
Schrecker spent 40 pages articulating this thesis, beginning with the case of Ward Churchill. People of good faith can disagree on whether Colorado handled the Churchill affair properly (I consistently opposed the attempt to dismiss Churchill, largely because it seemed to me that the University knew or should have known it was hiring an unqualified charlatan when it brought Churchill on staff—so it couldn’t credibly release him only when it became politically inconvenient for the university to keep him as a professor). Schrecker’s essay, on the other hand, reads more like a defense brief, portraying Churchill as an extraordinary scholar and wonderful teacher, driven out of the academy on trumped-up charges.
Schrecker passed along without skepticism a claim that Churchill “has helped to shape the discourse of the modern Indian rights movement” (which, if true, suggests that the scholarship of the “modern Indian rights movement” is worthless). She offered repeated glowing quotes from Evelyn Hu-DeHart, the chair who oversaw Churchill’s hiring, and who subsequently has urged quality undergraduate institutions to focus on hiring Ph.D.s from third-tier graduate programs like UTEP as a way of increasing faculty “diversity.” In Orwellian language, Schrecker described Churchill’s ethnic studies department as “a collective attempt on the part of anti-racist activists of all stripes to transform an exclusionary and essentially racist—as well as sexist and homophobic—educational system.” She glossed over Churchill’s meager qualifications (his highest degree was an M.A. from an institution called Sangamon State), noting that “other scholars like Arthur Schlesinger” didn’t have Ph.D. degrees, either. (The last I looked, Churchill didn’t have a Pulitzer Prize.) And she minimized the fact that in applying for a “diversity”-oriented position, Churchill falsely claimed to have been a Native American: “Apparently, one of his ancestors had married a Native American woman and, though Churchill was not actually her descendant, he seemed to have felt a cultural connection.”
Churchill, according to Schrecker, was a “convenient target for an already wide-ranging attack on American higher education.” Other victims? Professors who criticize Israel, such as “mainstream scholars . . . Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Steven Walt .” (if the fate of Walt and Mearsheimer is what usually happens to professors who produce poorly sourced and even more poorly argued books, I’d say academic freedom is in pretty good shape.) Schrecker also criticized “the CUNY administration [for] forc[ing] Mohammed Yousry from his position as an adjunct lecturer at York College in April 2002 after he was indicted in connection with the case of attorney Lynne Stewart, for whom he had served as a translator.” (Yousry was indicted and subsequently convicted on charges of providing material aid to terrorism and defrauding the U.S. government; Schrecker couldn’t find space in her 40 pages to mention the specific charges.) She also didn’t mention that at CUNY, adjuncts have no right to reappointment. So the only way Yousry’s non-reappointment could have constituted an “academic freedom” violation would be if “academic freedom” requires automatic reappointment for any adjuncts indicted for assisting terrorism, even as their non-indicted adjunct colleagues have no such right.
A final word: these essays were all solicited by AAUP president Cary Nelson. No wonder the AAUP too frequently has lost its way on academic freedom matters.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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