A few years ago, in the midst of the controversy over inappropriate faculty behavior in Columbia’s Middle East Studies department, more than 100 professors, led by former provost Jonathan Cole, signed a document demanding that the Columbia administration defend the faculty from outside criticism—without even determining the merits of that criticism. This approach essentially redefined academic freedom as the freedom from outside criticism of academics who represent the majority view on campus. The draft document on academic freedom just released by the AAUP essentially seeks to codify the redefinition of academic freedom urged by the Columbia faculty. It condemns the activities of, among other people, “bloggers,” while also seeming to fault students for “report[ing] and publiciz[ing] offending classroom statements” by faculty members. In short, the Brandeis philosophy—sunlight is the best disinfectant—must not be allowed to apply to higher education. The AAUP document pays lip service to the idea that faculty members themselves might behave inappropriately: “For example, the denial of promotion or tenure by liberal academics to a conservative academic, or the reverse [presumably at a religious institution?], if based on disagreement with the applicant’s views rather than on a scholarly evaluation of the applicant’s professional competence and performance, constitutes political intrusion regardless of whether persons outside the academic community were involved.” But the organization is most concerned to stop in their tracks those who have deigned to criticize the actions of the current academic majority. This approach is problematic for three reasons. First, it presumes that outside criticism can be perceived as ispo facto bad faith, given the existence of mechanisms for dealing with threats to academic freedom from inside the academy. But even the document’s authors concede that internal threats to academic freedom exist (even as they go out of their way to minimize the problem), and thereby at the very least imply that the mechanisms for dealing with internal threats to academic freedom have broken down. Second, it presumes that students have virtually no academic freedom rights. The AAUP document goes much further than the organization’s 1940 and especially 1915 statements on academic freedom in giving to professors a right to bring one-sided political advocacy into the classroom, even if this advocacy is tangentially or unrelated to the course subject matter. According to the document, “Whether a specific matter or argument is essential to a particular class or what weight it should be given is a matter of professional judgment, based on the standards of the pertinent disciplines and consistent with the academic freedom required if the disciplines themselves are to remain capable of critical self‐reflection and growth.” Students, trustees, alumni, or the media seem to be all but impotent in the AAUP’s new academy: if an ideologically one-sided department wants to fashion its courses around political advocacy rather than the subject matter for which students paid to be taught, the students are out of luck. Third, and most important, the merits of criticism rather than its source should be the primary method for evaluating a critique of academics’ behavior. That especially applies in a profession that prioritizes seeking the truth. The AAUP document, in effect, intends to establish what NAS head Peter Wood perceptively labeled a “firewall” to protect the academic status quo. The AAUP purports to be concerned with both internal and external threats to academic freedom. Yet the document calls for rejecting virtually all external criticism of the academy, regardless of its merits, and the AAUP strongly discourages forces from within the academy that might provide some balance (chiefly upper-level administrators, trustees, and alumni) from doing anything but rubber-stamping faculty decisions. How, then, does the organization propose to deal with internal threats to academic freedom? Apparently by relying on the good-faith actions of the very professors who have created the problem in the first place. That’s not exactly reassuring. In this respect, the AAUP document is worse than nothing: it would have been far better for the organization simply to have issued a statement affirming that its job is upholding the views of a majority of its members, and that those professors whose views conflict with the academic majority can enjoy academic freedom rights only at the pleasure of the majority of their colleagues. To have suggested, on instead, that their recommendations are consistent with defending academic freedom is nothing short of absurd.
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.