Campus Freedom, AAUP-Style

The American Association of University Professors has now issued its final report on “Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel groups.”) The basic principle is as unobjectionable as it is admirable: professors should not be hired, fired, or disciplined on the basis of their political beliefs. Yet the AAUP’s report is basically unchanged from the organization’s draft document, which I described at the time as “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.”

The document’s final version retains nearly all of the weaknesses of the earlier draft. In the AAUP’s academy, virtually no check exists on the tyranny of the faculty majority. Outside criticism is inherently suspect. Students, trustees, and even “bloggers”–including, it would seem, academic bloggers who criticize the will of the majority–are portrayed alongside “talk-show hosts” as threats to the principle of academic freedom. (The report’s attack on students, who possess some academic freedom rights at nearly all non-religious universities, is particularly outrageous; anti-academic freedom students are described as those who “report and publicize offending classroom statements” made by faculty members, allegedly at the behest of “self-appointed watchdog groups.”)

 Professors, as long as their views reflect the majority viewpoint on campus, receive extraordinary freedom. In-class political advocacy by professors is fully acceptable, as long as the professors don’t use what the AAUP deems (without defining) “dishonest tactics.” Given what we saw from Columbia’s investigation of the tactics of its Columbia Middle East Studies Department, faculty members whose views conform to the majority will have little to fear from this standard. Indeed, in its concluding section the report seems to concede as much, noting that the inclusion of politically slanted items in class presentations “is a matter of professional judgment, based on the standards of the pertinent disciplines.” The contemporary academic majority can act as its own judge and jury.

Two themes resonate more powerfully in the final report than in its predecessor. First, the report features a sense of entitlement that is as off-putting as it is unrealistic. “As current political threats to academic freedom intensify,” the report maintains, “so too does the need for faculty members to contribute their expertise to public discourse and policy formation.” I support the ideal, perhaps best manifested in the 1960s, of an engaged faculty lending its expertise to public policy debates. But recent AAUP policies of defending the faculty majority at all costs have made academic contributions to political debates far less likely. Groupthink theory suggests (and  from Ward Churchill to Tim Shortell, we’ve seen the examples) that an increasingly one-sided academy ideologically means far-left extremist statements will only become more common—and in the process discredit the political positions of academics more generally.

Moreover, while the AAUP report strongly urges academics to insert themselves into political and public policy debates, the organization vehemently opposes any role for representatives of the populace—whether through the media, politicians, or even trustees—in academic affairs, even to criticize inappropriate academic actions. This approach to politics strikes me as rather unrealistic.

Second, even in the era of Ken Cuccinelli and Tea Party anti-intellectualism, the most profound threat to academic freedom remains internal, springing from the suppression of dissenting viewpoints and “traditional” approaches, especially in the humanities and social sciences. The report all but contorts itself into a pretzel in trying to deal with this problem in a way that won’t threaten the standing of the majority of professors on today’s campuses. Try to follow along:

First, the report says the AAUP has no problem with “faculties and administrators . . . [that] change the balance within and among academic disciplines” allegedly in order “to develop exceptional strength in a particular discipline or subdiscipline.” (Within history, a good example of this trend comes from the University of Michigan, once a premier department in U.S. history. It now features more than a dozen professors who specialize in either race or gender in American history, while all but vitiating “traditional” topics among its Americanists.)

Nonetheless, the report concedes, “the decisions may carry political overtones because some fields and subfields may be popularly viewed as closely aligned with political tendencies, as women’s and gender studies are with feminism.”

But these political overtones don’t pose a problem, according to the AAUP, because “even where the disciplinary tendency is associated with some larger political current, these disputes are not encompassed within this report, except to the extent that the political perspective, rather than the professional perspective, of the individuals involved appears to have determined adverse action against academics otherwise qualified by institutional standards for the particular discipline or subdiscipline.”

The report obliquely concedes, however, that departments shouldn’t deny tenure to a professor because he or she expresses skepticism about the race/class/gender approach that dominates many contemporary humanities and social sciences departments, since “disputes over such disciplinary directions fall within the ambit of academic freedom and should not in themselves constitute grounds for adverse action against the individuals involved.”

What seems to be given then is quickly taken away. A professor thus victimized can’t meaningfully claim improper political pressure, since as “it may be difficult to disentangle the multiple factors that influence a particular personnel decision and to identify with reasonable certainty those in which impermissible political considerations outweigh legitimate academic expectations . . . only a committee of faculty members has the requisite knowledge and experience to review a contested dismissal decision.”

And so, for faculty members whose subdisciplines have—for (to use the AAUP’s preferred verbiage) entangled reasons of politics and academic vision—fallen afoul of the will of the academic majority, the report has a blunt message: you’re out of luck. A committee representing the same faculty majority that seeks to drive you out of the academy will have the final say on whether its ideological and pedagogical comrades’ decision involved impermissible political factors.

Finally, in a hilarious example of false equivalence, the AAUP positions the relationship between gender concerns increasing left-leaning faculty with an alleged movement toward “law and economics” as increasing right-leaning thought among the professoriate.

This report, in short, contains nothing to contradict NAS president Peter Wood’s initial analysis that the AAUP desired to create a “firewall” to protect the academic status quo.


  • 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.

One thought on “Campus Freedom, AAUP-Style”

  1. “…and Tea Party anti-intellectualism….” It’s not the Tea Party that engages in groupthink in the faculty lounge. It’s not the Tea Party that believes their entitled to tax dollars without accountability. It’s not the Tea Party that viciously suppresses those who disagree.
    The anti-intellectuals are in academia. Tea Partiers are open to differing views and will actually listen. Then they’ll present their own views in a reasonable manner. Far different from the antics on campus where ideology is rigidly enforced – on the taxpayers dime.

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