Conservatives regularly complain about the dominance of the political left on American college campuses. They are right that this is a serious problem -- for us, for our students, and for the country. But the most vocal critics are wrong about the cause of this liberal ascendancy, which is why their preferred solution, the enactment into law of an "Academic Bill of Rights" to forbid discrimination against conservatives in hiring and promotion, will not bring about any real improvement.
That professors as a group are to the left of the population as a whole cannot seriously be denied. Several recent studies employing a variety of different methodologies all reach essentially the same result: liberals outnumber conservatives on college faculties by at least five or six to one. The first reaction I usually get when I tell people I'm a Republican and a college professor is bewilderment, followed by such questions as: "How is that possible?" (usually from someone on the left who assumes that to be smart and well educated is to be liberal) and "Do they allow that these days?" (from someone on the right who assumes that academic conservatives invariably suffer discrimination).
Although some vocal conservatives complain that liberal faculty members use their classrooms to indoctrinate students and to punish dissenting students by giving them poor grades, my own experience suggests that such incidents are quite rare. In my 20-plus years as a conservative student and teacher at three strongly left-leaning institutions (Princeton, Harvard, and Colby), I have never felt discriminated against. I have only once witnessed an overtly propagandizing classroom presentation, and have I only once heard a student complain about being graded unfairly for not hewing to the professor's party line.
Overt discrimination against conservatives is not a widespread problem, I suspect, because the overwhelming majority of faculty and administrators at places like Colby are, in fact, deeply committed to the ideals of free inquiry and fair treatment for all. Like most other institutions of higher learning in the United States, Colby accepts the American Association of University Professors' Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. That statement explicitly affirms the freedom of researchers and teachers to seek the truth and of students freely to pursue the truth. That statement explicitly warns that classroom teachers "should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."
The dominance of the political left on our campuses poses another danger, which should be much more troubling than the occasional incidents of overt discrimination or indoctrination that from time to time occur. That danger is the ever-increasing cultural marginalization of academe, which threatens intellectual impoverishment to all of us -- professors, students, and ordinary citizens alike. There was a time, not that long ago, when leading figures in higher education served as public intellectuals, addressing the vital issues of their day and receiving a respectful hearing from political leaders and the public at large. These days, if a professor from any field outside the hard sciences is being quoted in the media, odds are good that it's for the purpose of ridicule.
Academics are fond of lamenting the decline of the public intellectual, but we too often blame the public for having forsaken us without asking whether it is not we who have forsaken the public. The central problem with academe today is that we overwhelmingly speak professionally only to other academics, who share our sense of what questions are important and our wider range of values and commitments. Academe has continued to move ever further to the cultural and political left not through any overt discrimination against conservatives but through a decades-long process of self-selection.
Left-leaning professors tend to address questions that interest them, with the predictable though not intended consequence of inspiring their left-leaning students and leaving their more conservative students indifferent or disenchanted with academe. Is it any surprise that smart young liberals get Ph.D.'s and become liberal professors, while smart young conservatives tend to pursue careers in business or the other professions instead? I have no doubt that academe will never again become central to American cultural life as long as professors continue to represent such a narrow spectrum of political affiliations and religious beliefs. Nevertheless, our problems cannot be solved by party politics or by legislation and lawsuits.
Instead, those of us in the academy need to do a better job of remembering that the AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom also commits us to put the common good ahead of personal and institutional advancement. We should, therefore, strive always to speak to a wider audience beyond the inbred confines of academe. To those conservative and religious students who feel marginalized at college, I say: Stop complaining and start studying; become professors, and teach the classes you wish had been offered when you were in college.
Joseph Reisert is the Harriet S. Wiswell and George C. Wiswell Jr. Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law and chair of the Government department at Colby College. A version of this piece was originally published in Maine's Morning Sentinel.
One obstacle to reasonable public and scholarly dialogue on the alleged political biases of liberal or leftist professors has been the tendency of David Horowitz, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and many of their allies to fall into various versions of the ad populum fallacy, to the effect that there is something wrong with professors because they are out of step with the majority of the American people, who (at least in public institutions) pay their salary through taxes. Thus Larry Mumper, the Republican introducing Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” in the Ohio legislature, asked in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch, “Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies that their parents voted us in for?” The implication is that professors and their students should tailor their political views to follow the latest public opinion polls or election results.
Politicians like Mumper, along with many media blowhards and members of the public who revile professors, appear to have little more familiarity with the nature of humanistic scholarship than they do with that of brain surgery -- though they would not presume to tell brain surgeons how they should operate, even in a tax-supported hospital. The former field is at the disadvantage that it addresses public issues on which everyone does and should have an opinion. There is a difference, however, between just any such opinions and those derived from standards of professional accreditation (upwards of 10 years graduate study for a Ph.D. and 7 more for tenure), systematic scholarship, and academic discourse. That discourse is based on the principles of reasoned argument, rules of evidence and research procedures, wide reading and experience, an historical perspective on current events, open-minded pursuit of complex, often-unpopular truths, and openness to diverse viewpoints. (For a fuller, excellent discussion of the differences between popular and academic discourse, see “From Ideology to Inquiry,” by Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich). This also means that academic discourse should stand independent from government pressure and public opinion, in a similar manner to the ideal of a free, independent press. That is why taxpayers should be willing to support the autonomy of the academy, within reasonable limits, whether or not it agrees with their personal views.
I have spent 30-some years in conservative communities and state universities, teaching lower-division English argumentative writing and literary history courses that are general education requirements for students in business or technological majors, many of whom would not have chosen to take any such courses and resent them as increasingly costly obstacles to the most direct path to a high-paying job. Most such students are conservative, not in any intellectual sense, but in the sense (which they admit) of fearfully conforming to the political and economic status quo, to the attitudes that will be expected of them as compliant employees, and to the necessity of looking out for number one in the “Survivor” sweepstakes of the global economy. Such students are not likely to welcome the cognitive dissonance forced on them by humanities courses demanding Socratic self-questioning of their sociopolitical or religious dogmas, and they are wont to express their resentment, if not in complaints to Horowitz, in the course evaluations that have been debased into consumer-satisfaction surveys in which the top-ranked teachers provide the fewest demands and the highest grades.
Now, we might expect both liberal and conservative scholars and other intellectuals to agree, at the least, in opposition to all of these forces that are detrimental to humanistic education. Conservative disciples of Plato, Matthew Arnold, Leo Strauss, and Allan Bloom decry the contamination of both elite education and enlightened government by the ignorant masses and “philistine” (in Arnold’s term) commercial interests. Conservative intellectuals from the early formulators of neoconservatism like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer to recent figures like spokespersons for the National Association of Scholars, Lynne Cheney (when she ran the National Endowment for the Humanities), and even Horowitz have positioned themselves as champions of high academic standards, the humanistic traditions of Western Civilization, and Arnoldian disinterestedness -- against the alleged debasement of those principles by academic and cultural leftists. Shouldn’t they be equally outspoken against the debasement of higher education by turning it over to public opinion polls, partisan legislation, job training and other service to corporations or professions, and student-consumer popularity contests, as well as by ever-mounting tuition and declining financial aid restricting access to the wealthy and white (except for varsity athletes, of course)?
To the contrary of the facile equation, by some conservative and left intellectuals alike, of “the Western humanistic tradition,” with political conservatism, we liberal scholars have on our side the central role in that tradition of dissent and resistance to the authority of governments, churches, the wealthy, and majority opinion. We invoke Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment skepticism in urging his nephew Peter Carr, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, He must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” And we cite Jefferson’s model of tax-funded, free, universal public education through the university level, which, if it had been adopted nationally, “would have raised the mass of people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety, and to orderly government; and would have completed the great object of qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi, for the trusts of government, to the exclusion of the pseudalists.” (That is, the aristocracy of merit over that of wealth and hereditary power.)
We also invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson’s exhortations for scholars and other intellectuals to “defer never to the popular cry,” to stand up against majority opinion, unjust governmental power (specifically on issues of his time like support for slavery and the Mexican-American War), and corporate plutocracy; in “The American Scholar” he speaks of “the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire.” We follow Emerson up with his disciple Henry David Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle” (“There is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay to life itself, than this incessant business”), and “Civil Disobedience”: “Why does [government] not cherish its wise minority?.... Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?”
This conception of liberal education as a minimal counter-force to the political and economic status quo, as well as to majority opinion, is fraught with difficulties and possible abuses, to be sure. Can we, or should we, avoid revealing our own moral or political sympathies in class? Should we, for example, teach Plato, Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau (or Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King) as inspirations for existential moral choices, or simply as subjects of neutral study, perhaps as representatives of a particular viewpoint or “bias,” always to be balanced against sources on “the other side,” including equal time for defenses of slavery and segregation? Moral judgments are of course less disputable in reference to such past conflicts than to present ones like the war in Iraq or affirmative action; neither conservative nor liberal polemicists have provided a clear road map for how teachers should deal with current moral disputes and public opinion about them.
In broader terms, both conservative and liberal educators have long lamented the political illiteracy of the American public in general and college students in particular. However, amid all the mutual recriminations about this and related issues in academic politics, there has been sadly little constructive discussion of the appropriate time, place, and manner for the fostering of civic literacy in either secondary or college education. My impression is that the exhortations of NAS, ACTA, and other conservative educators for core liberal arts curriculum and more requirements in history -- with which I happen to agree -- fall short of outlining a coherent curriculum and pedagogy for critical citizenship. (On the flip side, many liberal advocates of multiculturalism and diversity have failed to delineate what kind of studies American students of all ethnic, gender, and social-class groups need for minimal common knowledge as citizens.) In such a curriculum and pedagogy, students would not merely be indoctrinated into American chauvinism and simplistic “virtues,” as some on the right advocate, but would be encouraged to think critically about competing ideological or moral viewpoints (in party politics, journalistic and entertainment media, as well as scholarly sources) about American and world history, as well as about the present world.
The pedagogical approach that I personally have developed over the years applies Gerald Graff’s principle of “teaching the conflicts,” in presenting students out front with the current debates on such issues and disclosing my own left-of-liberal viewpoint on them, as exactly that -- one perhaps biased viewpoint among other possible ones, to be understood in relation to opposing ones and studied through the best conservative vs. liberal or leftist research sources that students can find, leaving it up to them to evaluate the opposing arguments, and grading them on their skill in researching and analyzing sources. I do not claim that mine is a foolproof approach, but most of my students have found it a fair one throughout the years, and I have heard few alternatives, especially from conservative educators.
There are daunting problems here in persuading the public, politicians, and students to respect academic expertise, autonomy, and the role of higher education as a Socratic gadfly to the body politic. At the same time, scholars have a responsibility to show consideration and discretion toward public opinion, and toward students who dissent from our opinions. But cannot conservative and liberal scholars at least join in endorsing these general principles, while scrupulously addressing the difficulties in implementing them, through civil dialogue? And shouldn’t some of the foundations, professional organizations, or government agencies that have channeled their resources into partisan battles in the culture wars be willing to sponsor a bipartisan task force pursuing such a dialogue in quest of resolutions to these problems?
Donald Lazere is professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo and currently teaches at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is the author of Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric (Paradigm Publishers).
Academic freedom is under attack on college campuses across the country. The “Academic Bill of Rights,” authored by David Horowitz, seems to be motivated by a concern that some professors are turning their classrooms into personal forums in which they force-feed their students a liberal political dogma unrelated to the subject matter of the course.
Horowitz’s attempt to involve legislatures in addressing what is clearly an academic issue is not only a dangerous precedent, but unnecessary as well. It is dangerous because it threatens the freedom of inquiry and critical thinking that we strive to achieve through open discussion of controversial issues. And it is unnecessary because we have in place institutional guidelines and professional standards that, when properly applied, provide balance without destroying the spontaneity and intellectual stimulation that is currently found in our classrooms.
The real problem that needs to be addressed is the growing gap in the understanding of the concept of academic freedom shared -- or more often not shared -- by faculty and administrators. Matters of institutional policy proposed by academic administrators are increasingly -- and frequently without justification -- condemned by professors as infringements on their rights.
A few examples provide an enlightening illustration. These examples involve what are mistakenly seen as academic freedom issues, providing a sense of how broadly many faculty interpret the concept and the rights it creates.
My current university for many years has provided an e-mail list service open to all faculty and staff for virtually any purpose: to post notices, advertise items for sale, express opinions on any topic, and to disseminate official university announcements. As the volume of garage sale ads grew and the expression of opinions became increasingly vitriolic, many faculty and staff members elected to filter out messages from the list service, with the result that they did not receive official announcements.
As a solution to this problem, university administrators created a second list service limited to official announcements, in which all employees would participate without the option of unsubscribing. The original open list remained available to all who chose to participate. In response to this action, one faculty member sent a message to the entire university (on the pre-existing list service) denouncing the change as a violation of academic freedom and First Amendment rights, because the “official” announcements would first be screened by the University Relations Office before being posted.
A second example: At my former university, in response to concerns over a high rate of attrition between the freshman and sophomore year, the deans proposed a policy whereby each instructor in a lower division course would be required to provide students with some type of graded or appropriately evaluated work product by the end of the sixth week of a 15-week semester. The stated purpose of the policy was to identify students at risk early enough to help them bring their grades up to a C or better. (The original proposal also included the suggestion that faculty members work with students to develop a plan to improve their performance, but that was quickly taken off the table when faculty complained of an increase in their workload without additional compensation.)
When this proposal was discussed among the faculty, several complained that the scheduling of exams was a faculty prerogative protected by academic freedom, and that any attempt by university administrators to mandate early feedback to students was an infringement upon that right. Those who spoke out did not object to the concept of early feedback -- they just didn’t want to be told they had to do it.
Another example: At the same institution, in preparation for its decennial review by the regional accrediting body, the vice president for academic affairs began to assemble the mountains of documents required for that review, including a syllabus for every course offered. The accrediting organization guidelines list 11 items recommended for inclusion in every course syllabus, and the vice president duly notified the faculty, through the deans and department chairs, of this recommendation.
The response of a surprising number of the faculty members was to argue that what goes into their syllabus is a matter of academic freedom, not subject to the mandate of the vice president or the accreditor. Again, their complaints did not seem to be directed at the suggested content, but rather they were opposed to being told what they must put in their syllabi.
The concept of academic freedom is often viewed as an extension of the rights granted under the First Amendment, applicable within the limited context of the educational system. One of the earliest definitions of academic freedom is found in the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The discussion is framed in terms of the freedom of the individual faculty member to pursue his or her research and teaching interests without interference from “outsiders,” whether they be members of the institution’s governing body or the public at large.
As an indication of how far the pendulum has swung in the 90 years since the AAUP Declaration was written, in 1915 the authors expressed concern that “where the university is dependent for funds upon legislative favor, ... the menace to academic freedom may consist in the repression of opinions that in the particular political situation are deemed ultra-conservative rather than ultra-radical.” But the authors correctly point out that “whether the departure is in the one direction or the other is immaterial.”
As appealing as the principle embodied in the AAUP Declaration may be to many academic administrators and to most, if not all, professors, that principle has not found favor in American jurisprudence. Academic freedom is not mentioned directly in the U.S. Constitution or in any federal statute. It was first recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1957 case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire, when Justice Felix Frankfurter defined the four elements of academic freedom as: “the freedom of an institution to decide who may attend, who may teach, what may be taught and how it shall be taught.” Note that this definition places the bundle of rights that make up academic freedom in the institution, not the individual faculty member.
It is a huge leap from the AAUP Declaration to the contention that a policy requiring a graded work product by the sixth week or mandating 11elements in every syllabus is an abridgment of the faculty’s constitutional rights, not to mention the claim that university administrators have no right to screen what goes out to the campus community as an official university announcement.
The problem, of course, goes much deeper. The real difficulty is that on many campuses throughout the country, the expanding concept of academic freedom has created an expectation of total individual autonomy. Our concept of faculty status seems to have evolved from one of employee to that of an independent contractor offering private tutorials to the institution’s students using the institution’s resources, but unfettered by many of the institution’s policies.
Lest any of us grow accustomed to this new order, it is instructive to see what one federal court has said about the limits to academic freedom. In the case of Urofsky v. Gilmore, a prominent legal scholar challenged a state policy aimed at restricting the use of state-owned computers by public employees to visit pornographic Web sites. The faculty member made the by now familiar claim that access to such information for teaching or research is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, and falls within the scope of the individual faculty right to academic freedom.
The U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that academic freedom is not an individual right, but one that belongs to the institution, and in this case the institution (Virginia Commonwealth University) is an extension of the state. In the court’s words, “to the extent the Constitution recognizes any right of ‘academic freedom’ above and beyond the First Amendment rights to which every citizen is entitled, the right inheres in the university, not in individual professors....” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review this decision, thereby allowing it to stand. And while it is binding legal precedent only for federal courts in the Fourth Circuit (Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia), this decision will serve as a powerful influence on other courts throughout the country.
The court’s conclusion was a shock to many of us, administrators and faculty members alike. Even more troubling is the court’s statement that “the [Supreme] Court has never recognized that professors possess a First Amendment right of academic freedom to determine for themselves the content of their courses and scholarship, despite opportunities to do so.” But as offensive as this statement may seem to some, it could have an unintended and beneficial consequence of bringing faculty and administrators closer together in recognizing their common bonds and in working toward achieving common goals for the good of their colleges and universities.
When faculty members recognize that there are limits to academic freedom, and that the rights ultimately reside with the institution, there is a powerful incentive to work with academic administrators to reach consensus on policies that will achieve important goals. And even if administrators feel emboldened by what may at first be perceived as a weakening of the individual faculty member’s freedom, every seasoned academic administrator knows that without faculty cooperation and support, even the most well-intentioned policy cannot succeed.
John Friedl is a professor in the Department of Political Science, Public Administration and Nonprofit Management, and the Department of Accounting and Finance at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He has previously served as both a dean and a provost.
If you have not yet heard about Michael Bérubé’s What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education, recently published by W.W. Norton, then chances are you also haven’t seen the author’s blog, which has been advertising the book heavily for weeks now, albeit with tongue sometimes in cheek. Over the past two or three years, Bérubé’s Web site has turned into a rallying point for those fighting off David Horowitz’s so-called Academic Bill of Rights (perhaps the finest bit of political word-magic since Stalin created the “peoples democratic republics” of Eastern Europe). The blog itself is part of what is now sometimes called the “netroots” of the Democratic Party, although Bérubé himself is slightly more disposed to working out a position on the multivalence of the signifier than on, say, ethanol subsidies.
In other words, What’s Liberal looks, at first, like a book written with a definite constituency in mind. So does Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities, out next month from the University of North Carolina Press -- a volume of Bérubé’s pieces that originally appeared in academic journals and popular magazines as well as the blog.
So all the familiar worries about the echo-chamber effect of new (or “niche”) media come to mind. You know what to expect from a certain kind of title that has become very familiar over the past few years: the op-ed in a fat suit, the sermon to the choir, the repetitious but morale-boosting statement of why "we’re right, they’re wrong." There are right-wing and left-wing versions of such books. You see them glaring at one another across the aisles at the bookstores. Sometimes they even mimic one another’s covers – either to heighten the spirit of antagonism, or just from a lack of originality, not that the distinction matters too much.
A reader of Bérubé’s blog quickly learns that satire is one of his default modes. (Upon being listed by Horowitz as one of the academe’s “dangerous professors,” he announced that his field was “dangeral studies.”) Sitting down to read What’s Liberal, I anticipated that there would be sarcasm, and plenty of it.
Parody and irony have their uses; at times, no other tools will do the trick. But as modes of argument, they tend not to be especially generous toward an opponent. They tend to reinforce the mentality common to the “we’re right, they’re wrong”-type books, for which the line between “us” and “them” is bright and clear. Reading Bérubé, I expected fireworks. Or, more accurately, dynamite -- an exercise in cultural and political demolition.
But in fact, no. The relationship between the book and the blog is not straightforward. And while each might be an example of a public intellectual at work, the contrast between them is a reminder that perhaps we should keep in mind the expression C. Wright Mills sometimes used: “publics,” for there is more than one kind.
What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? assumes the existence of a large, smart, but ambivalent (or frankly confused) audience of people who have heard about the arguments over "bias" in higher education, but not taken sides.
The author assumes on the part of the reader both skepticism and an open mind. He is canny enough a rhetorician then implicitly to equate both skepticism and open-mindedness with liberalism itself (properly understood).
There is also a steady effort to dispel fantasies about the university as a place somehow radically different from other scenes of white-collar life. It is true that the ranks of academics includes "our occasional cranks, our poseurs, our bloviators, our pedants, and a couple of those people who are just impossible to work with,” he writes, “but in this respect, we’re very much like any other workplace -- except for the pedants, who are relatively more numerous on campus than off."
And while admitting that, yes, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in institutions of higher learning, the differences don’t automatically correspond to attitudes toward curriculum. “It is not uncommon,” he writes, “to find that the department’s gay, pony-tailed, hemp-wearing poet insists that today’s students simply must be grounded in a series of required 'core' courses in British literary history, whereas the lone suit-and-tie Rockefeller Republican is arguing that the English major should have no requirements whatsoever.”
The book covers quite a lot of ground. It debunks some of the more heavily publicized but fact-free accusations regarding the persecution of conservative students; acknowledges the embarrassments of the “Monty Python left” of Ward Churchill and friends; and describes what it’s like to teach The Rise of Silas Lapham to undergraduates who almost never actually like the book. It also offers a pretty compelling and accessible account of what’s at stake in the Habermas-Lyotard debate over the incommensurability of discourses, with special reference to the debate over foot massages in the opening section of Pulp Fiction.
And there’s more besides. None of it seems random or episodic. All of it serves, rather, to show that higher education is much less homogenous -- or for that matter, ideology-minded -- than certain propagandists make it look. Any informed account of academe must stress on the "variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty" it shares with the rest of life in an affluent society. (I borrow that phrase from Lionel Trilling, who was either a liberal or a neoconservative depending on the angle from which you looked at him.)
"Universities," writes Bérubé in a passage that sums up an important strand of his argument, "even private universities, are thoroughly and complexly interwoven into what remains of the public sector of the United States, and their relative economic health, together with their extraordinary capacity to generate economic wealth (if you’re interested in that kind of thing), provides powerful testimony to the wisdom and the long-term structural soundness of the mixed free-market/welfare state economy. So America’s cultural conservatives may despise us for the obvious reasons -- our cosmopolitanism, our secularism, our corrosive attitude of skepticism about every form of received authority -- but the economic conservatives, I think, despise us because we work so well."
That is not a perspective that gets usually expressed when culture warriors go to battle. But I suspect (and, frankly, hope) it may get a hearing among other sorts of people. Newspaper editors, for example, and state legislators. And smart high school students, not to mention their parents.
For more on What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? -- as well as a little about Rhetorical Occasions, which covers many of the same issues at a postgraduate level -- you might want to listen to this podcast of my recent interview with Michael Bérubé.
Like most of us in academe, I move in a number of educational circles. There are my colleagues at Johnson C. Smith University, my wife’s colleagues at Wingate University, and a host of others. I recently made a decision to try and expand my educational circle somewhat. I am running in a non-partisan election for a seat on the Union County, N.C. Board of Education. In doing so, I have begun to learn just how hard it is to run a campaign -- something that I should probably confess to not doing entirely well. Live and learn.
One of the things that I have been most surprised to learn has nothing to do with all the minutiae of campaigning. The thing that surprised me most was the reaction of my colleagues when they have heard I am running. They are proud of me with a reaction that almost borders on awe. This awe, however, is not entirely comforting. As best I can describe it, it is the awe reserved for martyrs and those who succeed through some slight madness that sets them apart. And before that sounds like it is going too far, the standard response to learning that I have thrown my hat into the ring is begins with something like “Good for you.” Almost immediately after this, however, comes the question, “What possessed you to run for office?” (The alternate is a reflection on what a thankless job it will be.)
Pay attention to that word possessed -- the one with religious and/or demonic overtones and the implication that no sane person would do this.
When it came up in my classes (I don’t teach in Union County so I don’t have to worry about a potential conflict of interest.), the students were more excited. They wanted to know why I was running and what I stood for. They wanted to know what motivated me. “Why did you choose to run?” replaced questions that implied a loss of mental control.
As I thought about this, I began to realize that I was looking at something that went beyond collegial humor and the wry cynicism that academics are famous for developing as a part of their pursuit of something like objectivity. I suspect that I am looking at a flaw in the way the academy approaches politics.
Because of the ongoing examination of the academy by groups concerned with whether there are a bunch of tenured radicals corrupting America’s youth, most of the discussion has been about whether or not professors are trying to indoctrinate their students in one political belief or another in their classrooms. This is, of course, an important concern. If an instructor cannot maintain a separation of our personal politics and our professional obligations, that instructor needs to learn to do so quickly.
But not all political activity is equal and we need to learn to embrace some of it for the benefit of our classrooms.
One of the big movements currently circulating in academe is the move towards “active and collaborative learning” -- a movement being simultaneously developed by academics as a way to improve student learning and a movement consistent with the Department of Education’s interest in seeing more measurable results of what goes in college classrooms. There are books and journals devoted to the study of these approaches and techniques. Several of these techniques, at their core, rely on modeling.
Now with that in mind, consider this: How often do we tell students that they need to vote and participate in their civic lives. How often do we assign plays like Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People or essays like Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and then discuss the issues of war and civil rights that swirled around them yet limit the realm or discussion to the purely academic?
They often hear us speak. They do not often hear about what we do.
So long as we do not model behavior, students will not see anyone participating in the civic realm. The politicians they see on television aren’t real to them. They do not regularly see a person that they know and can personally identify with actively engaging in the civic discourse or hear about the struggle to choose the best course of action to make our towns better from an array of bad options.
What I am advocating here is not something tied to one party or political philosophy. Whether you are a left-leaning anthropology professor or a member of the right of center business school set, we should all be active participants in the civic realm and, importantly, our students should know that those activities are a part of our lives.
For those of you still worried about the long term effects of possession, this doesn’t mean you need to need to run for political office. There is a host of ways to be engaged. It could be something as simple as getting up extra early on Election Day and making sure that you are still wearing the “I Voted” sticker given to you at the polls when you ask your students if they have voted. I’m not saying to ask who they voted for, just whether they had voted. It could be letting them know about the civic or volunteer responsibilities you dealt with last night or over the weekend. You may, in fact, already be doing some of these things.
I know what some of you are saying. We are, on the whole, an overworked and underpaid profession and none of us have the time to put something else on our plate. The truth of the matter is that, unless they are CEO's or come from money, most of the people who are entering local politics are in the same boat. I have heard stories in the political circles I have begun to move in of people dipping into their home’s equity or retirement funds to finance some of their campaigns. While you may not want to make that kind of a sacrifice, you can still make a difference in the life of your students and your community just by making an attempt.
There is a final reason we, as a profession, need to become more engaged -- one that we need to consider and consider quickly. We won’t get the problems faced by the academy solved by the “them” in government until we meet “them” and find out that they are us.
Matthew M. DeForrest
Matthew M. DeForrest is assistant professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University.
I was in a white clapboard building recently, near one of the many railroad tracks that crisscross central Illinois. The building was part of one of several church properties in Champaign-Urbana and its neighboring towns. I was there to teach a class on modern American poetry at a 12-month Christ-centered substance abuse rehabilitation program. The table dominating the room was being cleared of lunch when I arrived. Most of the men introduced themselves with their full names as I walked around and greeted them, but once at the table they were Brother Jones or Brother Green. Then we sat down, 10 African-American men and me around a wooden seminar table with photocopies of the poems I had assigned. The coordinator of the class -- or reading group -- is a tenured faculty member at a nearby university. Next semester the project will be supported by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, but my time and that of the other teachers was volunteered and will remain so.
I was invited to teach one of the two-hour sessions by a colleague. Some months ago I explained that I would focus on African-American poems about religion, some deeply grounded in religious faith, others critical of organized religion. This debate about religion among African American poets has a long history, as I explained to the participants. It is deeply felt and surely one of the impressive legacies of the last hundred years of our literary history.
One of the men soon volunteered that some of the poems made him angry. I said that was exactly right. Some black American writers felt sustained by the church, others felt betrayed, but none were writing merely to reassure us. They wanted us to respond powerfully. We certainly did not have to agree with them. We could take up our place in the debate. I explained that many people assumed poetry was a much milder art form. Not so, I argued, and these poems proved the point. They compressed the writers' views and made them available to us in telling language. The group had read Langston Hughes' "Christ in Alabama" and "Goodbye Christ," Amiri Baraka's "When We Worship Jesus," and Carolyn Rodgers' powerfully pro-Christian poems "when the revolution comes" and "mama's god."
I pride myself in being able to enter these poets' worlds and embody their disparate convictions. But on this December day I did not have a chance. Fifteen minutes into the session the reverend arrived and pulled me aside:
Reverend: "I cannot have these men exposed to this language and these ideas."
CN: "I'm letting them enter into this long-running debate, and I'll be very positive about the pro-religious poems. Let me go through the poems for you and show you what I plan to say about them."
Reverend: "I don't care. These men cannot read things like this. They have to get grounded."
CN: "I'm sure they see much worse on television and saw much worse on the streets."
Reverend: "They only watch the programs I let them watch. They don't read newspapers. Tell me the role of faith in your life."
CN: "Well, I believe in the pursuit of justice and in human decency."
Reverend: "You're not really telling me about your faith."
CN: "I suppose not. Look, this is about academic freedom."
Reverend: "Not here."
CN: "I'm the president of the American Association of University Professors. We've defined academic freedom for nearly a hundred years."
Reverend: "Not here. I decide what gets taught. I approve what they read. I'm ordering you to leave the building."
Since it was a private facility I left as ordered. But the program is to be funded with public money, and the Illinois Humanities Council was assured free speech was guaranteed in the classes. It is not. Indeed others have suggested the students were under pressure not to disagree with church doctrine. This is precisely why the separation of church and state is established in the United States Constitution, though there is reason to doubt President Bush is comfortable with the concept.
Although it was humiliating to be ordered out of a class I was teaching, it was also instructive. Though this local minister was not quite a prince of the church, it was still my first experience of being silenced by church authority. I naively assumed that clearing my lesson plan with the course coordinator was all I needed to do to guarantee my freedom. I naively assumed, adapting Gertrude Stein, that a classroom is a classroom is a classroom. I've not been silenced before or had the experience of being thrown out of the classroom in nearly 40 years of teaching. Other faculty members are not so lucky. Many religiously oriented colleges and universities would never conduct business so crudely. But some do. Any doubters might begin by reading the AAUP's investigative report on Brigham Young University. That is why we remain vigilant.
The reverend made it clear -- though he didn't use the word -- that indoctrination had to precede exposure to the free market of ideas. Students had to have their responses preprogrammed before they could be allowed to encounter secular culture. My own view is that these men -- in their 20s, 30s and 40s -- could read Langston Hughes and still side with Carolyn Rodgers. She concludes one poem with the lines "when mama prayed, she knew who she / was praying to and who she was praying to / didn't and ain't got / no color." I wanted them to hear the lines read aloud and discussed, because they are lines every American churchgoer should hear. These are lines these men could use in their encounters thereafter. But academic freedom did not carry the day.
Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
For decades foreign scholars have visited the United States to meet with their counterparts in this country, to present a paper at an academic conference, or to take up an appointment at an American college or university. These visits have been immeasurably beneficial to this country in advancing knowledge in all academic fields and in strengthening ties with other nations.
Under the current administration these visits have continued, but as evidenced by a series of visa decisions over the past three years, the administration’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas has been alarmingly weak.
In August 2004, the administration revoked a visa that had earlier been issued to Professor Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen and a renowned scholar of the Muslim world, to begin an appointment as a tenured professor at the University of Notre Dame. Ramadan had previously been able to travel freely to the United States, and currently he has an appointment at the University of Oxford and is serving as an advisor on anti-terrorism policies to the British government.
In responding to a lawsuit filed by the American Association of University Professors and other organizations in behalf of Ramadan, government lawyers said that Ramadan had not been denied entry because of his views about terrorism, contrary to what the government initially stated, but refused to specify why or to act on the visa. And then, in response to a federal court’s ruling that was skeptical that a sound legal basis exists for the administration’s continuing to deny entry to Ramadan, the government told Ramadan that it declined to renew his visa application because he had donated some $900 to two Palestinian relief organizations that in turn gave money to Hamas, a designated terrorist organization. Ramadan had previously disclosed these donations to U.S. consular officials.
In September 2004, the Department of State denied visas to 65 Cuban scholars one week before they were to participate in a conference sponsored by the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) to be held in Las Vegas. The blanket visa denials were unprecedented in their scope; a State Department spokesperson said that the action was “consistent with the overall tightening of our policy” toward Cuba. The department took the same action in March 2006 against 55 Cuban scholars who were to have attended a LASA conference in Puerto Rico.
In June 2005, Professor Waskar Ari, a citizen of Bolivia, learned that he was not to be issued a visa and therefore could not begin his faculty appointment at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln that fall. Like Ramadan, Ari had been a frequent visitor to the United States, where he obtained his Ph.D. in history. The administration has given no explanation for this decision.
A year later, in June 2006, government officials barred Professor John Milios of Greece from entering the country to attend an academic conference at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Milios, who had been in this country on five separate occasions between 1996 and 2003, was halted at JFK international airport, where he was questioned about his beliefs and associations. He reports having undergone similar questioning by the American consul in Athens when he returned to Greece.
The most recent incident occurred in October 2006, when Professor Adam Habib, a citizen of South Africa, was, like Melios, denied entry into the country upon his arrival at JFK airport. He had been scheduled to meet with officers of the Social Science Research Council, Columbia University, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Bank. A frequent visitor to the United States, Habib initially thought that perhaps he was mistakenly barred entry because he had once been detained as a political prisoner under South Africa’s apartheid regime. He abandoned the notion of bureaucratic error when the American consulate in Johannesburg informed his wife in early January of the State Department’s extraordinary decision to revoke her visa and those of their two small children for travel to this country.
No doubt these visa-denial decisions are colored by circumstances particular to each one. For example, the administration’s refusing entry to Cuban scholars, like its Cuban policy more broadly, has been heavily influenced by anti-Castro politics in Florida, a factor not at play in the other visa decisions.
The common thread in these decisions is that in none of them has the administration questioned the reasons given by the foreign scholars for visiting the U.S. as being false or even suspect. At a time of genuine concern about threats to national security, it is perhaps not surprising when the government overreaches in guarding our borders. Certainly this administration is not the first to keep foreign scholars out of the country. But a bad practice is not improved by repeating it.
The administration, instead of instilling confidence that it knows what it is doing to stop foreign visitors from harming us, invites cynicism when it bars scholars who wish to enter this country for legitimate academic reasons. With these decisions, it hampers our ability to learn from those whose experiences and knowledge can enrich our understanding of vital issues.
These visa decisions also teach the wrong lessons to foreign scholars. Barred from entering the country without explanation or for reasons that defy common sense, they are left with the impression that our government fears ideas almost as much as it fears bombs. That may be a false impression, but the administration has only itself to blame for decisions that encourage this kind of thinking.
Various groups have sharply criticized the government’s decisions in specific cases, but every opportunity should be pursued to remind the academic community and those outside it of the basic and central point that keeping legitimate scholars out of the country damages freedom. Also needed is more effective Congressional oversight of the visa process and of visa decisions that may impair the free circulation of ideas. And positive action by both the executive branch and Congress on new visa recommendations proposed by a coalition of organizations may help guard against the misuse of the visa system.
Plainly the government should erect high barriers to thwart real threats to the nation’s security. But it should abandon barriers to the visits of foreign scholars to this country and encourage the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas. Such a policy could be a powerful means of enhancing the nation’s well-being.
Jonathan Knight directs the program in academic freedom and tenure for the American Association of University ProfessorsÂ
At last week’s annual conference of the main faculty union in Britain, leaders of the University and College Union (UCU) voted to support a resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli academics and universities. On a practical level the resolution will not do much to actually impose an effective boycott. Individual faculty members will make up their own minds about what to do, and plenty will continue their ties with Israel, although for a minority seeking to kick Israelis off of panels or journal boards, this resolution will provide the cover they seek. Regardless of the impact, by voting to adopt the resolution, the union has given a substantial political victory to a small group of extreme activists dedicated to the marginalization of Israel, if not for its outright demise. All scholars -- and especially American academics who consider themselves part of a worldwide community of people committed to free expression of ideas – need to take note of exactly what is going on. This is not about protesting some policy of Israel’s government, which occurs intensely in Israel’s vibrant university setting and free press, but something much more invidious.
With a vote of only 158 to 99, the UCU which boasts a membership of approximately 120,000 members may have actually made history by setting the stage for some of the most blatant forms of anti-Semitism in the post-World War II era. With a fraction of less then 1 percent of its membership participating in the vote, the UCU has set an example for other unions and professional associations to follow suit. It must be understood that the architects of the UCU boycott campaign are not merely concerned with promoting a two- state solution with both Israel and a Palestine state living in peace side by side, thus ending the occupation of the territories seized by Israel in 1967. Rather, its intent is to support a radical marginal movement to begin the process of dismantling Israel.
Subsequently, it is critical that the British academic community understand what is being said in their name, and that the American academic community be aware of what is going on at universities that have close ties to our institutions. This is especially true since scholarship is intended to be based on an honest search for truth which examines all sides of a given issue and context. The fact that the UCU voted to reject this basic premise and boycott Israeli scholars and academic institutions goes against the very nature of real scholarship. The UCU decision is based on a one-sided view of the Middle East conflict. It undermines academic freedom and sets different standards for people based on their origin rather than on their scholarship or ideas. All Israeli professors are being punished by British scholars, regardless of their views. Not only does the boycott single out Israelis, it also raises concern about the implications this resolution will have on Jewish students and faculty at universities throughout Britain. How will the campus atmosphere be affected, an issue identified by the All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism commissioned by the Blair Government in 2006, as an area of concern.
Why are the architects of the UCU boycott movement focused so determinedly only on Israel? Why was there no UCU resolution on the manner in which the British military is conducting itself in Basra, Iraq? Why was there never a resolution on Srebrenica where more Muslims were massacred in a given week then has been killed during the 40 years of the Arab-Israel conflict? How about Chechnya, where Russia carpet bombed civilian areas and massacred tens of thousands if not more? How about Darfur, where there is agreement that there is an on going genocide at this very moment, in which hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered and the killing reportedly appears to be accelerating. In the Democratic Republic of Congo the estimates are that three to four million have been killed. Why single out Israel? Why has Israel become the incarnation of evil, of colonialism and even apartheid? Why are there not calls for the boycotting of the Hezbollah controlled southern Lebanon or Saudi Arabia where the levels of the repression of woman boggles the mind. How about issues of human rights violations by China and Syria? What about questions of citizenship of migrants to Europe? Do these issues not warrant any UCU consideration? I dare not even question why the deliberate and regular shelling of Sapir College in Sderot, well inside the green line, from Gaza which Israel withdrew and no longer occupies has not been condemned by the UCU? My point is not to suggest that British professors or others broaden boycotts to colleges all over the world. Rather, one has to consider if standards are applied in any sort of consistent way – and when they are not, as is evident in this case, one can not avoid questioning what the real motives are.
Many in the anti-Israel campaign compare Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, where boycotts helped to bring about change. However, it is important to remember that apartheid was a legal system designed to exclude the vast majority of its inhabitants from basic rights, citizenship, membership and participation in institutions of its society based on racial categories. The purpose of the anti-apartheid movement was to enfranchise its citizens based on a Freedom Charter which guaranteed equal rights to all of its citizens regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, not to destroy or dismantle South Africa. Israel is a democracy under the rule of law, all of its citizens vote and enjoy enfranchisement, while the Knesset has representation for all sectors of society, including all of its minorities. I do not remember any individual member, let alone organization, of the mainstream anti-apartheid movement calling for genocide or advocating the recruitment to massacre as many civilians as possible, an accepted and advocated principle of the leading member of the Palestinian Authority Government Hamas, and other organizations within the Palestinian political spectrum, in which the UCU resolution becomes an enabler of sorts. None of this is to say that the Palestinians do not have real grievances, however, there ought to be a more nuanced view of the conflict.
It is particularly incredible that some are attempting to de-legitimize Israel, the only democracy in the region, while a significant radical social movement, Hamas, gains strength that is anti-Enlightenment, genocidal in its anti-Semitism, not to mention anti-democratic, sexist and homophobic, and in fact governs Israel’s neighboring Palestinian Authority. Can one imagine an academic group in any other circumstance lending support to those who would send basic human rights backwards in the support of reactionary forces? Those who call for the marginalization of the State of Israel or for its demise are also enablers for those reactionary forces that not only threaten liberal democratic forces in the Middle East, women and minority rights, but all that the UCU perceive itself to support and stand for.
It is becoming evident that those engaged in the attempt to marginalized and criminalize Israel do so in a manner that defies their own logic and values. For the first time in Europe’s post-World War Two era, the rhetoric of what was once on the fridges of the political spectrum has now entered into the mainstream of political and academic discourse. It is incumbent upon all members of the UCU and the academic community generally, to stand up to the resurgence of this oldest of hatred. The passing of the UCU resolution could mark the beginning of a new era of virulent anti-Semitism. We ought to be mindful that under the Nazi regime, also elected, that the universities were the first institutions in society to discriminate against Jewish people. If we learned anything from this tragic history we know that double standards and the deligitimitzation of an entire group must be confronted -- even at the level of resolutions and boycotts -- and is contrary to notions of education.
Charles Small is director of the Yale University Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Previously, he has taught at universities in both Britain and Israel.
As a committed member of the American Association of University Professors, the editor of its Illinois Academe newspaper, and a member of the AAUP's Committee on Graduate and Professional Students, I have deep concerns about the future of the organization. When a very small proportion of the AAUP membership gathers today for the start of the AAUP annual meeting, we have an opportunity to demand a new direction for the AAUP. Unfortunately, I am pessimistic about whether AAUP members understand why the AAUP is fading in importance, or are willing to break from the AAUP's calcified traditions in order to save the organization.
To survive and grow at a critical moment for higher education, the AAUP needs to become more of an activist organization, decentralize its top-heavy structure, and join the scholarly world.
Some critics claim that the AAUP's problems are due to its decision in the early 1970s to add collective bargaining units to its role. This is all wrong. About half of the AAUP members are part of unionized chapters, and theyÊ¼ve been the only thing keeping the AAUP alive financially. The AAUP needs to expand its union efforts, and the plans to restructure the AAUP by dividing the organization into its unionized and advocacy halves are little more than rearranging deck chairs. The unionized and advocacy parts of the AAUP share common goals of defending academic freedom, fighting the corporatization of higher education, and expanding the organization. We donÊ¼t need to create two AAUPs; we need to make the one we have better.
Nor is poor leadership the fundamental problem at the AAUP, although in the recent past, mismanagement has been a serious barrier to improving the AAUP. However, thereÊ¼s every indication that President Cary Nelson and Executive Director Ernie Benjamin have stabilized the AAUP, although much depends on the selection of the next general secretary.
Before 9/11, there were 275,000 American Civil Liberties Union members; today, in response to the attacks on civil liberties in America, the ACLU has more than 500,000 members. There has been a similar attack on academic freedom since 2001, and yet the AAUPÊ¼s membership has remained virtually unchanged at around 40,000.
The AAUP's policy of addressing only a small portion of academic freedom cases, and then only after a lengthy investigation, was always flawed. But today, its public inactivity on academic freedom violations threatens the future of the organization. Usually, only obscure colleges run by intransigent or idiotic administrators ever get censured, and many of the worst violations of academic freedom are never condemned by the AAUP; despite a devastating 2004 AAUP report about the attack on academic freedom by Medaille College, Committee A refused to recommend censure in vain hope of negotiating a settlement.
Administrators have learned that the AAUP probably will never do anything, and a simple payout usually solves the problem quietly. When the University of Southern Mississippi then-president Shelby Thames fired two tenured AAUP leaders in 2004 for investigating an administratorÊ¼s credentials, the AAUP never took any formal action because the university simply paid off the faculty.
Today, administrators are much more fearful of condemnation by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) than the AAUP. FIRE, unlike the AAUP, acts quickly rather than glacially. FIRE, unlike the AAUP, acts publicly rather than quietly. The AAUP is still the unparalleled leader at developing policy statements on academic freedom. But unless those policies are backed by an activist group, they may not matter much.
I often find myself, when dealing with an incident of academic freedom, in the uncomfortable position of advising the victim to contact the AAUP, but telling them to understand that the AAUP will not act until all appeals are finished, and even then censure is rare and takes a long time. If they really want to get something done, I tell them, they should contact FIRE. I wish the AAUP would be the leading defender of academic freedom in America, but wishing it won't help someone get their job back.
FIRE is a relatively obscure organization with a small staff, less than a decade old, funded by conservative foundations, with no membership that it represents. Yet it has managed by its example to embarrass the AAUP at every turn, simply by virtue of speaking out loudly and forcefully against violations of academic freedom. The AAUP should have learned how to be more effective without needing this competition, but at least FIRE has proven once and for all that an activist group defending academic freedom can be far more effective than an academic organization.
I believe that the AAUP, with its resources and its nationwide membership and its strong reputation, can address individual cases of academic freedom far better than FIRE does. This will require expanding the AAUP's focus beyond faculty members, to make it an organization that works for the rights of staff and students as well as professors because the rights of all of us are threatened by the censorship of anyone on campus.
Activism in Defense of Academic Freedom
Activism is the fundamental change necessary to save the AAUP and help protect academic freedom. In 1930, the AAUP recognized that its system of investigations was inadequate to protect academic freedom, and so the association leaders developed the censure list. In more than 75 years since then, the AAUP's approach to academic freedom has remained frozen in time, oblivious to the radical shifts in higher education. Astonishingly, despite rapid transportation and internet communication, the AAUP today often takes far longer to investigate and censure an institution than it did in the 1930s.
There may be some who imagine that the AAUP preserves its credibility and neutrality by this current slow-motion system of silence; nothing could be further from the truth. When the AAUP fails to speak publicly about violations of academic freedom (in order to preserve its objectivity for a future investigation that rarely happens), the AAUP invites accusations of bias and irrelevance. When the AAUP fails to be the leading voice for academic freedom, its silence is interpreted as incompetence, not scholarly detachment.
An activist stance in no way will impede the AAUP's current process of investigating and censuring institutions that violate academic freedom. If anything, the activist approach will improve the current censure system by providing institutions with greater warning earlier in the process that their actions endanger academic freedom. Instead of a slap on the hand long after a violation has occurred, the AAUP can deliver a slap in the face before a final decision is made.
The national office of the AAUP has sometimes been in disarray. Expanding the work of the AAUP will require changes in how the AAUP operates. The AAUP is far too centralized and hierarchical. Nearly everything the AAUP does goes through the national office for permission, a bureaucracy that makes rapid responses rare. The primary underutilized resource of the AAUP is the army of volunteers available through its state and campus chapters.
Instead of merely passing on cases to the national office and getting permission before commenting or working on them, state AAUP divisions should be the leaders in initiating activism for each state, and speaking out about potential violations of academic freedom. In addition, AAUP committees should be encouraged to speak out on cases relevant to their missions, instead of making Committee A the sole (and usually silent) voice of the AAUP. The danger of decentralization is that state or campus chapters might take positions contrary to the national office; but an institution devoted to academic freedom should not be afraid of internal dissent.
The Scholarship of Higher Education and Academic Freedom
One key reason why the AAUP has faded in influence among faculty (especially at research universities) is that the AAUP is disconnected from the scholarly world. The AAUP can greatly increase its credibility in academia by providing leadership for the interdisciplinary study of higher education in general, and academic freedom in particular. By adding a scholarly conference to its annual meeting, the AAUP can bring in more members and contribute to the scholarly study of academic freedom. The AAUP should also develop a scholarly online journal about academic freedom, and a scholarly book series on academic freedom and higher education.
The AAUP must restructure its ridiculously high membership fees (which range from $39 to $188), by bringing the fee levels for non-union members down to what most scholarly associations charge, with graduated fees based on income, no state fees, and a discounted rate for new members.
The AAUP also needs to bring its message to scholarly conferences. The AAUP should target all of the leading academic conferences, and seek to have issues of academic freedom and other topics of concern to the AAUP made a part of these conferences (as it is doing at this yearÊ¼s Modern Language Association conference). By working with its members who are part of these scholarly associations, the AAUP can raise its profile among faculty and make professional issues a greater part of disciplinary conferences.
The AAUP will not disappear or cease doing its good work, despite its current troubles. The main question is, why can't the AAUP do more, and do it better? Fundamentally, it is not money nor resources standing in our way. It is not the bias against unions nor the flaws of past management that prevent the AAUP from rising to its past prominence. It is our failure to imagine a better, bigger AAUP, and to act to make this change happen. The AAUP can greatly expand its membership, its credibility, and its influence, if only it is willing to give up this fear of change and become a decentralized, activist organization with a new devotion to scholarship.
John K. Wilson
John K. Wilson is the founder of the Institute for College Freedom and the author of Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies (Paradigm Publishers, fall 2007).
Two years ago, the University of Colorado found itself at the center of a national scandal involving one of its ethnic studies professors, Ward Churchill. His characterization of 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns” rightly provoked condemnation from commentators across the country.
But Churchill is in the headlines today for something other than his opinions -- this time, because of Colorado’s attention to his scholarly record.
Despite having only a master’s in communications, Churchill’s Colorado career was put on the fast track -- landing him both a tenured professorship and chairmanship in ethnic studies. In subsequent years, charges of research misconduct began to surface. And in 2005, his university chose to ignore those allegations no longer. Having first made clear that Churchill was not being punished for his public utterances, the university launched a meticulous investigation centered on specific charges of scholarly misconduct. That is, it did what any institution claiming to care about academic standards must do. For this Hank Brown, who became president at Colorado after the scandal broke, deserves great credit.
To Brown, accountability is a crucial component of academic freedom. In recommending that Churchill be dismissed, Brown noted that the university’s policies define academic freedom as a set of privileges and correlative responsibilities -- the latter often ignored in academic discourse on the topic. Academic freedom, he wrote, is “the freedom to inquire, discover, publish and teach truth as the faculty member sees it. … Within the bounds of the definition, however, ‘faculty members have the responsibility to maintain competence, exert themselves to the limit of their intellectual capacities in scholarship, research, writing, and speaking; and to act on and off the campus with integrity and in accordance with the highest standards of their profession.’”
Noting that academic freedom entails both individual and institutional accountability, Brown observed that taxpayer-supported institutions have particularly binding obligations to the people. “The public must be able to trust that the university’s resources will be dedicated to academic endeavors carried out according to the highest possible standards,” he wrote. “Professor Churchill’s conduct, if allowed to stand, would erode the university’s integrity and public trust.” Churchill’s conduct, said Brown, “clearly violated the University’s policies on academic freedom.”
Of course, Churchill and his defenders claim that Colorado’s two-year investigation was an assault on academic freedom because it arose from a public scandal about Churchill’s speech. Churchill’s lawyer even suggested to The Rocky Mountain News that “[a]ny discipline is wrong” in this case. But to suggest that notoriety somehow exempts Churchill from scrutiny is risible. Scrutiny should be applied to scholarly work – as a matter of practice. And Brown -- himself a public figure -- has rightly pointed out that public figures cannot escape accountability by hiding behind their fame.
Crucially, disagreement on this very point is dividing the American Association of University Professors. As Inside Higher Ed has reported, Margaret LeCompte, an education professor who is also president of the Colorado AAUP chapter, calls the Churchill investigation “an opening wedge in the concerted effort to curb academic freedom and tenure.” But Jonathan Knight of the national AAUP’s academic freedom program has defended universities’ right to investigate allegations of faculty misconduct.
Historically the custodian of academic freedom, the AAUP is struggling to clarify, for itself and others, what academic freedom is. And that struggle centers on accountability -- which, unfortunately, explains much of why the AAUP is encountering such difficulty. Roger Bowen, the outgoing general secretary, has vocally defended the notion that academics should not have to answer to anyone but themselves. “It should be evident,” he has written, “that the sufficient condition for securing the academic freedom of our profession is the profession itself.”
This is a far cry from Brown’s conception of academic freedom as part of a public trust. It’s also a far cry from the AAUP’s own foundational 1940 statement on academic freedom, which defines it as a set of “duties correlative with rights” and which sees academic freedom as the means by which colleges and universities serve the public trust: “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher … or the institution as a whole.”
Colorado has acknowledged that its system of peer review and professional assessment failed in Churchill’s case. It has taken steps to repair that system. And it has urged academics across the country to learn from its example. As Brown observed last March, “It is imperative that we in higher education take the initiative to examine ourselves. There are many lawmakers at the state and federal level willing to intervene if we do not do so.”
Noting that “much of the scrutiny we are under is of our own creation,” Brown urged academics to recognize how their reluctance to be accountable to the public has produced “the suspicion that higher education’s primary focus is protecting its own rather than guaranteeing the highly effective and productive teachers and researchers that students and taxpayers deserve.”
The arguments of Churchill and his misguided defenders do -- regrettably -- arise from a basic conviction that academics should be free from accountability. They involve manipulating the term “academic freedom” in ways that undermine a concept of foundational importance to the academic enterprise. They amount to an attempt to turn the concept inside out -- morphing what was originally a cluster of interlocking privileges and responsibilities centered on the public good into a justification for the false idea that academics have no obligation to the public at all. Finally, they stem from the profoundly mistaken premise – which Brown rebuts in his letter to the Board of Regents – that input from the public, from constituencies such as alumni and trustees, violates academic freedom as well. Why else would Churchill and his defenders absurdly claim that Brown’s advisory role with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni -- which ended a decade ago -- invalidates his opinion?
Far from being an “attack” on academic freedom, Colorado’s handling of the Churchill affair is, in fact, in defense of academic freedom. And if Churchill and his defenders win the day, their perverse redefinition of academic freedom will result in an immeasurable setback for that concept -- not to mention the academy itself.
As the decision-making process winds down in Colorado, Churchill’s career hangs in the balance. But so does the integrity of academia.
Anne D. Neal
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a First Amendment lawyer.