Tactical Shift or Tactical Error?

AAUP endorsed statement on academic responsibilities, but comes out against including it in key federal bill.
September 16, 2005

When a coalition of higher education groups issued a statement on "academic rights and responsibilities" in June, organizers made a point of noting that the American Association of University Professors was part of the effort.

Most of the groups involved were associations of administrators or institutions, but the AAUP's participation allowed the group to have representation from the faculty as well, and in particular from a group devoted to defending academic freedom. The statement -- which affirmed the values of intellectual diversity and of colleges' control of their own academic programs -- was an effort to beat back efforts to legislate the "Academic Bill of Rights," which many professors believe would hurt their academic freedom.

The AAUP's involvement raised eyebrows among some faculty leaders, who said that the association shouldn't have been involved with efforts to satisfy David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has pushed the Academic Bill of Rights, which calls for professors to present a range of views in class -- and which many faculty members believe would make them vulnerable any time they say or teach something that is controversial.

Now, both the House and Senate versions of the Higher Education Act, the major law that governs student aid programs, have language in them based on the joint statement issued by the higher education groups. And now the AAUP is criticizing Congress for including that language -- and the American Federation of Teachers is saying that the AAUP's signing off on the statement made it next to impossible to keep the statement out of the legislation.

The language itself sounds pretty innocuous. The Senate version of the bill expresses the sense of Congress that "students should be treated equally and fairly," and that "within the context of institutional mission, a college should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas." That language is similar to what the higher education associations endorsed.

So why would anyone object? Critics of the Academic Bill of Rights, some of which has similar language, say that this statement and its inclusion in legislation suggests that Horowitz was correct in saying that students are being punished for their political views. And they say that these seemingly harmless statements could be used by a student who didn't want evolution taught as truth, or by a Holocaust denier demanding equal time in a course on Nazi Germany.

Others object to Congress saying anything about how colleges should do their business. The AAUP's letter to senators opposing the portion of the Higher Education Act dealing with these issues says: "Congress historically has refrained from imposing federal control over the federal operation of our colleges and universities. The setting of academic policy is best left in the hands of the academic community, administrations, faculties, and governing boards of the institutions themselves." As a result, the AAUP asked that the section of the bill dealing with these issues be removed.

Mark F. Smith, director of government relations, said that there was no inconsistency in the AAUP supporting the coalition statement, but opposing similar language in legislation. "We support the statement as a statement of the higher education community," he said. "But the government shouldn't get involved at all."

The American Federation of Teachers agrees with the AAUP that these issues shouldn't be dealt with in legislation. It also wrote the lawmakers urging them to take the provision out. The AFT letter said that the section in question violates "longstanding principles of academic autonomy by delineating a set of government guidelines for policies on college campuses nationwide." The provisions, the AFT said, ignore the reality that colleges already protect their students from any ideological unfairness. "Section 104 appears to be a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist," the letter said.

While the AFT and the AAUP are united in opposing the legislation, they differ on strategy. The AFT did not sign on to the higher education statement on academic rights, and criticized it from the start. What's more, the AFT said that lobbying efforts against the measure were undercut by having the AAUP endorse the joint statement.

"I find it astounding that the AAUP endorsed the statement," said William Scheuerman, an AFT vice president and president of the United University Professions, the faculty union of the State University of New York. Scheuerman said that in lobbing lawmakers against including any language on the Academic Bill of Rights "everyone I talked to justified putting language in" by pointing out that the joint statement had been endorsed not only the American Council on Education, but by the AAUP.

Smith, of the AAUP, said it was not his association's intent -- in endorsing the statement -- that it would ever end up in legislation. But Scheuerman said, "when you are in a position of responsibility, you should recognize the implication of what we are doing. Whether intended or not, this will be interpreted as a compromise on academic freedom."

While Scheuerman said that the AFT would continue to lobby against the provision, he said that he thought it was too late, and that some version of it would be in the Higher Education Act. "This horse is already out of the barn and trampling people," he said.

As for Horowitz, he said that if the AAUP agrees with the joint statement but not the legislation, it should join him in urging individual colleges to adopt the joint statement. He said "the AAUP's opposition to the academic freedom provisions of the reauthorization bill is an obstruction of the process of getting universities to implement the academic freedom policies the AAUP claims to support."

Horowitz, the AAUP, and the AFT are also all watching the action in state legislatures on this issue. In Ohio this week, a sponsor of a resolution modeled on the Academic Bill of Rights withdrew it after an association of colleges said that it would urge members to voluntarily pledge to uphold freedom of expression and student opinion.


Back to Top