When the Professor Is Controversial

AAUP issues draft guidelines to keep personnel decisions focused on academic competence, not political views.
February 18, 2011

The political views of academics should not be used as the bases to hire, fire, promote or demote them. That idea -- not terribly disputed -- is at the center of draft policies being released today by the American Association of University Professors on how to handle personnel issues involving politically controversial academics.

But even if the AAUP and many of its critics agree on that statement, they are likely to disagree on at least some of the principles put forth by the association. Generally, the draft policies are consistent with past AAUP statements on academic freedom, and the proposals guard the autonomy of faculty members to (generally) say what they want in the classroom and in their non-work lives. "The fundamental principle is that all academic personnel decisions, including new appointments and renewal of appointments, should rest on considerations that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic’s professional responsibilities," the report says.

Of course what looks like political intrusion to some could look like appropriate scrutiny to others. The AAUP report -- though devoting extensive attention to intrusion from outside the university -- states that it can also come from inside academe.

"Political intrusion usually arises out of controversies over political ideology, religious doctrine, social or moral perspectives, corporate practices, or public policy -- not more narrowly professional disagreements and disputes among academics," the report says.

"Even though political intrusion involves differences of opinion regarding extra-university societal controversies, it may nonetheless arise from within as well as from without the university, and with little public notice. Internal political intrusion sometimes occurs when members of the university community who are sensitive to political concerns engage in self-censorship as, for example, when faculty committees seek to minimize controversy or public opprobrium rather than to protect academic freedom. Internal political intrusion also occurs when politically motivated members of the university community violate or disregard sound academic principles and procedures. For example, the denial of promotion or tenure by liberal academics to a conservative academic, or the reverse, if based on disagreement with the applicant’s views rather than on a scholarly evaluation of the applicant’s professional competence and performance, constitutes political intrusion regardless of whether persons outside the academic community were involved."

To prevent inappropriate political intrusion, the report offers a series of principles. For example, when responding to charges that indoctrination is going on in the classroom, the AAUP states that "[o]nly the proven demonstration of the use of 'dishonest tactics' to 'deceive students' -- not the political views, advocacy, or affiliations of the faculty member -- may provide grounds for adverse action" and that "[n]either the expression nor the attempted avoidance of value judgments can or should in itself provide a reasonable ground for assessing the professional conduct and fitness of a faculty member."

Further, the AAUP draft states that in discussions of whether a professor is straying from appropriate material in the classroom, it's not for non-academics to make the call. "Whether a specific matter or argument is essential to a particular class or what weight it should be given is a matter of professional judgment, based on the standards of the pertinent disciplines and consistent with the academic freedom required if the disciplines themselves are to remain capable of critical self-reflection and growth."

The report says as well that colleges must focus on academic substance, not style. "The academic imperative is to protect free expression, not collegiality," it says. And as to political speech outside the campus, the report says that "consideration of the manner of expression is rarely appropriate to an assessment of academic fitness."

The AAUP also suggests a series of protections for academics, so that when faculty are being evaluated, politics does not have too much influence. Many of the suggestions stress the faculty role, stating that outside groups should not be able to set off full investigations by complaining that they don't like something some professor said, and that faculty colleagues, not administrators, should be leading inquiries.

At many colleges, ultimate sanctions (such as demotion or dismissal) are made by governing boards, acting on the recommendations of administrators and of faculty committees. While the AAUP draft doesn't call for changes in these arrangements, it stresses that the norm in such cases should be to follow the advice received from faculty bodies.

"The governing board would be well advised to follow the advice of the faculty committee, particularly in politically controversial cases in which academic freedom is at stake," the report says. "If, after such consideration, the board nonetheless reaches a determination contrary to the recommendations of the hearing committee or increases the severity of sanctions, the board must provide the faculty committee and the individual with written, detailed, and compelling reasons for reversing the committee’s recommendation."

Ernst Benjamin, a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and chair of the subcommittee that wrote the new report, cited the recommendation on governing boards as an example of the panel's approach to these issues. The report "draws on our long-held principles," Benjamin said, but it also adds detail on "the importance of the faculty role and faculty expertise" in deciding whether wrongdoing has taken place and what punishments might be appropriate.

The extent to which governing boards follow faculty advice on such matters has been key to the debates over the firing of Ward Churchill by the University of Colorado Board of Regents. A faculty panel had found Churchill guilty of misconduct, but did not recommend dismissal. One member suggested that Churchill be fired. Two recommended that he be suspended for five years without pay. And two recommended that he be suspended for two years without pay.

Another shift in emphasis, Benjamin said, can be seen in the language stressing that any faculty statements be evaluated on their substance, not their style. In an era in which "all sides of issues are speaking with more hyperbole, and more sharply," he said that the AAUP panel wanted to be sure faculty members were not punished for a particular rhetorical approach.

Political complaints about faculty members are nothing new, the report notes. But Benjamin said that their nature has changed. In an era when someone can film a class and distribute that video (with or without context) or a critique of a professor instantly online, faculty members are more vulnerable, he said. "The pressure has intensified."

Another key shift, Benjamin said, is that greater and greater proportions of those teaching in higher education are adjuncts, lacking the kinds of job protection that tenured faculty members enjoy. Benjamin cited the recent case of Kristofer Petersen-Overton, who was hired to teach a course on Middle Eastern studies at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and had his job offer revoked after a state legislator complained about his political views. While the college maintained that it didn't bend to political pressure, it was widely seen as having done so -- even after Petersen-Overton was hired back.

"Adjunct faculty have almost no protection," Benjamin said.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, reviewed the executive summary of the report and said he found statements to endorse and some to question. (The National Association of Scholars, which advocates for a traditional curriculum and against what it sees as political correctness, has a record of agreeing with the AAUP on some issues while differing on many others).

Wood said that the NAS would strongly agree that personnel decisions about academics should not be made on the basis of their politics, and that politically based decision-making is a real problem in higher education. But he also said that the AAUP was engaged in some "academic paranoia" in the way it framed the issue.

He said that the emphasis appeared to be on controversies that originate outside the academy -- and that the AAUP was suggesting that there was no such thing as "a legitimate concern" that a non-academic might have about a professor. The tone of the report suggested that "criticisms from outside should be de-legitimized as pressure, rather than as criticism," Wood said. Many of the controversies involving professors and the public, he said, arise "out of the politicization of faculty members themselves and the adversarial stance they have taken toward American policies."

Further, he said, the references to outside forces shift attention from "threats within the university" in which faculty members apply political tests to determine whom to hire and promote.

While Wood said he supported free speech, he said that the AAUP was giving too much leeway to faculty. At a time when studies are finding that students aren't learning enough in college, Wood argued, maybe it is a good thing if some faculty members engage in what the AAUP terms "self-censorship" and focus on academics. The report, in contrast, seems to suggest that "it is always appropriate for faculty members to be engaged in political activity," he said.

He also said he questioned whether the AAUP has set too high a bar for anyone to raise criticisms of what goes on in the classroom. Citing the AAUP statement that "[n]either the expression nor the attempted avoidance of value judgments can or should in itself provide a reasonable ground for assessing the professional conduct and fitness of a faculty member," Wood asked the following: "What about a mathematics professor who shouts screeds that are anti-Semitic in class? Does the AAUP think that's a problem?" (Benjamin said that the AAUP indeed would think that was a problem, and that the draft policy was about expression of views, not actions that would harm the learning environment.)

More broadly, Wood said that the AAUP appears to be "trying to create a firewall around faculty" so that "no one other than faculty has a legitimate place at the table," when the conduct of a faculty member is being discussed. And he said it was hard to take the AAUP report at face value when the AAUP "is silent" about cases of bias faced by conservative faculty members, while speaking out on behalf of others.

Benjamin stressed that the AAUP was committed to protecting professors of a wide range of political views, and that the association's commitment to academic freedom included unfair bias from within higher education. But he said that "we believe there is a problem from outside the academy," especially on issues such as the Middle East and climate change.

And to the extent that the AAUP may have spoken out in more recent cases involving left-leaning professors than their right-leaning counterparts, Benjamin said this didn't mean that the AAUP cared more about one political camp than another. "We think it's more often now that the attacks have come from the right than the left."


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