Who Polices Academic Freedom?

At AAUP meeting, a debate over whether its national committee is stretched too thin to carry out its duties, and needs help from the states.

June 14, 2012

WASHINGTON – For decades, the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A has been in the forefront of investigating potential violations of academic freedom, often recommending institutions for censure. The committee's reports offer detailed histories of cases and the reasons the AAUP believes faculty rights have been violated. But some speakers at a session at the association’s annual conference here suggested Wednesday that state conferences of the organization should be allowed to do similar work because the national committee is stretched too thin and does not have enough resources.

The suggestion seems to have come at a favorable moment for advocates of this shift, when new leadership among the nationally elected members of the organization is seeking ways to make the AAUP more effective and relevant to faculty members at the local level and focus more resources on the collective bargaining role of the organization.

Two speakers at the session – Myron Hulen, a former professor of accounting at Colorado State University, and Don Eron, a senior instructor of writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder – said the national committee is not effective because it is not able to investigate a majority of academic freedom violations that happen across the country. About six years ago, the Colorado conference of the AAUP started a Committee for the Protection of Faculty Rights, because there were a growing number of cases in the state where faculty members felt that their academic freedom rights were violated, they said.

Hulen suggested that other state chapters could do something similar, although he cautioned that investigations are time-consuming and difficult. “We want to help the individual faculty member faster. The jury is still out as to what kind of impact we might have, but the universities are aware of us,” Hulen said.  Eron, from Boulder, said that he had often heard AAUP members at the state level say that the organization does not do anything for them. “This would be a way of expanding services without expanding costs,” he said.

Another speaker at the session, John K. Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate in education at Illinois State University whose dissertation is on academic freedom, said he did not view the AAUP as a hierarchical authority with the national office holding the reins of power. “The problem for the AAUP is that it is perceived as not doing much,” Wilson said. He called for “rapid response advocacy” with state chapters advocating forcefully for academic freedom while Committee A sticks to its more traditional work.

The dissenting voice came from an expected quarter – Ernst Benjamin, former general secretary of the AAUP, who drew a distinction between advocacy by a state conference and an investigation by a national committee. He called the work of the committee a slow and careful process that ensures that any investigation follows established guidelines, and pointed out that faculty members investigating any alleged transgressions of academic freedom are not local and thus can be impartial.

Most of those who spoke rejected Benjamin's analysis, especially Eron, the senior lecturer at Boulder, who suggested that the AAUP would be reduced to a paper tiger if it were to continue with what it is doing when it comes to Committee A.

Vociferous criticism also came from assembled faculty members in the audience. David Linton, a professor of communication arts at Marymount Manhattan College, questioned Benjamin’s assertion that the committee was really neutral “when we are not … it is impossible to create this impression.”

Henry Reichman, a professor of history at California State University East Bay who will assume office this week as the AAUP’s first vice president, said that if the AAUP let too many incidents of academic freedom violations go by, it would “lose credibility among members and faculty who could be members.”

After the session, Hulen mulled over what he had just heard. “If we don’t move in this direction, the AAUP will cease to be viable,” he said.


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