Accidental Activists

Author of new book on the history of the American Association of University Professors discusses how the organization has changed and remained the same over the last century, and what its next 100 years might look like.

October 22, 2015

Hans Joerg Tiede is a professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University, but he’s also an historian -- at least of the American Association of University Professors. Tiede, a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, has been telling the organization’s story at various events this year as it celebrates its centennial. He’s also penned its creation story in a new book out from Johns Hopkins University Press called University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors. The book chronicles the circumstances, events and personalities that led to the formation of the AAUP in 1915, and also takes on certain myths about its creation -- primarily the idea that it has always been an organization primarily dedicated to defending professors’ rights.

Tiede, who will begin a staff stint with the AAUP’s national office of tenure, academic freedom and governance in January, answered questions about the book and about how he thinks AAUP might evolve in the next 100 years to stay relevant.

Q: The AAUP today is synonymous with academic freedom. But you argue that the AAUP originally formed to advance the professionalization of the professoriate, similar to the role of the American Bar Association for lawyers. What exactly does that mean, and how did university governance structures in 1915 differ from what they look like today on many campuses, with faculty senates?

A: In 1915, trustees and regents regularly exercised much more direct control over day-to-day operations of the university than they do now. They often viewed professors as their employees, or “hired men,” to use a term of derision the founders of the AAUP employed, and treated them accordingly. The founders of the AAUP wanted to establish a role for the faculty in institutional governance that would make them the equals of the trustees rather than their subordinates. Academic freedom was an important part of changing the role of professors, since it directly related to their professional autonomy, but it was only one part in the overarching goal of the AAUP. A term that AAUP co-founder Arthur Lovejoy [a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University] employed to describe his vision of the university was that of a “self-governing republic of scholars.” While he saw a role for trustees in oversight, he did not believe that they should have final authority over academic matters.

The rhetoric the founders of the AAUP employed to criticize the existing form of university governance mirrored the form in which Progressive Era reformers criticized the existing form of political order in the United States, which they thought should be modified to account for changes in modern society. The lay governing board was seen as an outdated, colonial-era invention, which are terms that were used by some political reformers to describe the U.S. Constitution. The AAUP was very much a product of Progressive Era thought, which is the reason for my choice of the title of the book: University Reform. The founders of the AAUP saw the association as a movement for a reform of the university that would bring greater power to the faculty.

Q: When did academic freedom emerge as a focus for the AAUP? And can you talk a little bit about the Edward Ross case?

A: Academic freedom became a central focus of the AAUP almost immediately at its founding, but that was more accidental than planned. The most direct reason for the focus on academic freedom was a motion from the floor of the founding meeting by Columbia University economist Edwin Seligman, who was then chairing a committee on academic freedom established by the professional associations of economists, sociologists and political scientists. This Committee of Nine served as the immediate predecessor of what is now Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The other reason for the focus on academic freedom was the sudden increase in reports of academic freedom violations during the first year of the AAUP's existence, which caught the founders by surprise. At the end of the AAUP's first year, the association had decided to investigate five cases.

The Edward Ross case occurred at Stanford University in 1900. Ross was an outspoken sociologist whose advocacy for the free coinage of silver and against the immigration of Asian laborers irritated Jane Stanford, the widow of Leland Stanford and the university's sole trustee. Jane Stanford insisted that Ross be dismissed by Stanford President David Starr Jordan. The case was taken up by the newspapers and became a serious embarrassment for Stanford University. Seligman and Lovejoy both were involved in the case. Seligman authored an investigative report on the case -- the first ever in the history of U.S. higher education -- and Lovejoy resigned from Stanford in protest over Ross's dismissal.

The Ross case is sometimes cited as a direct cause for the founding of the AAUP, for which, however, there appears to be little evidence.

Q: What concerns about faculty rights were central to the AAUP in 1915? Which of those concerns are still central to the AAUP, and which new concerns have come to the fore?

A: First, I should say that the AAUP was not exclusively concerned with faculty rights at its founding. For instance, the AAUP was and still is interested in establishing guidelines on professional ethics. However, the main concerns about faculty rights have stayed quite constant during the last 100 years: they are still concerns about academic freedom, tenure and shared governance. What has changed about them is that the AAUP has responded to the many changes that have occurred in higher education over time and has sought to extend its work to a more inclusive definition of “faculty.” For example, in 1915, tenure existed as an informal understanding at many institutions. It was tied to rank, and so at many institutions, full professors could expect to be appointed indefinitely. However, instructors could be non-reappointed regardless of how long they had been at the institution. Similarly, participation in governance was tied to rank at many institutions, and at those institutions only full professors were allowed to participate in governance.

Early on, the AAUP was much more concerned with formalizing the rights of those at professorial ranks, and so it took its name, American Association of University Professors, quite literally. Over time, the association has extended its mission to include faculty at ranks below the professorial ranks and faculty on contingent appointments, and it has also responded to the changing composition of the professoriate and addressed concerns of women faculty and faculty of color. At its founding, the AAUP was, just as the professoriate at U.S. research institutions, overwhelmingly male and exclusively white.

Q: How did World War I impact the organization?

A: World War I is usually seen as the end of the Progressive Era in U.S. history, and it was also the end of the AAUP as an advocate for “university reform,” at least in the form that some of its founders had initially proposed. The AAUP retreated from its principles of academic freedom in response to the jingoism and hyper-nationalism that immediately followed U.S. entry into the war. Other than responding to the dismissal of AAUP co-founder [and Columbia psychologist] James McKeen Cattell, the AAUP did not investigate any of the multiple dismissals of professors accused of harboring pro-German or antiwar views. And in fact, the AAUP issued a statement on academic freedom in wartime that stands as a major embarrassment in the history of the AAUP, as it justified restrictions on academic freedom during “a time of special peril.”

Having agreed to limit academic freedom under such circumstances, the nation found itself in the middle of the first Red Scare immediately following the war, and so claims of “special peril” were raised again. It was during this Red Scare that the AAUP formulated its first statement on governance, and the oppressive climate of the time had an impact on the formulation of these principles. Rather than viewing the governing board as an outdated, colonial-era invention, this AAUP's statement on governance accepted the final authority of the board in all matters and backtracked from earlier, more radical demands that had been issued by Cattell but also by Lovejoy and [education reformer John] Dewey. Those who were still advocating more radical changes were now frequently subject to red-baiting, a charge that the AAUP's leaders apparently wished to avoid.

Q: How does AAUP today resemble what it looked like around 1915, and how is it different? How is it a stronger organization, and are there any ways in which you'd like to see it get back to its roots?

A: The biggest difference between the AAUP of 1915 and today is clearly the turn that the association took toward collective bargaining in the 1960s. The biggest resemblance is the way that the AAUP approaches academic freedom matters: through policy statements and investigations of academic freedom cases. In my view, the greatest strength of the AAUP is its reputation, and that is something that the association built over the course of the last 100 years. I think the views of the founders on governance are both important and somewhat neglected parts of the roots of the AAUP. Even if we don't get back to these roots, we should at least recognize them. Cattell's writings on governance should receive much more attention today than they do. He was not only insightful but also very witty -- he is highly entertaining to read.

Q: What’s been the biggest benefit to professors in having AAUP in existence in the last century?

A: The most important accomplishment of the AAUP in the last 100 years is, in my view, the standardization of the U.S. tenure system as a system in which tenure is independent from rank and is obtained after a fixed probationary period. While that system is constantly under threat, if you compare the procedural safeguards of tenure that existed 100 years, which were, as I mentioned, based on informal understanding, to the safeguards we have today, you will find that the AAUP's standards are very widely adopted by institutions. That is a significant change in higher education that has occurred over the course of the last 75 years -- since the formulation of the 1940 Statement of Principles.

Q: How do you predict AAUP might evolve over the next century?

A: If it is to be successful, in my view, the AAUP should continue to do what it has done over the last 100 years: it should stress the core principles of academic freedom, tenure and governance, and respond to the changes in higher education, including the changing composition of the professoriate. And so, I would predict that concerns of faculty on contingent appointments will take up an increasing portion of the work of the AAUP.

Committee A also has gone on record, both in terms of policy statements and in its case work, that extramural utterances should continue to have the same protections of academic freedom even if they are made over electronic media. I think the AAUP will have to continue to evolve to remain relevant to the professoriate at large.


Back to Top