Save Academic Freedom

If the AAUP wants to protect faculty rights, it's time for it to take stands against misconduct in the profession, write Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black.

February 28, 2011

Tenure is disappearing. Corporate and government interests are interfering with academic research. And since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, the courts are suggesting that faculty members who speak out on governance may be punished, and even fired. "Academic freedom now confronts challenges powerful enough to ask not what its future will be," writes Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, in No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (2010), "but whether it will have a future at all."

Nelson’s warning is timely. But his analysis is incomplete. Focusing on how political, corporate, and administrative intrusions threaten academic freedom, Nelson casts professors as victims of powerful anti-intellectual forces. But that’s not the whole story. And if academic freedom is to be saved, the whole story must be told.

That story begins in 1915, with the founding of the AAUP.

Professional Ethics and the Public Trust

In 1915, the fledgling professional association issued its Declaration of Principles, a document that explained what academic freedom is and why it matters.

Noting that our colleges and universities form "a public trust," the Declaration stressed that "trustees are trustees for the public" and professors' "duty is to the wider public to which the institution itself is morally amenable." Trustees have limited authority to intervene in academic matters — and in return the academy ensures that professors are as accountable as they are independent: because "there are no rights without corresponding duties the freedom of the academic teacher entail[s] certain correlative obligations." Chief among these is professors' duty to maintain strict professional standards.

Academic freedom is, as Neil Hamilton has explained, a social contract — and will be lost if academics don’t fulfill their end of it. "If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship," the Declaration warned, "the task will be performed by others … who lack certain essential qualifications for performing it, and whose action is sure to breed suspicions and recurrent controversies deeply injurious to the internal order and the public standing of universities."

This prediction isn’t part of the story we usually hear about academic freedom. But it should be — for it is coming true.

In a 1993 survey, only 55 percent of professors said they "should, to a great extent, exercise responsibility for the conduct of their colleagues" — which means, the AAUP noted, that fully "45 percent failed to understand a major principle of professionalism, a predictable outcome of limited socialization in professionalism."

Forty percent of professors say their work has been plagiarized. But they have little recourse. Administrators, disciplinary societies and publishers are all retreating from the responsibility to address issues such as plagiarism. The same goes for conflict of interest. Stanford University, for example, forbids medical school faculty members from accepting drug company perks and payment for talks. But the policy is unenforced. The same is true for the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Colorado at Denver, and others. Then there are the academic economists who fail to disclose their corporate ties. Their institutions aren’t stopping them — and the American Economic Association is so far behind the curve that it doesn’t even have an ethics code. The list goes on and on. No one is minding the store.

This is not the profile of a profession that deserves the public trust. And yet academe has far fewer checks and balances than other peer review professions. Doctors can lose their licenses. Lawyers can be disbarred. But incompetent or dishonest professors are often forever. If they have tenure, they are very hard to fire, and just about impossible to retire.

How did such a sorry state of affairs arise? After all, the AAUP was awfully clear, way back in 1915, about academics’ ethical obligations. Sadly, the answer arguably originates with the AAUP itself.

The AAUP’s Forgotten Committee

The AAUP handles the "rights" side of academic freedom with ease. Within a year of its founding, the AAUP had formed its first, most prominent committee — Committee A — to defend academic freedom. And, except for a regrettable lapse during the McCarthy years, the AAUP has been a forceful faculty advocate.

But the AAUP has historically been very weak on responsibility — what the 1915 Declaration called academic freedom's "corresponding duties" and "correlative obligations."

Shortly after the AAUP was founded, it formed a committee on professional ethics and appointed John Dewey, an AAUP founder, to run it. But then nothing happened. Late in life, Dewey is said to have remarked that Committee B had never even met. While Committee A established itself as a strong advocate for professors’ rights, Committee B let decades elapse before issuing a statement on professors’ responsibilities.

Committee B’s 1966 Statement on Professional Ethics outlined professors’ obligations in research, teaching, and governance, stressing responsibility, honesty, and respect for professional norms. But it was tentative, even toothless. "In the enforcement of ethical standards, the academic profession differs from those of law and medicine, whose associations act to ensure the integrity of members engaged in private practice," it reads. "In the academic profession, the individual institution of higher learning provides this assurance and so should normally handle questions concerning propriety of conduct within its own framework by reference to a faculty group."

A high-minded evocation of ideals, the statement offered little guidance regarding reporting, evaluating, and sanctioning misconduct. Deferential and placatory, willing only to offer occasional "counsel" and to “inquire into complaints” solely “when local consideration is impossible or inappropriate,” Committee B was a far cry from Committee A.

In 1998, for example, Committee B drafted a statement outlining professors’ obligation to respond to misconduct. Strong reactions ensued. "Some believed that individual faculty members should be responsible for speaking out and reporting misconduct to authorities when they have knowledge of violations and that, furthermore, guidelines should be developed to handle ethical breaches by faculty colleagues," writes former Committee B chair Wendy Wassyng Roworth. Others "expressed grave concerns about what such a policy might unleash. How could an individual be absolutely sure that he or she was right about a perceived wrongdoing? How could one assess the seriousness of an infraction? What would be the consequences of a false or mistaken accusation?"

The statement was never adopted.

The AAUP still maintains a committee on professional ethics. But it does not meet regularly, lacks the power of Committee A, and, apart from a brief spate of activity in 1990 that yielded advisory statements on plagiarism, conflicts of interest, and multiple authorship, the committee has not done much meaningful work. As Robert O’Neil observes in Academic Freedom in the Wired World, Committee B has "atrophied" — a sign that academe's commitment to professional responsibility has likewise withered.

Making Things Right

Cary Nelson argues that "academic freedom now confronts challenges powerful enough to ask … whether it will have a future at all." One of those challenges is to restore public trust in academics’ ability to govern themselves.

Here are some thoughts about how to begin:

  • The AAUP should recommit to professional responsibility and the social contract. It should revive Committee B, making it as prominent and important as Committee A. Like Committee A, Committee B should investigate cases, issue statements, and set standards. It should censure institutions that don’t enforce those standards — and, when appropriate, professors who violate them.
  • Disciplinary societies should define and enforce ethical standards. As of 2000, Hamilton notes, less than one-third of disciplinary societies had "adopted comprehensive, clear, and accessible codes of ethics." Few knew whether their codes were working. Every disciplinary society should have such a code. Societies should emphasize education and enforcement, coordinate with institutions to set standards and evaluate wrongdoing, and publicly censure institutions and individuals when appropriate. And societies should recognize that failure to frame ethical standards and to engage meaningfully with institutional efforts to ensure professional integrity (whether as an independent watchdog, adviser, or partner) damages not only the society in question — but the discipline itself. (We have only to recall the instructive case of former Emory history professor Michael Bellesiles to see the truth of this. While Emory investigated credible charges that Bellesiles had falsified the research in his award-winning Arming America, the American Historical Association discredited itself in classic tu quoque form, accusing Bellesiles’ accusers of harassment.)
  • Trustees should take professional ethics seriously. Trustees should guarantee that all graduate students and faculty receive ethical training. They should require workable mechanisms for reporting, investigating, and sanctioning misconduct. Such sanctions should cover disciplinary actions up to and including dismissal (the AAUP cites Michigan State University, the University of New Mexico, and Northwestern University as examples of how this can be done). Disciplinary policies must honor due process, and, as the AAUP suggests, should include the option of publicly censuring faculty members. Trustees should cultivate accountability at the departmental, college, and institutional levels. They should publish reports on what their institution is doing to ensure faculty and student integrity.
  • Faculty should restore the integrity of peer review. Faculty senates should adopt the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics and devise specific, consequential mechanisms for reporting, evaluating, and disciplining misconduct. Faculty should incorporate ethics training into undergraduate and graduate student education, faculty orientation, and continuing faculty education. Hiring, promotion, and post-tenure review should be rigorous, robust, and as transparent as possible. Adherence to professional standards should be part of faculty collective bargaining agreements and contracts.
  • Accreditors should require colleges and universities to maintain professional standards and assess whether institutions are adhering to them.
  • Failing credible institutional efforts, governors and legislatures should consider requiring public universities to train graduate students and faculty in professional ethics. Such education is required for lawyers in many states, and for law students in every state. Academia should follow suit.

Nearly a century ago, the AAUP predicted that failure to ensure professional integrity would license the regulatory intrusions of trustees, legislators, and others. Now that is happening. And while the professoriate’s collective abdication of responsibility is not the sole explanation for these intrusions, it is a shamefully neglected piece of the puzzle.

Academic freedom belongs to the public — it is not the property of academics. Professors must explain why academic freedom is vital to our democracy — and prove that they deserve it.

Beset by budget shortfalls, rising tuition, poor learning outcomes, and scandal, our colleges and universities are under more scrutiny than ever. Demands for accountability have never been louder. Failure to meet those demands has never had a higher price tag.

Professors must decide how much academic freedom is worth to them. Is it worth policing themselves — consistently, consequentially, and transparently? If so, academic freedom might just have a future after all.


Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black are research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.


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