The AAUP: A Moral Autopsy

Norman Fruman

Among the first things I did upon becoming a professor in 1959 was to join the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). To do so almost seemed like a religious obligation, a step any serious academic would eagerly and proudly take. The AAUP was then the largest and most influential academic association in the United States, an organization whose founding principles had become the bedrock upon which academic freedom and the security of tenure had been raised. Thirty-five years later I resigned. It had become clear to me that the AAUP had become part of the problems then roiling the academic world, problems that have continued and intensified to this day.

The AAUP was established in 1915, in a world radically different from ours, especially in the much smaller size, number, and cultural importance of colleges and universities. It was organized, in part, as a reaction to a long series of sensational academic firings at the beginning of the twentieth century. The story I most vividly remember, and that long seemed to me most emblematic of the organization’s origin and mission, involved Mrs. Leland Stanford’s dismissal of economist Edward A. Ross, whose views were too radical for her taste. On the Stanford faculty at that time was a man destined to become a distinguished American philosopher, Arthur Lovejoy, also a founder of the discipline known as The History of Ideas. Incensed to learn that professors served at the whim of their employers and could be summarily fired, he indignantly resigned—only to be subsequently denied a position at Harvard because its president thought him a “troublemaker.” As it became increasingly obvious that security lay in numbers, Lovejoy, John Dewey, and thirteen other prominent academics joined together to found the AAUP.

Its founding document was the magnificent “1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” a statement that inadvertently illuminates the widening gulf between the AAUP of the past and of the present. Here is its most relevant paragraph for the academic world of today:

Since there are no rights without corresponding duties, the considerations heretofore set down with respect to the freedom of the academic teacher entail certain correlative obligations. The claim to freedom of teaching is made in the interest in the integrity and of the progress of scientific inquiry; it is, therefore, only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim. The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditional by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit, that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language. The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the question at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.1

One could write a long article on the history of this remarkable paragraph, revealing not only how far the AAUP has veered from its founding principles but also how differently it regards professorial responsibilities and deportment once assumed to be integrally related to academic freedom. It is surely the relentless de-emphasis of the duties accompanying academic freedom that led the AAUP, for quite some time, to omit this document from its publications.

During its first twenty-five years the AAUP grew rapidly in numbers, prestige, and influence. After several conferences between the organization and its counterpart, the American Association of Colleges, an agreement was hammered out as to the basic freedoms and responsibilities of faculty members and students, finally embodied in the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” It took decades for many colleges and universities to accept that unless professors were secure in their jobs, after a probationary period of no more than seven years, genuine academic freedom would be constantly threatened. Without the guidance and bold initiatives of the AAUP, academic life in the United States would not have achieved the commanding position it now enjoys.

Among the 1940 statement’s most memorable passages was that dealing with the professor’s duties, responsibilities, and behavior not just inside but outside the classroom.

When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.2

It is chilling to read this passage with the knowledge that the AAUP committed its prestige and influence into defending University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill’s right to keep his position after declaring that the 3000 men and women who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 deserved their fate for being “little Eichmanns.” Adolph Eichmann, it will be remembered, was the infamous Nazi in charge of the transport that carried millions of Jews, Gypsies, and gays to the death camps. In time it was also learned that Churchill, in addition to making these reckless statements, had lied about being a Native American and that some of his publications were plagiarized. Eventually Churchill lost his job, but not all of his supporters in the academic world.

Throughout the turmoil the AAUP stuck by its published opinion: “[W]e reject the notion that some viewpoints are so offensive or disturbing that the academic community should not allow them to be heard or debated. Also reprehensible are inflammatory statements by public officials that interfere in the decisions of the academic community.”3 In other words, the university is an amoral world unto itself, unanswerable to outsiders. How to account for such an egregious failure of judgment in the AAUP leadership? How could it happen that nowhere in their defense of Churchill was there the slightest hint that they disapproved of his statement? Did they think the U.S. had it coming? Why were the leaders not guided by Committee A’s “1964 Statement on Extramural Utterances,” which declared: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position.”4 If Ward Churchill’s appalling statement did not clearly demonstrate his unfitness to teach anywhere at any level, it is hard to imagine a statement that would.5

There are other aspects to professorial behavior outside the classroom that raise difficult questions about freedom and responsibility. In the early sixties, as a member of the Academic Senate of California State University, Los Angeles, I was confronted with the following issues. A professor had an after-hours job as a bartender at a popular restaurant a short distance from the campus. Some members of the senate felt it was improper and grossly undignified for a faculty member to be serving drinks in a local bar to local students. Other members argued that what professors do on their own time was nobody else’s business. That opinion prevailed. A second dilemma involved professors who owned and operated full-time businesses. They had arranged with their department chairs to teach only in the evening programs and on Saturdays. Again, the argument for professorial freedom prevailed. These decisions would surely have been regarded as unthinkable to Dewey and Lovejoy, as well as the vast majority of academics until at least the mid-1960s.

In the aftermath of World War II the academic world experienced a totally unexpected explosive growth. As early as 1945 barely 11 percent of high school graduates went on to college.6 Higher education was still, in general, the preserve of the affluent. The G.I. Bill, however, made it possible for millions of World War II veterans to attend. Existing colleges and universities went on an expansion binge as the younger brothers and sisters of veterans decided that college was also for them. Today there are more than 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the US, and over one million full- and part-time faculty members.7 Amid all of this the AAUP continued to grow in size and influence. In recent years, however, both its numbers and campus chapters have been declining. About forty years ago it had some 90,000 dues-paying members; today the figure is closer to 40,000—a loss of approximately half its members.8 Why has the figure so dwindled?

For me the problem began with the widespread abuse of affirmative action and the ideological zealotry that accompanied it. Initially a program intended to overcome the consequences of centuries of brutal prejudice against blacks, its benefits were soon extended to include women, Hispanics, Native Americans, and minorities at the bottom of the economic and social ladder. The one group that found itself more and more the victim of these policies was white males. To complain about the unfairness of this was to expose oneself to the charge of being a racist. As time passed, the white male sometimes seemed to be on the verge of demonization. The acronym DWEM (Dead White European Male) became a commonplace of derision.

The great European and American cultural heritage was widely attacked as insidious, a body of works cunningly designed to impose ruling-class values on the underclass and above all on non-whites. Stanford students marched while chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” The Canon Wars, as the assault on the received body of Western literary classics came to be known, spread like a prairie fire throughout the country. The number of required courses in the humanities shrank alarmingly. Works by women, blacks, and Latinos, many published only in the past half-century, began displacing long-regarded European and American classics. In many English departments not even the study of Shakespeare remained obligatory.

Publishers hastened to revise their anthologies to make them more “multicultural,” which of course involved displacing or sharply reducing the pages devoted to DWEMs as well as major American writers. Race, class, and gender began to dictate not only what was read, but how the works were taught. Questions were raised as to whether writers like D.H. Lawrence, Philip Larkin, and John Berryman should be taught at all in view of their supposedly unacceptable political or social attitudes. Professors who resisted these developments were routinely derided as reactionaries, racists, or both. Thus the culture and campus wars intensified and are still being waged.

A typical reaction has been to reject charges of political correctness in the classroom as being based on isolated incidents, that is to say, “anecdotal.” It is well to remember that during the heyday of the Soviet Union visitors who reported widespread discontent, crumbling buildings, shortages of food, and various oppressions were dismissed by true believers as merely trading in anecdotes. Reports from the Kremlin, however, were generally regarded as authoritative.

My own experience has been one of anecdotes coming in droves. For example, while teaching in the English department at the University of Minnesota I asked one of my graduate students whether he had set a date for his wedding. He had been engaged for some time to another graduate student in English.

“No,” he said sadly. “It’s all over.”

I was taken aback. “What happened?” I asked.

There was a tense pause, and then he said, “You know that course she’s taking in women’s studies? Well, she told me that the professor, a lesbian, had urged the women in the class to explore their sexualities. That was the phrase: ‘Explore your sexualities.’ Don’t let men determine who you are. That’s for you to find out.”

Only an anecdote, useless in a dispute over what is happening in our universities, or is it a signal that our universities are launched on a quest for radical change? Well, if the former, what is one to make of the following? Just a few days after the above-mentioned exchange, another of my male graduate students told me with some bitterness that the girlfriend he had been hoping to marry, another graduate student in the English department, had abruptly ended their relationship. Why? She was enrolled in a course with the same professor and had also taken to heart the same advice to explore her sexuality before making any major decisions about who she really was.

A married woman in one of my classes told me she had dropped her class in feminist literary criticism because of the abuse she had experienced. The professor was eliciting from the women in the class instances of how men had exploited them, treated them like servants, behaved as if women mattered only as sexual playthings. My student said there was a good deal of excited enthusiasm as the students cited their own experiences with exploitive boyfriends. Increasingly annoyed, she raised her hand and said she didn’t feel exploited by men. On the contrary, she felt privileged. Her husband and her father had a business that sometimes involved getting up in the middle of the night to pick up a car or truck that had broken down on a highway. Winter temperatures in Minnesota can go well below zero. Snowy roads are, of course, dangerous. She said that every time her husband dragged himself out of bed to answer a distress call she felt very fortunate to be a woman, especially one who was catered to. When she finished her story she was hooted at and called a wimp.

There is no need to go any further with these anecdotes. No matter how many there are, they all can be dismissed as unverifiable chatter. But what about verifiable evidence? The English department at the University of Minnesota went fifteen years without hiring a white male full-time at the entry level, that is to say, as an assistant professor. It went twenty-one years without hiring a heterosexual white male at the entry level. When I complained about this to the president of the university at a faculty meeting he replied that he would not dream of interfering with a department’s judgment in a matter of this kind. This was an outright falsehood. Later, when I spoke to him privately, I asked whether he would interfere if the department had not hired a woman in fifteen years. His face flushed and he did not reply.

I came to know a young woman reporter at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune who now and then wrote on educational matters. She was especially interested in the University of Minnesota’s women’s studies department, about which she had heard rumors worth pursuing. I told her that it was almost impossible to get information that a university wants to keep to itself, and that the only way to learn what was going on in the department was to enroll in a women’s studies class, get to know several students, and learn what she could from them about other classes. She shrugged and changed the subject.

About a year later, the Star-Tribune published a front-page story about Minnesota’s women’s studies department, written by a young woman reporter unknown to me who was also a full-time student in Minnesota’s highly respected journalism department.9 The article was a devastating account of what went on in the class attended by the reporter. She was the only student in the class to receive a grade of C at the end of the term. Everyone else got a B or an A. The reporter had challenged the professor several times about assertions dealing with the lives of women in the United States. The course’s subject was essentially a diatribe against males. Women were victims. Men were automatically dominant and assertive. And so on. The article produced a storm of angry letters to the editor, some praising, others condemning it as wildly exaggerated, and even if true was surely an exception, a bad apple in an otherwise fine barrel. Critics of the article, at least as published, were faculty members. The fracas soon blew over and changed nothing. That a professor was punishing a student for not sharing all her opinions, and otherwise misusing her classroom, was ignored.

Despite the crucial values at stake in this bitter controversy, the AAUP has essentially had nothing to contribute. Indeed, it has been led into ruinous partisanship. For instance, in July 1991, then-AAUP president Barbara Bergmann released an explosive “Statement on the Political Correctness Controversy,” which was falsely published as the work of a Special Committee appointed by the president. It began thus:

In recent months critics have accused American higher education of submitting to the alleged domination of exponents of “political correctness.” Their assault has involved name-calling, the irresponsible use of anecdotes, and not infrequently the assertion that “political correctness” is the new McCarthyism that is chilling the climate of debate on campus and subjecting political dissenters to the threat of reprisal. For all its self-righteous verve, this attack has frequently been less than candid about its actual origin, which appears to lie in an only partly concealed animosity toward equal opportunity and its first effects of modestly increasing the participation of women and racial and cultural minorities on campus.10

This paragraph, especially the last sentence, startled and incensed many members of the AAUP. Animosity toward women and racial and cultural minorities? Is this slander what the organization’s founding statements insistence on courtesy in debate had come to?

In the Fall 1991 California Academic Review, Professor John Ellis, then a member of the Executive Committee of the California Conference, AAUP, responded with a devastating guest editorial. “In tone and substance,” he wrote,

[the Statement on the Political Correctness Controversy] is unlike any other public statement issued by the Association in its seventy-six year history. Most upsetting is its ad hominem attack on those who have expressed concern over the complex of campus phenomena generally referred to as political correctness. The motivation of these critics, we are told by the writers of the Statement, is an only partly concealed animosity toward equal opportunity [for] women and racial and cultural minorities on campus. Association members who have spent years defending freedom of speech are deeply distressed to see the AAUP enter a legitimate national debate and attack one side as morally unworthy.... [The Statement] suggests that colleagues and scholars such as James Barber, Eugene Genovese, Jacques Barzun, Irving Howe, Arthur Schlesinger, and a host of others are motivated simply by prejudice, rather than by serious concerns about what is happening on campuses today.11

The AAUP remained implacable and continued to defend its viciously insulting passage.

The following month, provoked by yet another badly mishandled academic conflict, proved more than I could bear. I wrote the following letter to the AAUP’s General Secretary, Ernst Benjamin:

Dear Mr. Benjamin:

I have been an AAUP member for over thirty years. I now have before me the card requesting membership dues as an emeritus professor. In fact I have decided not to retire so that I can continue to oppose from within the university what has been loosely called PC. I have put off renewing membership in the AAUP because I am dismayed at the organization’s craven passivity in the face of the gravest threats to academic freedom and the integrity of academic programs since the McCarthy era and the student riots of the 1960s. Yes, the AAUP has published some beautifully crafted position papers. I read them with pleasure, but also with the knowledge that the AAUP is taking refuge in ceremonial statements rather than action.

I am specifically appalled at the position you, Mr. Benjamin, took in relation to the controversy at the University of Texas at Austin, involving the attempt to politicize the composition program. It was a controversy I followed with particular attention, and I cannot believe that you were fully informed as to the basic issues and yet could condemn Professor [Alan] Gribben’s efforts to keep the composition course focused on writing and not on the supposed malevolence and ubiquitous racism of white American heterosexual males.

Professor Gribben was subjected to character assassination and isolation in a way fully equal to what happened to many of McCarthy’s victims. He is now leaving Texas for an obscure campus, a move extremely disruptive to himself and his family because life has been made intolerable for him. What can he be accused of, other than the courage to use his academic freedom to defend, out in the open, principles he believed in and that I thought the AAUP did too?

The local chapter of the AAUP has been essentially moribund for a long time. I have done what I could to get young people to join, but they are not interested. Why? Mainly, I believe, because they don’t see their own academic freedom threatened, and many of them don’t understand that their decisions are impinging on the academic freedom of others, decisions such as insisting that all members of a large English department teach a basic course out of the same polemical text, a text never designed for a composition course. What the AAUP needs to be emphasizing is the threat to its principles from within the university, and mainly from liberals and those farther left, the very people who once made up the heart of the AAUP. Perhaps that is why the organization is essentially incapable of acting vigorously in the crisis now before us, and why I am so bitterly disappointed in it.

Seventeen years have passed since I posted that letter to the Secretary General of the AAUP, years of relentless decline in the character and quality of higher education in basic areas of the university. What at one time would have been unthinkable is now commonplace. One can graduate from many universities, including famous ones, without ever having taken a course in history or literature or philosophy or studied a foreign language... Enrollments are shrinking, sometimes drastically, in departments with no clear relation to earning a living. Commitment to general education is more and more enfeebled. For generations it was taken for granted that the best universities were those run by their faculties. Today it is common for the individual professor to decide what the content of his or her course should be, and to be free to deal with subjects having no relation to the announced subject of the course. It has been the AAUP that has fought decade after decade to ensure the absolute autonomy of the professor, a position radically remote from the founding documents of the AAUP.

For me all this has been profoundly disillusioning. The deep respect I had for the professoriate’s commitment to learning in its broadest sense is long gone and has left me a sadder and perhaps wiser man—wise enough at any rate no longer to be a member of the AAUP.

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