Freedom Bound

Timothy Fuller

Hans-Joerg Tiede, professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University, chairs the American Association of University Professors’ committee on the history of the AAUP. In University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors, Tiede focuses primarily on the AAUP’s purposes at the time of its founding in 1915, which had motives generated by the desire to reform the internal organization of universities and by the influence of democratizing progressivism. The university reform movement’s objective was to diminish the top-down authority structure of universities by curtailing the power of university presidents and governing boards. The developing emphasis on academic freedom for faculty was directly related to the issues of governance. This resulted in a tension between the ideal of a self-governing “republic of letters” and the persistence of the corporate university structure.

In addition, the democratization of higher education has only grown increasingly dominant. The twentieth century witnessed the nationalization of higher education, wherein colleges and universities became unavoidably more conscious of one another. Today developments in one institution are immediately evident to all others, fomenting pressures that, in the name of seeking competitive advantage in rankings and recruitment, produce homogenization, as one school’s programs and reforms that seem to be successful are quickly imitated by many others. The irony of this competition is its contribution to uniformity.

Faculty governance in one institution is affected by the unavoidable awareness of what everyone else appears to be doing. Even if one wants to remain independent of such pressures, it’s nearly impossible to remain so. Numerous national associations and foundations encourage administrators and faculty to fit their local circumstances to whatever is currently thought to be an advance in higher education. Even before the AAUP came into existence, the American Economic Association, the American Political Science Association, and others contributed to this development. As faculties and disciplines have become distinct professional classes they see themselves and are seen as playing a role in a national enterprise, the goals of which are often also set by state or national governments, creating a complex corporate entity that effectively limits faculty autonomy. Alongside these factors the eventual establishment of local AAUP chapters also contributed to emerging loyalties that transcend local commitment in the form of comparisons to selected lists of “comparable institutions” that challenge local college policies, especially to the detriment of the latter.

Autonomy may be out of reach, but the compensation for that was the development of the tenure system, which assured academics of security, and of some form of “due process” when threatened with dismissal, since increasingly in the early twentieth century old academic traditions were subjected to criticism, culminating in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The hierarchical administrative structure continues, but the protection of the professoriate accompanies it. The AAUP protected the idea that a faculty member is more than an employee, but has not enforced faculty self-governance in a republic of letters. Arthur O. Lovejoy, a principal founder of the AAUP, defended the need for university presidents but envisioned them as constitutional monarchs whose authority should be procedurally limited. Trustees should be limited to care of the financial interests of the university. Academic functions should be the prerogative of the faculty. Thus in cases where a university dismissed a faculty member the AAUP would independently investigate the matter to issue an opinion about the justification of dismissal.

From its inception the AAUP investigated a number of dismissals prompted for reasons no college president or board today would be likely to invoke, such as religious, doctrinal reasons. Tiede provides a detailed account of the most prominent cases of that time, for example cases involving opposition to World War I “and any kind of pacifist, pro-German, or insufficiently patriotic utterances.” The establishment of the primacy of academic freedom has since led to repeated disputes involving what, if any, limits exist to academics protecting themselves by invoking academic freedom, a matter dramatized by the politicization of academic life in the last generation. America’s 1917 entry into World War I anticipated this recurrent debate when loyalty to the United States was the issue. Tiede provides, for instance, a detailed account of the case of Scott Nearing, dismissed from the University of Pennsylvania, who joined the Socialist Party in 1917, along with similar cases at other universities.

He also shows that the goal of creating a national association with strong common bonds and policies could operate in tension with the emphasis on academic freedom insofar as the latter is supposed to foster creative innovation and exploration or institutional diversity. The professionalization of administrators with their own associations and programs, often inspired by concern for national trends and demands, parallels the professionalization of professors. The latter are torn between the demands that complex governance issues place upon them if they wish to have a say in institutional policy and their desire to teach and to do research, to live the life of the mind. The tension between academic freedom understood as the independent inquiries of scholars for whom learning is an end in itself, and the demands of the corporate university and its entanglement with numerous national bodies, governmental and nongovernmental, is considerable and intensifying. We see this, on the one hand, in efforts by the federal government to establish extensive assessment controls threatening thdrawal of federal funding for noncompliance, and, on the other, in the politicization of the classroom and political correctness, which deny the validity of academic freedom.

Tiede presents a useful history with case studies of the AAUP’s early years, but his account also reveals that the issues that gave rise to the AAUP still exist, and have grown more complicated. The definition of academic freedom, and its limits, was not resolved then and it is not resolved now. What faculty autonomy means in practice remains unclear. Perhaps Tiede will write a sequel to University Reform that deals with the issues as we now know them, such as invoking academic freedom to defend attacks on the very idea of truth or objective scholarship. This is not what the AAUP intended, but what we must now confront.

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