American Association of University Professors Abandons Educators Under Siege

Peter Wood

Over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1915 Columbia University economics professor E.R. A. Seligman shared a draft document with his colleagues, Princeton economics professor Frank Fetter and Johns Hopkins philosophy professor Arthur O. Lovejoy.  The three succeeded in putting into final form what became the founding document of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a 16-page “Declaration of Principles.”  It defined for the first time a fully worked conception of “academic freedom” and is nine-tenths of the reason why Americans give any credence to the idea that college professors should have some special measure of protection for their research, their publications, and other expressions of (some of) their views.

One hundred years later, how is the AAUP’s founding vision holding up?  Consider the case of Vanderbilt professor of political science and law Carol M. Swain.  Professor Swain wrote an op-ed in The Tennessean last January, under the title “Charlie Hebdo attacks prove critics were right about Islam.”  The university’s Muslim Student Organization objected and the furor reached the national press.  Swain also posted some of her pro-Christian views on her popular Facebook page, which Vanderbilt students began to read more assiduously after the op-ed, apparently fascinated by the spectacle of someone who was willing to dissent publicly from the prevailing ideological orthodoxy.  The spectacle finally proved too much for one alumna, Emily Arnold, who created a petition calling for Swain to be fired from the university.  The petition was later amended to call for “suspending” Swain instead of firing her, and requiring her to undergo “cultural sensitivity” training. 

The petition says that over the past few years Swain “has become synonymous with bigotry, intolerance, and unprofessionalism.”  Swain, it alleges, has engaged in unprofessional intimidation on social media, discriminatory practices in the classroom.  It had gained as of a few days ago 1,736 signers.  

The gist of the petition is that Arnold and her friends disagree with Swain’s views and would like Vanderbilt to shut her up or get rid of her.   In an online interview, Arnold expresses her delight in the large number of fellow students who have joined her. She is “shedding tears of joy.”   

Vanderbilt chancellor Nicholas Zeppos issued one of those statements that takes away with one hand what the other hand gives.  Vanderbilt upholds “freedom of speech and academic freedom, which are the foundations of our university’s scholarly activities,” he said, but added, “speech whose sole purpose or effect is to discriminate, stigmatize, offend, foment hatred or violence, or cause harm has no place in this university.” Swain promptly answered that the Zeppos’ statement “offered me no comfort” because it accepted as true the “false narrative” advanced “by the strongest groups on campus” that “marginalizes and discriminates against orthodox Christians.” 

Swain stands publicly accused of “expressing hatred towards minorities” (Swain herself is black) and for “discriminatory practices” in the classroom.  Her chancellor temporizes.  And the AAUP?  Total silence.  

The AAUP, of course, cannot comment on, let alone investigate, every instance in which a university community engages in mob action against a professor’s academic freedom, or even every instance in which the university administration is passive or complicit.  Were it to attempt to exercise that kind of vigilance, the AAUP would clearly be overwhelmed at the moment.  College and university presidents by the dozens are declaring themselves on the side of Black Lives Matter protesters who are intimidating and sometimes assaulting fellow students and faculty members.  The president of Claremont McKenna College, Hiram Chodosh, went so far as to invite the protesters to stage a “sit-in in my office.”  

Still the AAUP found time to hold a session at its national meeting in June on the Steven Salaita case; to issue a formal “statement” in August 2014; to publish some 38 articles in its Journal of Academic Freedom dealing with aspects of the Salaita’s matter; not to mention an untold number of entries on the AAUP’s Academe Blog and other sites.  I trust readers can find their own way around the controversy of the Native American Studies professor whose hatred of Israel had reached the fever pitch that he tweeted his desire to see more settlers murdered; whom the University of Illinois decided not to appoint; and who has now received a $875,000 settlement.    

Let’s turn back to that Thanksgiving working session in which Professors Seligman, Fetter, and Lovejoy set themselves the task of enunciating the nature of “academic freedom.”  They were fearless in standing up to the intellectual bullies of their age—bullies that typically commanded enormous financial fortunes, political clout, and popular support.  But the trio did not view academic freedom as an all-purpose liberty.  

Their Declaration declares that this special freedom exists for a special purpose, namely, “progress in scientific knowledge” which “is essential to civilization.”  To achieve this progress “few things can be more important than to enhance the dignity of the scholar’s profession.”  There is a great deal more in this elevated view of the work professors do.  They earn their special privilege because after “prolonged and specialized technical training” they offer the results of their investigations and reflection “without fear or favor.”  The freedom that they need is granted because they do their work so scrupulously that “no fair-minded person shall find any excuse for even a suspicion that the utterances of university teachers are shaped or restricted by the judgement” of people who are not “wholly disinterested.”  Then there is this:  “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 methods and held in a scholar’s spirit.”  

Times change.  In the century since the AAUP enunciated those principles, the organization has repeatedly revised them, and always in the direction of demanding more freedom with fewer responsibilities.  The cornerstone idea that academic freedom is conferred precisely because the professoriate commits itself to disinterested inquiry has been jettisoned entirely by today’s AAUP, which generally sees the university as a tool of progressive social change.  Rather than guarding against the intrusion of political advocacy, the AAUP regards political advocacy itself as the very reason for academic freedom.  

But not just any political advocacy—progressive political advocacy.  So the Israel-reviling Steven Salaita is in, and the Christian critic of Muslim murders, Carol Swain, is out.  Is it that simple?  Probably not.  The AAUP has sometimes come around to defend the academic freedom of professors whose views surely jar against the political convictions of most of its members. The Mike Adams case comes to mind. But the general picture remains that the pursuit of knowledge “essential to civilization” has receded into the far recesses of AAUP consciousness and academic freedom today has much abler defenders than the body that came into being a hundred years ago on the lofty ideals of the “Declaration of Principles.”  We are in need of something else today—a declaration that recognizes that the greatest threat to academic freedom we face is from ignorant students such as Emily Arnold and cowardly college presidents such as Nicholas Zeppos. 

This article orginally appeared in Frontpage Mag on December 2, 2015

Image: Vanderbilt University - Nashville. TN by blotour13 / CCBY

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