Kaleidoscope or Rubik's Cube? The AAUP's Academic Freedom Scholarship

Ashley Thorne

The American Association of University Professors has launched a new online Journal of Academic Freedom edited by AAUP President Cary Nelson. Access to the journal is free and issues will focus on academic freedom and “its relation to shared governance, tenure, and collective bargaining.”

NAS congratulates the AAUP on this publication. We hold the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles as a kind of canon. The Declaration set forth with great moral clarity the meaning of academic freedom as both a privilege and a responsibility for professors. It defined academic freedom for teachers as comprising three elements: “freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action.” The Declaration acknowledged that academic freedom applies to students as well, and it made clear that a professor “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.”

In recent decades, however, the AAUP has embraced a version of academic freedom in which it becomes a license to teach all sorts of ready-made conclusions and to politicize course material. NAS has responded to this misdirection in a number of articles and in a debate between Peter Wood and Cary Nelson at the most recent NAS national conference. The NAS and the AAUP differ in our definitions of academic freedom, but we see much to be gained by the Association’s new journal.

Looking at the first issue, there seems to be a theme, presented most explicitly in “The Demise of Shared Governance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute” by Nancy D. Campbell and Jane Koretz and in “Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) New Threats to Faculty Governance by Jan H. Blits. The theme is that corporate-style management is hostile to shared governance, and that administrators must not be allowed to usurp the role of the faculty.

Blits, who is president of NAS’s Delaware affiliate, describes the ideological reeducation agenda of the University of Delaware’s infamous residence life program.  In his article, a revised version of a paper he delivered at the 2009 NAS conference, Blits notes (as NAS did in our statement Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative) that such so-called “educational” programs “erode faculty governance and transfer academic control to service units that answer directly to the administration, not to faculty.” Blits calls the residence life program’s avoidance of faculty review “a dangerous precedent for an administration’s usurpation of the faculty’s essential responsibility and prerogative.

Some of the journal’s articles are broad conceptual treatises, such as “Professionalization as the Basis for Academic Freedom and Faculty Governance” by Larry Gerber and “Paranoia and Professionalization: The Importance of Graduate Student Academic Freedom” by Dan Colson, a graduate student of English at the University of Illinois. Colson pleads for acknowledgment for graduate students:

All I really ask is that you recognize that we are you! A few years younger, a great deal less experienced, but still dedicated individuals who share the same rights, responsibilities, and passions. Graduate student academic freedom is the freedom to learn, because learning requires freedom.

He does not discuss the academic freedom of the undergraduate student, although he does mention “the rights of current undergraduates who will soon join us in our programs.”

Most of the articles in this issue are story-driven. Jean Gregorek, formerly an Antioch College Associate Professor of Literature, romantically recounts the rise and fall of the short-lived Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute, born out of the death of AntiochCollege. The one-year failed experiment in “community-driven education,” fell apart over divisions concerning governance, she writes.

Cary Nelson himself has an essay in the journal, “The Last Indian Standing: Shared Governance in the Shadow of History,” which mourns the treatment of faculty members who were dismissed from Bacone College, historically an institution for educating Native Americans. Nelson cites as his sources a resolution issued by the now-defunct Bacone College AAUP chapter, an unsigned and undated leaflet “Where Are the Indians at Bacone College,” and his personal communication with Bacone faculty and staff members.

An article by Yeshiva University Professor of History Ellen Schrecker focuses on “attacks” on Ward Churchill. Her essay paints Churchill as the victim of “right-wing commentators” such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Schrecker venerates Churchill:

A lanky, long-haired fifty-eight-year old with movie-star good looks who affected a modified Native American style of dress with a beaded headband and dark glasses, Churchill was a prolific public intellectual whose thirty-seven page (now about fifty) C.V. listed two dozen books and hundreds of articles. Many, like his “little Eichmanns” essay, are highly polemical attacks on the past and present policies of the federal government, published by small presses and obscure journals far outside the academic mainstream.

She concludes:

Will the current, and, no doubt, future fiscal cutbacks force American faculty members into a defensive stance where they flee from all controversy; or will the passing of the Bush administration and advent of the Obama one encourage them to fight more vigorously for their own freedom of expression and that of their colleagues? Let us hope it is the latter.

The AAUP’s biases show through in articles like this one. Schrecker deplores “politically motivated exclusions of individual scholars,” but disregards politically motivated exclusions of students whom such professors seek to indoctrinate. We do agree with the idea projected by the journal that the faculty must reclaim its teaching responsibility and that universities must invest academic power in those who are intellectually competent to exercise it.

Academic freedom is a complex, multifaceted concept that deserves deep and thoughtful study. To that end, the AAUP journal has the potential to be an important resource and guide for academia as it faces controversies and considers its role in preserving academic freedom. Because universities struggle every day to understand this principle, the AAUP should have no trouble coming up with material for each issue.

The AAUP’s version of academic freedom, however, is a kaleidoscope, with shifting shapes that form a different image every time you look. We at NAS understood it as a Rubik’s Cube, which can be either a scrambled puzzle or a solved one. Scrambled, it appears inscrutable, yet it has an attainable—albeit elusive—solution.

NAS would like to see more scholarly writing on academic freedom as a puzzle with an objective solution. Our own journal, Academic Questions, is published as a forum for asking and answering serious questions about the academy. We may not find all the answers, but we are looking. The Journal of Academic Freedom won’t have all the answers either, but as it seriously seeks to examine academic freedom, we welcome it.

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