Politicizing the Classroom, Part 1

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Frances Fox Piven, Ward Churchill, Bill Ayers—it isn’t hard to think of faculty members at the center of public controversies because of their political opinions. Of those three, only Churchill was disciplined—but on unrelated charges of academic misconduct. Kenneth Howell, Mark Moyar, Martin Gaskell, Bradley E. Schaefer, Julea Ward: names also in the news because of the confluence of academic and political matters, but much less recognizable.  

Howell is an adjunct professor who taught a course on Catholicism at the University of Illinois at Urbana, until he was dismissed last year following complaints that he had (accurately) summarized the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality. After a public outcry, the university reversed its decision

Moyar is a highly accomplished historian (B.A. summa cum laude in history from Harvard, Ph.D. in history from Cambridge; several acclaimed books from major university presses), turned down for appointments at Duke and the University of Iowa in circumstances that strongly suggest animus against him because he is a conservative and a Republican.

Gaskell is an astronomer who was the search committee’s top candidate for appointment at the University of Kentucky until a member of the committee began wondering (by e-mail) whether he was “potentially evangelical.” He was denied the appointment, he sued, and in January the University settled with him out of court for a reported $125,000.

Schaefer is an astronomer at Louisiana State University who was caught on video in an introductory class on “The Solar System” browbeating students whom he singled out for being global warming skeptics: “Blood will be on your hands!” The National Association of Scholars called for the university to suspend him from teaching until he agreed to show some respect for his students. The university’s only action was to rally to his defense.

Julea Ward was a student in Eastern Michigan University Graduate School Counseling Program who, two years into the program, with a GPA of 3.91, and only four requirements short of graduation, was dismissed from the program for refusing to “engage in gay-affirming counseling, which she viewed as helping a homosexual client engage in an immoral lifestyle”—a practice she sees as running counter to her religious belief that homosexual conduct is immoral. Ward’s suit against the university is currently before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The National Association of Scholars has filed an amicus brief in support of her position.

I begin with a reminder of these cases to add some concreteness to what follows.

New AAUP Policy

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP)  has just released a 73-page draft of a new policy aimed at creating new procedural safeguards to protect faculty members from unjust interference with their expression of political views. The policy draft titled, Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions, gets some things right and some dramatically wrong.

The Merits

Let’s start with what’s right. The report is framed by the observation that “politically controversial cases involving college and university teachers” are on the rise. That indeed seems to be the case, and the AAUP is right that the Internet has played a role. (None of the cases I mention above would have attracted much attention without the Internet spreading the word of what had happened.) The AAUP is also right that part-time and non-tenure track faculty members are especially vulnerable. It is right that we face a “deterioration of the tenure system” in the United States (p. 11). It is right that attacks on academic freedom in the 1950s characteristically took the form of trying to get faculty members who were reticent about their political views to acknowledge their positions openly (e.g. were they communists or former communists?), while “during the 1960s and after,” political controversy more typically arose around individuals who “tended to be more outspoken, if not downright obstreperous,” (p. 20).

Above all the AAUP is right in its declaration that:

All academic personnel decisions, including new appointments and renewals of appointments, should rest on considerations that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic’s professional responsibilities.

Some of the AAUP’s other declarations in the report also ring true. It is surely right that, “academics should not face sanctions for expressing controversial views on homosexuality, global warming, or government policies for combating terrorism,” (p. 30). And it seems plainly right that, “it makes no sense for an administration to discipline a faculty member for an off-campus statement that the faculty member could freely make on campus,” (p. 41). Lastly, many of the AAUP’s recommendations for specific procedures to ensure fairness in academic personnel decisions seem well-founded. The AAUP is surely right that members of hearing committees should be selected “on the basis of their objectivity and competence and of the regard in which they are held by the academic community,” (p. 58)—though it bears adding that that particular injunction is quoted in this report from a 1958 AAUP statement.

The Flaws

These are substantial merits, but they don’t add up to a compelling analysis and the report suffers from a strange kind of moral and intellectual obtuseness. The authors of Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions seem to think that the “controversies” to be addressed arise almost entirely from “political intrusion” from outside the university. They are concerned, in so many words, with an assault on liberal academia by “talk-show hosts, bloggers, and well-funded interest groups,” (p. 1) who put “untoward pressure on the university.” The AAUP’s task at hand is to defend academic freedom from this ignorant mob.

To be sure, at several junctures in the report, the AAUP allows that some controversies arise within the university, but the idea is merely glanced at and never developed in a report that is overwhelmingly about the danger of the public taking an untoward interest in responding to what academics do. The AAUP is, however, putting itself in a complicated position. It extols the willingness of faculty members to become social activists who use their academic positions to arouse the public. But it sees only danger in the public responding in kind. Activism apparently is good when pursued by academics bearing doubts about some aspects of society, but bad when society bears doubts about some aspects of the academy. To maintain this one-way avenue, distinctions must be drawn. We need, in particular, to understand why the academy should rightly criticize from a position of immunity, and why the public should not criticize at all. Basically that’s what Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions attempts to accomplish. Needless to say, it fails.

The report unrolls partly as a recitation of how the AAUP from its founding in 1915 has striven to protect mostly liberal and progressive academics from the dark cloud of “political intrusion.” And it has a theory about this, drawn from the AAUP 1915 Statement of Principles. In the AAUP’s view, the professoriate contributes to “the long-term interests of society” by standing outside the passions of the moment and offering up cogent social and political criticism. In this sense, “the university necessarily conflicts with the short-term currents of democratic public opinion,” (p. 4). Note that word “necessarily.” It is not that the supposedly long view of the liberal academics might sometimes find itself in conflict with “short-term” popular views. It is necessarily in such conflict.

Why should this be the case? The 2011 report relies on the 1915 one to explain that people committed to the “scientific method” make a practice of “taking long views into the future,” and are thus inclined to “check the hasty and unconsidered impulses of popular feeling.” I suspect there was something to this in 1915, when the authority of science stood high in the minds of professors across the curriculum. It is a bit harder to see Ward Churchill in the light of someone whose commitment to the scientific method and the long view offered a “check on the hasty and unconsidered impulses of popular feeling.” Professor Churchill, to the contrary, famously photographed lofting a rifle, exemplifies a certain kind of appeal to those very impulses.

I don’t introduce his name here gratuitously. The AAUP report introduces him explicitly (p. 42) and he is an implicit topic throughout.

The AAUP, of course, is free to pick its own ground and to narrow the topic as it pleases. At one point in the report, the authors in putting aside matters such as “disputes between faculty members and administrators,” declare that “this report on politically controversial decisions focuses only on those academic disputes involving the intrusion of external political, social, or economic concerns.” (Emphasis added.)

The Politicized University

The trouble with this is that it paints an entirely unrealistic picture of the nature of these controversies. They have seldom arisen because of the “intrusion” of external concerns. They have arisen because the university itself has willfully embraced politics. If you make the university a political player, other political players will respond in kind. That’s the nature of things. There is no free pass for academics to engage in social and political criticism while standing exempt from it themselves.

This is the central folly of this report. It presents a double standard. When someone outside the university speaks about campus matters, it is in the AAUP’s view illegitimate “pressure.” When someone inside the academy speaks, it is enlightened opinion. “Academic freedom” is construed by the AAUP as a firewall. Those inside can aim their weapons at those outside with impunity, but if those outside respond in anything other than humility, they offend against this fine principle.

At one point in the report, the authors note that “adherence to due process” may not be enough to safeguard the university because “superficial adherence” to due process “may provide politicized decision making with a veneer of legitimacy,” (p. 24). This is a nearly perfect phrase for the AAUP’s own procedure: a report that provides a “veneer of legitimacy” for developments that are in fact betrayals of the very principles that the AAUP claims to uphold.

The idea that “all academic personnel decisions” should be based on “considerations that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic’s professional responsibilities” is no sooner enunciated in the report, than the authors turn to the task of narrowing the conception of “effective performance” to convenient dimensions.

Honest, Un-deceptive Bad Teaching

So, for example, the AAUP narrows the grounds on which a university might find a faculty member abusing his classroom authority:

only the proven demonstration of the use of “dishonest tactics” to “deceive students”—not the political views, advocacy, or affiliations of the faculty member—provides grounds for adverse action. (p. 28)

Note what this rules out. Faculty members who pursue the “honest” tactic of propagandizing students in class commit no error in the AAUP’s view. Those who don’t “deceive students,” but instead mock students for holding political views at variance with the instructor are home free. Overbearing sarcasm, attempts to humiliate, favoritism, factionalizing students and setting them against each other in an effort to advance a political agenda—all apparently fair pedagogy and no grounds at all for “adverse action” in the AAUP’s view.

I would not for a moment want the “political views” or “affiliations of the faculty member” as grounds for adverse action, but in between those animadversions, the AAUP slips a third much more problematic term: advocacy. The whole of Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions is distilled in this word and the report might well be characterized as an elaborate rationalization for those faculty members who seek to use their positions to engage in political advocacy.

Why should this bother anyone?  Because the university exists to teach students, and it should do so in a fair-minded, dedicated, and conscientious way. That it is not living up to this standard ought to be apparent to anyone who is paying attention. Only a few weeks ago, for example, a new book, Academically Adrift, offered detailed evidence compiled by two sociologists that more than a third of college seniors graduate having made no intellectual gain at all over the course of their undergraduate study. It ought to be the main concern of faculty members to fix this problem, rather than spend their efforts “advocating” for or against this or that candidate, party, or policy.

The university has a responsibility to sort out the important things for students to learn, to find the blend of substantive knowledge and intellectual skill that will enable students to grow intellectually. And it has a correlated responsibility not to distract students from the important things by focusing their attention on trivialities or diverting them into short-cut ideologies. When the AAUP opens wide the door for politicizing the classroom, this is what it invites in.

In Part Two, I will examine some of the other dodges the AAUP uses to ensure that a standard of “effective performance” does not get in the way of those professors who wish to use the college classroom as a bully pulpit for their political views.

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