Politicizing the Classroom, Part 2

Peter Wood

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

In Part One of this post, I began a review of the new report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) titled Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions. The report is, in effect, a mask for the effort to politicize the university even further. The “controversies” it would protect the university from arise not, as the AAUP would have it, mostly from the “intrusion” of outside parties, but from the attempt to use the university as a platform for partisan political advocacy. In this second and concluding part, I examine some of the ways in which the AAUP attempts to build a firewall around faculty members who abuse their privileges while ignoring others whose academic freedom is genuinely at risk.  

All Judgments Welcome, No Questions Asked

At times the authors of the report seem so eager to keep the door of advocacy wide open that they issue declarations that they surely have not thought through. Here, for instance, their zeal not to preclude a faculty member’s right to express an opinion takes the form of an absolute:

Neither the expression nor the attempted avoidance of value judgments can or should in itself provide a reasonable ground for assessing the professional conduct and fitness of a faculty member. (p. 30)

Really? Are we to suppose that the AAUP would be happy to apply this principle to those whose “value judgments” are in character racist, anti-Semitic, or misogynist and who express these views openly in class? Or that the AAUP would be happy to defend the open expression in class at a secular university of a religious believer whose “value judgments” include the damnation of non-believers?  In the real world some “value judgments” comport poorly with “fitness” of a faculty member to teach. The problem in this case is that the AAUP is thinking only of certain issues. It names them in the sentence preceding the declaration of principle: “controversial views of homosexuality, global warming, or government policies for combating terrorism.”

These are indeed matters on which contentious “value judgments” are made, and it is interesting to see how not long ago AAUP president Cary Nelson equivocated about John Yoo’s academic rights in a case involving “government policies for combating terrorism.” Yoo is the University of California Berkley law professor who, while on leave served in Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush, where he wrote justifications for holding enemy combatants and used “enhanced interrogation techniques” (e.g. waterboarding) on them.  When he returned to Berkley, protesters accused him of war crimes and demanded that he be fired. Nelson came out in favor of “due process” for Yoo, as opposed to summary dismissal. But Nelson’s article certainly doesn’t read like a robust defense of Yoo’s right to express his own value judgments. Of course, Nelson points out that he is writing for himself and not articulating the AAUP’s official position.

The AAUP’s principle is thus both overstated and underapplied. We should welcome some forms of reticence on the part of the faculty members. Not all their value judgments belong on display in the classroom. I would think, for example, that Professor Bradley E. Schaefer, the Louisiana State University astronomer I mentioned at the beginning of yesterday’s article, might improve his “fitness” for teaching about the solar system by leaving at home his disdain for students who disagree with him about global warming. But in a case where a faculty member is targeted for his professional views, as was Yoo for his position with the Department of Justice and Howell for his teaching on Catholic doctrine at the University of Illinois, we really do need to protect that right. These are cases where an individual expressed statements germane to the subject, fully within his professional competence, and in an appropriate manner. I hope that when the AAUP gets around to finalizing this draft, they will amend this passage in the direction of a more careful set of distinctions.

The Bombast Protection Clause

One more example of how the AAUP giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other: The AAUP’s commendable principle 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,” stands or falls on what “considerations…demonstrably pertain” to the effective performance of a teacher. I would have thought that the capacity of an individual to communicate lucidly, audibly, and in a manner reasonably matched to the intellectual level and needs of the students would fall within the scope of what demonstrably pertains. But not according to the AAUP. Instead, it announces:

consideration of the manner of expression is rarely appropriate to an assessment of academic fitness. (p. 39)

I would say the exact contrary:  consideration of the manner of expression is always appropriate to an assessment of academic fitness. We need teachers who can modulate, who don’t rant, drone, mumble, scream, gratuitously cuss, or any of a hundred other ways in which “manner of expression” can go wrong. Why is the AAUP attempting to cut off such stuff from standards of “effective performance”? Because it fears that the extreme language favored by some of the politicized faculty members it has set out to defend could prove to be a vulnerability:

…objections to the expression of controversial ideas may be put forward as objections to the manner of expression. But constraints on robust expression are even less appropriate outside the campus, where a speaker necessarily competes with others who enjoy the protection of the First Amendment and where rhetorical intensity may seem to some appropriate to the fundamental political and moral controversies at issue. Moreover, today, when the sound-bite is more readily heard than the more thoughtful dissertation and intemperate speech is commonplace, strong language may be more necessary to those seeking a hearing for controversial views. Consequently, consideration of the manner of expression is rarely appropriate to an assessment of academic fitness. (p. 39) 

Context makes clear that the AAUP isn’t thinking about “manner of expression” in broad terms, but only about the “rhetorical intensity” that comes out of the mouths of those who are intent on bringing their politics to class. Once again, the AAUP stands ready to sacrifice academic standards to its greater goal of ensuring the maximum possible protection of those intent on politicizing the university.

The Bug Off Principle

Fairly late in the report, the AAUP gets around to the work of proposing new procedures to guard academic freedom from those who may be inclined to “pressure” the university. Some of the procedures look reasonable to me but one stands out as anything but reasonable. The AAUP declares that:

Complaints regarding alleged classroom statements forwarded by outside agencies or individuals should generally be ruled out of consideration in initiating or conducting personnel reviews. (p. 52)

This exclusion extends to “student political groups.” Apparently the sole source of actionable complaints in the AAUP’s view is “students actually enrolled in the course or courses in which the alleged inappropriate conduct occurred.” In other words, the only credentialed source of a complaint is from someone maximally vulnerable to retaliation and maximally open to intimidation.

I can understand why bullies might like this provision, but it is a bit harder to see why the AAUP would like it. After all, it is the AAUP’s business to pursue complaints about matters in which AAUP officials were not present as witnesses. Apparently it is well within the standards of academic fairness to investigate, report on, and censure institutions of higher education from a certain distance, but not faculty members. Alternatively, it is appropriate when the AAUP does it, but not when some other organization such as the National Association of Scholars does it.

Let me propose an alternative principle:  criticisms have to be weighed on their merits no matter how they arise and who brings them to light. They may be regarded lightly if brought by a source known for frivolous complaints or advancing tendentious claims. But a complaint put forward in sober spirit and with the aid of evidence should never be rejected out of hand merely because the complainant is absent from the scene. Parents are often the first to hear of egregious misconduct in the classroom. Sometimes desperate students turn to organizations such as FIRE, ACTA, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the NAS seeking both help and protection against reprisals.  Their fear of reprisal often enough proves warranted.  The AAUP, to its shame, would like to deny them this recourse by establishing a principle that colleges and universities should “generally” rule “out of consideration” what any of us have to say.

When I speak of the AAUP’s attempt to build a firewall around faculty members who abuse their privileges as teachers, this is what I mean.

A Thread

I want to conclude on a softer note. In several places the authors of the report acknowledge the possibility of controversy arising “from within [the university] as well as from without” (p. 7) and even conjure the image of faculty members wrongfully allowing their political views to interfere with their professional judgment:

For example, the denial of promotion or tenure by liberal academics to a conservative academic, or the reverse, if based on disagreement with the applicant’s views rather than on a scholarly evaluation of the applicant’s professional competence and performance, constitutes political intrusion regardless of whether persons outside the academic community were involved. (p. 7)

This is a tenuous thread in the report as a whole but that it is present at all is cause for some cheer.  The AAUP at one time played an immensely constructive role in building up the institutional culture of American higher education.  For several decades, however, it has drifted into becoming more of a special interest lobby and an evangelist for the academic left. Nothing that it does now can be taken at face value as a good faith effort to uphold academic principles. It is always calculating, and calculating in a manner that strongly suggests a partisan agenda. Still, buried somewhere in its memory and collective experience, the original spirit of the AAUP survives. We can catch glimpses of it here and there as when the authors allow:

Scholarly objectivity and integrity do require academic honesty and competence in gathering, selecting, and presenting data, as well as in framing arguments. They do not preclude, but commonly include, diverse interpretations, arguments, and conclusions. (p. 29) 

This of course comes across as a reluctant concession, rather than a forceful affirmation, but let’s take what we can get.


At the beginning of Part One I mentioned a handful of lesser known figures who in recent years have found themselves at the center of public controversies of the sort that the AAUP is concerned about.  How did the AAUP itself do in the cases of Kenneth Howell, Mark Moyar, Martin Gaskell, Bradley E. Schaefer, and Julea Ward?

Howell, the adjunct professor who taught a course on Catholicism at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign until he was dismissed last year—the AAUP called for his reinstatement but on the mistaken assumption that he had used his classroom to “advocate” his personal views.  In fact, Howell was just teaching his subject.

Moyar, the historian turned down for appointments at Duke and the University of Iowa seemingly because of his (Republican) political views—AAUP has been silent, though as KC Johnson has pointed out, Cary Nelson has offered an all-purpose excuse for de-selecting conservatives who might be considered a “poisonous” addition to an academic department.

Gaskell, the astronomer denied appointment at the University of Kentucky on the suspicion he was “potentially evangelical”—the AAUP was silent throughout the affair.

Schaefer, the “Blood will be on your hands” astronomer at Louisiana State University caught on video hectoring students about global warming—Cary Nelson defended Schaefer and spoke of the “right” of professors “to express their emotions honestly” in class.

Julea Ward, the graduate student expelled from Eastern Michigan University for refusing to abandon her religious belief that homosexual conduct is immoral—as far as I can tell, the AAUP has said nothing. Of course, Ward was not a faculty member, so whatever rights she may have fall under a different AAUP policy—one that doesn’t get very strenuous use.

No doubt the AAUP could explain its decisions on all these matters. For the moment, however, I think those who want to give serious consideration to the AAUP’s views on how to deal with “politically controversial” speech by faculty members ought to weigh not just what it says, but what the AAUP does and doesn’t do.

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