What Has Happened to the AAUP?

Peter Wood

I was part of two "debates" at the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington, D.C. last week. I place the word "debates" in skeptical quotes because..., well, you'll see.

The AAUP is, of course, the organization that nearly a century ago established in its Declaration of Principles the most authoritative concept of academic freedom in American higher education. The 1915 Declaration, issued under the presidency of John Dewey, went through several revisions, most notably in 1940, in which it retained its sober spirit and sense that academic freedom is inextricably bound up with intellectual and professional responsibility. 

Then, sometime around 1990, the wheels came off the old AAUP and the organization began issuing pronouncements that made clear that it was more concerned with political advocacy than academic integrity. Since that time, the National Association of Scholars has been a persistent critic of the AAUP's frequent descents into mere rationalization of professorial privilege. NAS has also taken numerous occasions to restate our admiration and continuing support for the original Declaration of Principles.

The 'Cornerstone' of Society

A century ago, the scholars who founded the AAUP worried about the inappropriate intrusion of boards of trustees and the force of public opinion, which were (and are) capable of compromising freedom of academic inquiry, teaching, and the high standards of the academic disciplines. But the AAUP's founders understood as well that the professoriate's claim to academic freedom depended on the integrity of the professoriate itself and of the academic disciplines. 

The language of Dewey, Lovejoy, Seligman, and the other scholars who worked on the Declaration sounds a little antique today, but its meaning is thoroughly up to date. They viewed the university as "a public trust," education as "the cornerstone of society," and "progress in scientific knowledge [as] essential to civilization.” Academic freedom, in their view, wasn't an absolute right detached from larger concerns. It existed, rather, "in the interest of the integrity and of the progress of scientific inquiry." 

And they recognized "there are no rights without corresponding duties.” They grounded these duties in the pursuit of science and held that:

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; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperance of language.

Regurgitating Knowledge and Memorizing Facts

There is more in the Declaration in this vein, but perhaps this is the point to revisit the 2013 annual meeting of the AAUP. On Friday morning, I was part of a panel, "Is There a Higher Education Bubble?” It is certainly a question worth asking and I was glad to join what was supposed to be a debate about it with the AAUP's past president Cary Nelson; Jane Shaw, the president of the Pope Center; and John K. Wilson from Illinois State University. Nelson, as it happens, said there is indeed a bubble, and proceeded to describe some of its "cultural" predicates. I was in general agreement with him until the point where he abruptly dropped the subject and launched into a tirade against ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni) and NAS. 

Here I learned that ACTA and NAS both favor a college curriculum that focuses on "regurgitating knowledge," "memorizing facts," and "multiple choice tests.” ACTA – none of whose leadership was present – is to be credited with breeding "impatience with and contempt for faculties among board members," and contributing to "loss of respect for academic freedom and democracy.” NAS is to be noted for its "sclerotic wailing about Western civilization" and its "maniacal opposition to politics in the classroom.” There was more like this, but that will do. 

Nelson, though no longer its president, is a central and prominent figure at the AAUP. I suppose I should be flattered that he went to the trouble to participate in this forum and thought it worth his while to engage in this kind of attack. Still, it astonishes me that a body that began by summoning scholars to the abiding need for "dignity, courtesy, and temperance of language," would reach this nadir. 

The Enthroning of Science

For what it is worth, NAS isn't an advocate for regurgitated knowledge, merely memorized facts, or multiple choice exams, though I suppose these all have some legitimate place in the broad range of appropriate pedagogies. Knowing a few facts isn't a bad thing. As for "sclerotic wailing" and "maniacal opposition," I doubt those descriptions would seem apt to anyone who reads with an open mind our journal Academic Questions or our research reports. 

But back to the original AAUP Principles. Their language enthrones "science" to a degree that no doubt rubs many academics the wrong way today. Most of us no longer think that science is the only model for legitimate scholarship. The humanities have a different grounding. But we are in an age in which the enterprise of science – even "science" in the broadest sense – sits in the university alongside postmodernists and "anti-foundationalists" of various sorts who disdain even the ideal of scientific inquiry. Those same postmodernists and anti-foundationalists, however, are fiercely in favor of "academic freedom." 

This, of course, poses a conceptual problem. What is the foundation for "academic freedom" for an anti-foundationalist? I don't want to venture down that rabbit hole just now, but it is instructive to watch academics who assert that matters are too provisional, fragmented, and situational to be ordered by a set of supervening principles (e.g. science, progress, civilization) express outrage when the institution (academic freedom) created to advance those principles is supposedly threatened. The situation resembles the debates over "original intent" and a "living Constitution." Today's AAUP offers a good many spectacles of this sort. 

The second "debate" I participated in at the AAUP meeting was set up as an occasion in which I would face critics of the NAS's report, Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History? Allan J. Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University, was my principal opponent. He came well-prepared with a substantive critique of the report, for which I had answers. But he also found a moment during his presentation to tag the National Association of Scholars as an organization that had expressed doubts about man-made global warming and gay marriage. 

An Odd Reference to Global Warming

Huh? Global warming and gay marriage are not even remotely connected to Recasting History. Lichtman brought them up as a way of demonizing the NAS to an audience he could safely assume would be on the "correct" side of these issues. As it happens, it was a falsehood. NAS has no position on either man-made global warming or gay marriage. 

What Lichtman took for evidence were several articles I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education that emphasized the need for open debate on matters that are not settled. In our climate of enforced conformity in higher education, it is plainly provocative merely to say that something that is supposedly "settled" should be unsettled by open-mindedness. 

I don't go to AAUP meetings every year, but when I do go, I know better than to expect that the people I'm matched with will be scrupulous about language or evidence. This isn't John Dewey's AAUP. It is Cary Nelson's and Allan Lichtman's. 

As for the substantive points each of them made in their talks, some were good, some not so good, but I'll save that for another time. In both cases, the substance was overshadowed by the shabbiness. That, alas, is a choice the AAUP more broadly has made for itself. I'll offer a small sclerotic wail: that's a bad thing. The old AAUP was better. We need a robust organization of scholars that cares about academic freedom in the fullest sense and isn't just a phalanx of faculty members acting to promote their "right" to do and say whatever they want. Such license isn't genuine academic freedom. It brushes aside the need for scholarly integrity and it often crosses – here comes the "maniacal opposition" – into facile politicization. Dewey and his colleagues warned about that too:

It is manifestly desirable that [teachers who deal with political, economic, and social subjects] have minds untrammeled by party loyalties, unexcited by party enthusiasms, and unbiased by personal political ambitions.

The prevailing view on campus is the convenient sophistry that "everything is political," which practically translates into disregard for the sort of boundaries that the AAUP once tried to uphold. Everything is not, in fact, political; but the AAUP plainly is.

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on June 17, 2013.

Image: AAUP Facebook page

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