A Closer Look at the AAUP's New Statement on Controversial Professors

Ashley Thorne

Inside Higher Ed interviewed NAS president Peter Wood on his thoughts on the AAUP's statement, released today, on academic freedom for professors who take sides in controversies. While NAS agrees with the AAUP on some parts of the statement, and on the importance of protecting academic freedom, we disagree on some fundamental levels. Here's what Peter had to say, as quoted by Scott Jaschik in IHE:

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, reviewed the executive summary of the report and said he found statements to endorse and some to question. (The National Association of Scholars, which advocates for a traditional curriculum and against what it sees as political correctness, has a record of agreeing with the AAUP on some issues while differing on many others).
Wood said that the NAS would strongly agree that personnel decisions about academics should not be made on the basis of their politics, and that politically based decision-making is a real problem in higher education. But he also said that the AAUP was engaged in some "academic paranoia" in the way it framed the issue.
He said that the emphasis appeared to be on controversies that originate outside the academy -- and that the AAUP was suggesting that there was no such thing as "a legitimate concern" that a non-academic might have about a professor. The tone of the report suggested that "criticisms from outside should be de-legitimized as pressure, rather than as criticism," Wood said. Many of the controversies involving professors and the public, he said, arise "out of the politicization of faculty members themselves and the adversarial stance they have taken toward American policies."
Further, he said, the references to outside forces shift attention from "threats within the university" in which faculty members apply political tests to determine whom to hire and promote.
While Wood said he supported free speech, he said that the AAUP was giving too much leeway to faculty. At a time when studies are finding that students aren't learning enough in college, Wood argued, maybe it is a good thing if some faculty members engage in what the AAUP terms "self-censorship" and focus on academics. The report, in contrast, seems to suggest that "it is always appropriate for faculty members to be engaged in political activity," he said.
He also said he questioned whether the AAUP has set too high a bar for anyone to raise criticisms of what goes on in the classroom. Citing the AAUP statement that "[n]either 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," Wood asked the following: "What about a mathematics professor who shouts screeds that are anti-Semitic in class? Does the AAUP think that's a problem?" (Benjamin said that the AAUP indeed would think that was a problem, and that the draft policy was about expression of views, not actions that would harm the learning environment.)
More broadly, Wood said that the AAUP appears to be "trying to create a firewall around faculty" so that "no one other than faculty has a legitimate place at the table," when the conduct of a faculty member is being discussed. And he said it was hard to take the AAUP report at face value when the AAUP "is silent" about cases of bias faced by conservative faculty members, while speaking out on behalf of others.
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