Distorting the AAUP’s History

On the blog of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), its longtime president Anne Neal writes about the election of Rudy Fichtenbaum as the new president of the AAUP. Her alarmist rhetoric not only distorts what the AAUP does today, but fundamentally rewrites the history of the AAUP in a completely misleading way.

Neal writes, “one cannot help but view with alarm the results of the AAUP elections, which in large measure suggest that the AAUP has now positioned itself as a faculty labor union advocating for faculty rights rather than enforcing faculty ethical obligations.” Of course, the AAUP has been a faculty labor union advocating for faculty rights for more than 40 years now. The phrase “enforcing faculty ethical obligations” is the evasive code language that ACTA uses for its goal of purging left-wing faculty who express political views. The AAUP has never done this, and never will. The AAUP for a century has advocated for faculty rights and never enforced the “ethical obligations” of individual faculty.

According to Neal, “trustees and the public should take note that the organization which has historically served as the arbiter of professional responsibility now appears to be endorsing a working definition of academic freedom that concentrates on rights, job security, and collective bargaining.”

Neal’s version of history is dead wrong. The AAUP has never served as the arbiter of professional responsibility. The AAUP has never censured or condemned individual faculty members for personal irresponsibility. From the very start, the AAUP has concentrated almost entirely upon faculty rights and job security. It can properly be called an obsession of the organization throughout its history. And while the AAUP resisted the idea of becoming a union for more than half of its history, it never rejected the fundamental right of faculty to engage in collective bargaining.

Neal concludes, “To thrive, academic freedom cannot ignore crucial matters of accountability and responsibility.” That’s absolutely right. Everyone at a university is responsible for defending academic freedom and should be held accountable, and suffer the consequences, if they infringe upon academic freedom.

Of course, I imagine Neal means something very different by these words, that she thinks faculty have a responsibility to ban political discussions from the classroom, and should be held accountable (i.e. fired) by administrators, trustees, and politicians if a left-wing political idea is expressed. This is Neal’s Orwellian re-imagining of academic freedom, twisting the AAUP’s misguided 1915 ethical statement against controversy in the classroom into an enforceable rule against political freedom on campus.

It is a tribute to the power of the words “academic freedom” that even those who fundamentally oppose the concept feel obliged to use the term. But we must reject the distortion of history for ideological purposes. The AAUP has vastly improved its consistency and its defenses of academic freedom over the past century, but fundamentally it remains the same organization it was in 1915, a group committed to defending faculty rights and job security in the face of those who want to silence freedom on campus.

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