Peter Wood’s Attack on the AAUP

I invited National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood to speak at the AAUP conference this past weekend, and organized a couple of sessions with him on the Higher Education Bubble and the NAS report on the teaching of American history. Unfortunately, Wood may be accustomed to speaking before loyal supporters and friends, since he certainly seemed annoyed at being criticized by Cary Nelson and Allan Lichtman (but apparently not annoyed by me, to my disappointment). In an essay for Minding the Campus, Wood writes that “the substance was overshadowed by the shabbiness” and uses the example to condemn today’s AAUP: “This isn’t John Dewey’s AAUP. It is Cary Nelson’s and Allan Lichtman’s.”

Actually, I have no idea if Allan Lichtman is even an AAUP member. He certainly has nothing to do with the organization. I invited him to speak as an expert historian, something that the NAS could have used in its deeply flawed report on the teaching of American history.

Wood accuses them of “disregard for the sort of boundaries that the AAUP once tried to uphold.” Wood denounces Nelson for accusing the NAS of “sclerotic wailing about Western civilization” and its “maniacal opposition to politics in the classroom.” Wood may not like the adjectives, but that’s a pretty accurate portrayal of some NAS positions.

Wood was upset that Lichtman mentioned Wood’s skepticism about climate change and gay marriage, and according to Wood, “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.” No, Lichtman brought them up as a way of showing that the NAS, and its leaders, are not some neutral, objective analysts in this debate, but people with a political agenda. It was a very minor point, probably the least important in his entire talk. Yet Wood chooses to write about this subject, and absolutely nothing else, and treats this insignificant issue as if it represented the decline and fall of the AAUP.

Wood complains, “The old AAUP was better.” Really? The old AAUP didn’t hold a conference where people expressed sharp differences about important issues in higher education. That was Cary Nelson’s invention. The old AAUP didn’t invite its critics to its meetings in order to assure a rousing debate. In the old AAUP, it would never have occurred to anyone to have someone like Peter Wood at an AAUP meeting. The new AAUP believes fully in freedom of expression, and shows it by defending the academic freedom of anyone, and holding events that live up to that commitment.

Wood denounces “postmodernists and ‘anti-foundationalists’ of various sorts who disdain even the ideal of scientific inquiry.” I don’t actually know what an “anti-foundationalist” is, and Wood doesn’t define the term (ironically, Wikipedia lists John Dewey, the AAUP co-founder praised by Wood, as an anti-foundationalist). Nelson and Lichtman didn’t disdain scientific inquiry (nor did I). What I do disdain is the notion that academic freedom should be limited only to statements that meet the standards of pure scientific methodology. The key difference between the old AAUP and the new AAUP is the willingness to defend controversial political statements.

Wood attacks the AAUP as “faculty members acting to promote their ‘right’ to do and say whatever they want. Such license isn’t genuine academic freedom.” What, exactly, does Wood regard as “license”? Since he devotes this entire column to the criticism Nelson and Lichtman directed against him, and then concludes with this line, I wonder if he thinks if their attacks are the kind of “license” that should be banned. The irony here is that Wood, in his own writings, is “guilty” of the very political license that he seems to think should be unprotected by academic freedom.

Wood argues that the AAUP in 1915 called for “dignity, courtesy, and temperance of language” by scholars. In doing so, Wood is holding speakers at an AAUP conference to a standard that the NAS and even Wood himself could not meet. Can Peter Wood really say that everything he’s ever written, and everything ever said at an NAS conference or published in their journal Academic Questions meets this standard of “dignity, courtesy, and temperance of language”? I’m pretty sure that I can find something a lot meaner than the word “sclerotic” and the mention of people’s views of climate change in Wood’s own essays.

The old AAUP, seeking to establish a new right of academic freedom, tried to support it with high-minded appeals to scientific and gentlemanly standards. But it was a deeply flawed approach; it ended up excluding a lot of activist radicals, and failed to challenge the widespread discrimination against women and minorities. As the freedoms in America improved, the AAUP expanded many of its old ideas, and the new AAUP defends political liberty in a way that the old AAUP never did.

I’m sure that Peter Wood, like many people, doesn’t enjoy being criticized to his face. But that’s part of academic debate, and Wood had an ample opportunity at the conference to respond to his critics. This kind of free-wheeling debate of ideas represents what the new AAUP stands for, and it is an important improvement over “the good old days” of fear and silence in academia.

7 thoughts on “Peter Wood’s Attack on the AAUP

  1. Great post, John. As you say, some people see “freedom” of all sorts as only for themselves. When those who don’t agree with them try to exercise the same rights, well, they are out of bounds. You, certainly, are never so narrow.

  2. Although the failing is certainly not exclusively exhibited by those on the Right, I never cease to be surprised that people with very adamant views and with very open disdain for other views end up complaining about a lack of civility and collegiality when their own views are dismissed or derided. Apparently the human anatomy allows for a big head or a thick skin, but not both at once.

  3. The “new” AAUP has also been an organization led by officers (including Prof. Nelson) who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into conforming AAUP election practices with the basic democratic principles of the Landrum-Griffin Act (LMRDA) — very, very basic principles, for that legislation is no left-wing paragon of protectionism.

    Free and fair elections are the sine qua non of free speech within an organization, particularly a labor organization — and AAUP has had very little free speech internally in recent decades. In fact, the AAUP leadership’s latest response to having been forced to democratize national election processes is to extend the length of officer and council terms so that, in the end, fewer new members will be brought into leadership roles, fewer voices will be heard.

    The organization’s formal policy statements are usually the work of committees hand-picked by the AAUP President and virtually never submitted to the Annual Meeting for review and approval. The recent venture of the NYS Conference of AAUP in proposing a policy document motion from the floor of the Annual Meeting was met, according to the press, with criticism and condescension from major national AAUP officers. Politics isn’t always based in the national political party system — AAUP has plenty of politics of a different kind regulating speech within the AAUP.

    Thus, it cannot be said that AAUP leaders have no political agenda while they attack that of the NAS — for AAUP’s leaders are used to autocratic control over the organization, and the general melee provoked by the free and unfettered exercise of free speech has, indeed, not been something AAUP leaders have been comfortable with within the organization at almost any level.

    So there is a great deal of hypocrisy exhibited on all sides here. Because, in the spirit of that longstanding maxim concerning freedom of speech, the answer to speech that offends is more speech, let the dialogue continue….

  4. I find this criticism utterly ridiculous. The AAUP has always had fully free elections, even if the absurd bureaucratic rules imposed on labor unions created requirements to re-run elections for no good reason. The complaints were filed by a few people who sought to overturn these democratic elections (and failed), but they cost the AAUP vast sums of money. Sadly, biennial elections are the rational response to save huge amounts of money and staff time. Of course, the NAS and most other groups have no elections for their leaders (and no free speech guaranteed for its members), so the AAUP is far more democratic and free. As for free speech, the only restrictions on free speech have been imposed on the AAUP by those critics who pushed the Department of Labor into such ridiculous things as pre-clearance of Academe blog posts by anyone who happened to be running for an AAUP post. I don’t believe that anyone has said the AAUP has no political agenda. Defending academic freedom for all is itself a political agenda. But anyone who claims that the AAUP doesn’t have freedom of speech or democracy is simply wrong.

    • The rules of the LMRDA for elections are anything but bureaucratic; they constitute the logical bare minimum standards for a democratic election (cf. for links to the text of the legislation and regulations and DOL guidance).

      The AAUP leadership has never reported to the membership the specific reasons for the election re-runs at both the national and conference level, proffering instead the ad hominem attacks evidenced in the above posting — similar in style to those complained-of NAS pronouncements and postings — all the while spending tens of thousands of membership dollars for legal “defense” concerning each of these defective elections, and then repeating the violations even after knowing from earlier challenges that reform was needed.

      The AAUP membership in general has no idea of their rights under LMRDA (cf., or of the fact that they can actually read the DOL-mandated annual financial reports of the AAUP online at (which differ substantially in granting far more content detail than what is reported internally to the membership). Indeed, the names of the law firms and amounts apparently spent on the “defense” of defective elections can be found there. Interestingly, as well, there has been a high turn-over in the AAUP’s internal legal staff as well during this time period, both at the staff counsel and General Counsel levels. Readers can draw their own conclusions.

      The formal reasons for the repeated re-running of AAUP elections are summarized by the US Department of Labor at their Website:

      “When an OLMS investigation determines that a violation occurred that may have affected the outcome of a union election, OLMS seeks to enter into an agreement with the union for corrective action. If this voluntary agreement is not reached, the Secretary may file suit in federal district court to have the challenged election overturned and have a new election held under OLMS supervision.”

      “On February 12, 2010, OLMS entered into a voluntary compliance agreement with AAUP concerning a challenged election conducted by AAUP’s Assembly of State Conferences (ASC) on June 12, 2009. The union agreed to conduct nominations and a new election under OLMS supervision for ASC Chairman. The OLMS investigation of the challenged election found that the majority of AAUP ASC members did not have the opportunity to nominate or elect delegates by a secret ballot election. The agreement follows an investigation by the OLMS Washington District Office. ”

      “On January 23, 2012, OLMS entered into a voluntary compliance agreement with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), located in Washington, D.C., concerning its election of officers completed on April 15, 2011. The OLMS investigation concluded that there was a lack of secrecy because the third party balloting agent could determine how members voted, a person who was no longer a member was a candidate, the nomination notice for the Assembly of State Conferences (ASC) Chair position was inadequate when it was only emailed to members for whom the union had email addresses, some members were denied the right to vote in that they were not informed that the electronic ballot could not be sent to certain institutional email addresses or they were not sent an electronic ballot even though they provided a personal email address, and the union failed to provide adequate safeguards when employers and AAUP employees had access to some members’ voting credentials. The union agreed to conduct new nominations and a new election for the ASC Chair and new nominations, if needed, and a new election for three at-large council members and District 1 through 10 council members under OLMS supervision. The agreement follows an investigation by the OLMS Washington District Office.”


      “On January 25, 2012, OLMS entered into a voluntary compliance agreement with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), New York State Conference (NYSC), located in Syracuse, N.Y., concerning its election of officers completed on April 15, 2011. The OLMS investigation concluded that the union failed to provide adequate safeguards in that some employers had access to some members’ voting credentials; failed to conduct the election by secret ballot; denied some members the right to vote in that they were not informed that the AAUP did not have an email address to which the credential and ballot email could be sent or they were not sent a credential and ballot email despite providing the union with a personal email address; and failed to provide adequate safeguards to ensure a fair election in that the accuracy of the vote tally could not be confirmed. The agreement follows an investigation by the OLMS Buffalo District Office. ”

      Armed with this public information, the reader can decide for him/herself whether the AAUP leadership’s resistance to the LMRDA — which has cost it tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and the respect of the membership — were worth it. Member participation in elections has plummeted significantly in the years since these shenanigans were revealed (as noted from election results tallies posted at the AAUP Website).

      As for the NAS and its elections, it is self-evident that testimony concerning their elections or lack thereof needs to come from a member of that organization or an external organization with authority to review their internal structure and functions. If the NAS is incorporated, for example, the state in which it is incorporated would have access to such information.

      Again, one need only read these blog exchanges to know that, as Shakespeare put it in “Romeo and Juliet”: “They bleed on both sides.” Neither AAUP nor NAS appears to meet the high expectations for freedom of speech and academic freedom which motivated the original founders of the AAUP.

      • As this lengthy analysis shows, there was nothing of substance in these election issues. Nobody was stealing any elections or disenfranchising anybody. It’s very easy to run for office in the AAUP (I’ve done it), and even easier to vote. Many of these problems, as far as I can tell, came from the fact that the AAUP wanted to hold elections electronically to make it easier for all and cheaper, and the DOL objected because the AAUP didn’t have every single member’s email address and some colleges might read faculty email. Yes, the whole DOL requirements have been a nightmare for the AAUP, with the end result that nothing of consequence changed from re-running these elections. But the idea that this bureaucratic nonsense is a betrayal of some core AAUP principles is ridiculous. The original founders of the AAUP had much lower expectations of free speech than the AAUP does today; they originally only allowed tenured faculty who had been invited by a member to join, like a little club, and one of their first public statements, during World War I, remains the AAUP’s most blatant and shameful betrayal of academic freedom.

  5. The DOL summaries indicate that it was not simply the fact of electronic balloting which provoked the election re-runs, as the blog host would have us believe. If it had been, then the AAUP might have saved all of the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars paid in legal fees by simply using paper balloting and not contesting the violations. More money was spent in the resistance to the democratic requirements of the LMRDA than the cost of an election cycle per se.

    The blog host seeks to derisively obscure the many reasons which prompted the DOL’s intervention, for the OLMS summaries cite, inter alia, the lack of access to a secret ballot, and for some members, to any ballot whatsoever, and thereby point to the leadership’s disregard for the need to dutifully maintain and respect the lists of voters. Further, the failure to announce nominations in any other manner than by email despite the existence of “Academe” which alone is assured to reach all members — and the known fact that not all members have given AAUP an email address — these indicate that the organization does not seem to have been able to overcome its internal systemic membership department disorganization since the revelation of the same in an article in “The Chronicle of Higher Education” in 2007 (reproduced here at

    The blog host proclaims how easy it is to run for office now in AAUP — blithely concealing the fact that the demise of the AAUP Nominating Committee’s “lock” on the cherry-picked selection of candidates, and the concomitant dramatic lowering of the requisite number of petition nomination signatures, were both the direct result of these very election challenges raised to the U.S. Department of Labor after AAUP’s intentional disregard for the challenges when they were initially raised internally. For the first time in decades, as a result of the DOL-supervised re-runs, the AAUP National Council actually took those first steps to undermine the interlocking directorates and “closed club” nature of the national officer nominations process.

    Sadly (and tellingly), what the blog host does not appear to have considered in his ad hominem statements against the challengers is that the election protests might have been lodged by persons who wished to ensure that the AAUP would cease to be a resident of a glass house from which it was throwing stones at university administrations, et al. By cleaning house internally, the AAUP could strengthen itself and win back the disaffection it has inspired in the domain of the dwindling advocacy chapters — where the lack of the mandated agency fee and union dues structures of the collective bargaining chapters presents a more accurate reflection of the current declining support levels for the national organization among the nation’s professoriate.

    Members have noticed how the Council and the Conferences function — and they have understood that their voices do not matter; the recent denigration of the NYS Conference motion by national officers at the Annual Meeting only served to underscore that fact (cf. The entrenched top-down nature of the organization’s policy-making — which runs counter to the AAUP Constitution, as well — is something that AAUP leaders must address or the legacy of the founders will have been squandered.

    Finally, the lessons of the election challenges speak directly to the levels of freedom of speech and academic freedom within the organization, because the treatment which the dissenting election challengers have been meted by the leadership, exemplified as well in the blog host’s dismissiveness, is precisely the same sort of derision which NAS heaps upon the AAUP.

    Academic freedom and good governance are intertwined — and the founders were clear that the neglect of one undermines the other. Thus, indeed, the matter of democracy in elections is at the core of the governance and academic freedom principles of the AAUP, and the continued attempts of the “insiders” at AAUP to autocratically dominate the former only succeed in undermining the latter. And thus, to date, as we examine the long-standing strife between AAUP and NAS — and the internal workings and public statements of both organizations — one can only conclude that “irony rules.”

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