What Has Happened to the AAUP?

by Peter Wood

This post was originally published on June 17 at Minding the Campus. Author Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars. We asked for (and received) permission to re-post the article here, in light of a guest post by Allan Lichtman of American University that is a response to 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.

– See more at: http://www.mindingthecampus.com/originals/2013/06/what_has_happened_to_the_aaup_1.html#sthash.HhqiHOIB.dpuf

3 thoughts on “What Has Happened to the AAUP?

  1. I find your quoting of the following principle somewhat astonishing: “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.”

    First, if you are suggesting that, in contrast to the current AAUP, the NAS somehow embodies these principles,.that’s just simply laughable–though, perhaps, you have become convinced that your group’s ideological positions somehow represent apolitical objectivity.

    Second, if the AAUP has now become more “political,” it has done so in a very slow response to an onslaught of attacks on the affordability of and access to higher education, academic freedom, shared governance, tenure and tenure-lines, and, more narrowly, the humanities and social sciences and the concept of a “liberal arts” education. The corporatization of our institutions, and especially of our public institutions, is a political issue because it is being driven by ideologues who see only merit in privatization.

    And if it seems that inordinate criticism is being directed at politicians on the Far Right, well, that’s where the attacks are coming from. I’d love to have politicians of both parties expressing determined support for higher education and, in particular, public higher education, but if the support has often been tentative, at best, among Democrats, it has been ages since any Republican has publicly questioned any aspect of the privatization of public education–the shifting of costs from broad-based public support to individual students and families, the diminishment of the faculty role in institutional governance, and the erosion of fundamental faculty rights.

    Lastly, and this has been annoying me for some time, whenever I make a political post to this blog, I receive some comments about my snideness and political bias, though the comments themselves are usually dripping with snideness and political bias. It’s a very convenient trope to hold one’s opponents to a higher standard than that to which one holds oneself–and then to find those opponents so deplorably wanting.

    Anyone reading my posts knows exactly what I am advocating. I know that we cannot turn back the clock, but I think that some things need to be preserved as much as possible in the face of relentless change. When I read statements from academics advocating Far-Right positions, it is very clear what they are denouncing and what abstract ideals they claim to be upholding. But they seldom provide any concrete specifics about how our institutions would operate if their views held sway. What I believe that we’d clearly get is simply an acceleration of many of the current and very problematic trends in higher education.

  2. Part of the reason for my comment in an earlier related post, when referring to AAUP and NAS, that “they bleed on both sides” was the perception that there actually is common ground on many issues if only both organizations would seek to find it without succumbing to the temptation to waste time and energy and good will in ad hominem attacks.

    For example, the NAS has been very concerned with the need for students to be educated in the history of the United States and the Constitution and they have observed that the curricula of many colleges and universities give short shrift to this subject. Indeed, the late Senator from West Virginia agreed with this observation in principle as he sponsored the bill that mandates a Constitution Day of teaching every fall.

    Yet what, if not the truth of such a concern, can be seen as the cause of the American public’s general acceptance, post-9/11 of the surrender of so much of their privacy and of so many of their liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution — a fact very much in the news with the Snowden affair? And very much of concern now not only to the left but also the right.

    It appears from the postings here about the AAUP conference that both AAUP and NAS presenters indulged themselves in attacks at one point or another of their presentations rather than the pure presentation of research. I recall that David Horowitz claimed, when he was beginning to formulate his Academic Bill of Rights, that he had contacted the AAUP leadership to discuss it and received no reply. Unless the day comes when these varied, but intersecting, organizations can commit to the same dispassionate search for the truth that the AAUP founders outlined in their statement, and the same basic courtesies to be granted to one other in the pursuit of that truth, then the bickering will weaken, if not destroy, the expansion of these organizations and ultimately defeat their many common goals.

  3. This paragraph is the heart of Prof Woods’ argument:

    “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.”

    It all sounds so reasonable. Except–climate science is settled beyond any doubt among legitimate scientists. Same with the science around gay parenting and gay marriage. There is no contesting the conclusions among scholars who aren’t bought and sold by interests opposed to environmental regulations and gay rights. What Woods is advocating isn’t “open-mindedness.” It’s pure and simple denialism, which isn’t the same thing. Just insisting that something isn’t settled, without a shred of reliable counter-evidence, isn’t open-mindedness. If Prof Woods and his comrades don’t want to accept the results of science, that’s their business, but they don’t have grounds from which to assert that nobody else should accept the results. The results are crystal clear.

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