"To Make Collective Action Possible": The Founding of the AAUP

Among the articles in this year’s edition of the Journal of Academic Freedom is one I wrote on the history of the founding of the AAUP. Since I am not a professional historian (I teach computer science), I feel like I should offer an explanation (and to my colleagues who are historians, an apology) for venturing outside of my discipline. In a word, it was mostly due to puzzlement. The origins of the AAUP have at times been reduced to a founding myth, whose bare essentials are: the AAUP was founded in response to the Ross case with the primary purpose of defending academic freedom. What puzzled me was that Ross was dismissed in 1901, while the AAUP was founded in 1915. That seemed like a long time to organize a response – although a colleague noted, maybe only half in jest, that that is the length of time it takes for a faculty committee to make a decision.

In fact, I don’t believe that either part of the founding myth is right. The main argument of the article, and of the book-length treatment of the same subject that I am currently working on, is that the AAUP only made academic freedom its primary focus early in its existence because of events that occurred before, during, and after the founding meeting. It was not planned: the AAUP’s organizing committee considered but chose not to propose academic freedom to be among the topics for the AAUP to take up in its first year. Individual members of the committee and professors invited for charter membership expressed concern over joining an organization that would take too much of an aggressive stance.  Nevertheless, Seligman made a motion to take up the issue of academic freedom from the floor of the organizational meeting. The meeting adopted the motion, and Seligman was made chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure for his troubles.

It was widely acknowledged at the time that the primary motivation for the founding of the AAUP was to establish the professional status of faculty. Many of the founders noted that the professoriate was unusual in that its members were professionals but, unlike doctors and lawyers, not self-employed. Thus, creating autonomy akin to that of those professions required changes in institutional governance and ultimately to the balance of power in universities. Among the most outspoken critics of the prevailing order was AAUP founder James McKeen Cattell, who observed that

Dismissal of a university professor from a reputable university as a result of publishing or teaching the conclusions of his investigations is sporadic and under control. The disease which is endemic in the university is subordination of the teacher to the academic machine, a kind of hookworm disease which leaves the entire institution anaemic.

Furthermore, the various external forces that pushed for the standardization of American higher education in the early 20th century did not give a role to the faculty, and thus the AAUP was also founded to be the voice of the profession and “to make collective action possible,” as the organizing call had stated. The founders recognized academic freedom as a central element of the professional autonomy of faculty members, but they did not found the association with the exclusive or even primary goal of addressing it.

Returning to the reasons why I ventured into historical studies, one of my favorite aspects of being an academic is the ability to follow my interests in finding research projects, which is also part of the professional autonomy of the professoriate. There is of course danger in choosing a topic very far removed from one’s home discipline. I do want to acknowledge the kind help and encouragement provided by a number of professional historians whom I asked for advice throughout this project, but of course they are not to blame for any of the errors that I am sure remain.

4 thoughts on “"To Make Collective Action Possible": The Founding of the AAUP

  1. I think the primary reason for the influence of the Ross case was its effect on Arthur Lovejoy, who resigned from Stanford over the Ross firing, and recognized the need for a national organization of professors. Because Lovejoy was such a driving force in founding the AAUP, and particularly in establishing the practice of investigating violations of academic freedom, the Ross case is very important to the AAUP’s founding. Also, because the early AAUP was very elitist, it took the memory of cases like Ross at elite colleges to make the members believe that protecting academic freedom was essential for the AAUP. It is notable that the early AAUP leaders worried about putting too much attention on academic freedom cases, but partly that reflected the early AAUP’s very broad agenda (much broader than the AAUP has today), to elevate the profession and make the AAUP a voice for it. The fact that academic freedom wasn’t part of an initial agenda reflected, I think, the public relations desire not to make it a point of emphasis (lest the AAUP be confused with a labor union protecting its members), and not an actual expectation that the AAUP wouldn’t address academic freedom. It certainly is true that the AAUP’s leaders naively did not expect the large number of academic freedom cases that they were forced to deal with in the early years; but the fact that they did deal with them indicates that academic freedom was a fundamental part of the AAUP’s vision of the profession from the very beginning.

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