In 1916, the New York Times denounced the newly-formed AAUP’s Declaration of Principles in an editorial that defined “Academic freedom” as “the inalienable right of every college instructor to make a fool of himself and of his college by…intemperate, sensational prattle about every subject under heaven, to his classes and to the public…” (Actually, that’s a pretty good definition of academic freedom.)
Now, as the AAUP prepares to mark its centennial on Jan. 1, 2015, another voice of conservatism is denouncing its centennial declaration as “ludicrous,” invoking many of the same arguments the New York Times did a century ago when it complained that the “utterers of flubdub” were attacking the wealthy who pay for their salaries.
This century’s ill-informed complainers are James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley, who wrote an essay in Minding the Campus that was actually titled, “The AAUP’s Ludicrous Declaration.”
The Declaration Piereson and Riley speak of is the AAUP’s Centennial Declaration (which you can read and sign here), which offers 10 fairly innocuous ideals about higher education that Piereson and Riley seem to regard as a statement from the Dark Powers.
Like the New York Times, Piereson and Riley are offended that anyone in academia might criticize the rich, worrying that “professors demean the free enterprise system that makes public support (including private donations) possible.” According to Piereson and Riley, “university faculty regularly indoctrinate their students with the notion that business is, well, a dirty business.” Really? So the thousands upon thousands of business faculty all uniformly “indoctrinate” the millions of students in business and economics classes that business is “dirty”? Where, exactly, is the evidence to support this ridiculous claim?
Of course, considering that it’s also government that makes support of public colleges possible (including tax deductions for private donations), one could easily make a similar argument that it’s wrong for anyone at a public college to criticize the government. But that argument would be just as stupid as Piereson and Riley claiming that professors are obligated to praise the rich people who fund universities. Would Piereson and Riley agree that professors in a Middle Eastern studies program supported by Saudi Arabia must praise a repressive government?
These kinds of senseless, unprincipled, and incoherent arguments fill the essay by Piereson and Riley, who claim that “the AAUP don’t [sic] seem to understand” what “higher education is for and why it needs to be preserved.”
I don’t speak for the AAUP, but the Centennial Declaration actually seems like a very thoughtful (if sometimes bland) understanding of higher education.
Piereson and Riley, on the other hand, attack the AAUP for declaring, “the university is a public good, not a profit-making institution.” They try to refute this by asserting that “there isn’t much daylight between a profit-making institution and a non-profit one that sits on an endowment of hundreds of millions of dollars.” Of course, the growing corporatization of non-profit colleges is part of what worries the AAUP (but not Piereson and Riley), but the AAUP isn’t dumb enough to think that Harvard is basically the same as the University of Phoenix. But the irony here is that Piereson and Riley don’t even seem to disagree with the AAUP’s claim that the university ought to be a public good.
According to Piereson and Riley, “Nowhere in America is speech more stifled than on college campuses these days.” This is an absurd claim to make, and patently wrong. It’s difficult to come up with any major institution in American society where there’s more freedom of speech than college campuses. Do Riley and Piereson really think that employees of major corporations have more liberty to criticize their bosses and the government without facing punishment? Do they claim that there’s more freedom to hold a political protest in a shopping mall than on a college campus?
Perhaps Piereson is accustomed to having substantial freedom as a senior fellow and director of the Center for the American University at the Manhattan Institute, since he was executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation (which gave more than $5 million to the Manhattan Institute over 20 years) and is currently president of the William E. Simon Foundation, which gives money to the Manhattan Institute. But most employees don’t have the luxury (and freedom) of working for someone who relies upon their donations.
Certainly, free speech on college campuses is far from perfect. But it’s the AAUP that’s working to strengthen those freedoms, while critics like Piereson and Riley encourage greater repression by getting rid of tenure and other protections for academic freedom.
Piereson and Riley claim when it comes to speech codes, speech zones, and “administrative attempts to punish or repress speech,” “professors are just as culpable as administrators.” Certainly, there are some professors who endorse censorship (albeit probably not as often as conservative pundits do), and many professors fail to do enough to stop censorship on campus, but that hardly makes them “just as culpable” as the people in power who actually carry out censorship. And it clearly isn’t a criticism that applies to the AAUP, which has been a leader in defending the liberties of faculty as well as protecting the rights and freedoms of students, and was sharply criticizing speech codes more than two decades ago.
In response to the AAUP’s Centennial Declaration that “learning is not just about developing ‘job skills,’” Piereson and Riley state, “Perhaps, though, one of the aims of teaching might be developing job skills?” Of course, the AAUP doesn’t reject the development of job skills, it simply says that learning is “not just” about it. Perhaps before denouncing the AAUP’s declaration as “ludicrous,” Piereson and Riley might instead want to learn what the phrase “not just” means.
The Centennial Declaration is an attempt to express a meaningful set of ideals for higher education, and while not immune from criticism, it deserves an analysis far better than this ludicrous essay.