"The AAUP's Ludicrous Declaration"

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.

One thought on “"The AAUP's Ludicrous Declaration"

  1. The problem with the “Declaration” is that, like almost all of the “policy statements” of the past decade or more, the document was generated “top-down” in a manner worthy of the most authoritarian of university administrations: all national committees in AAUP are hand-picked by the sitting president of the organization. This may have been more justifiable in the earliest days of the organization when the entire membership was small and known to each other but is an insult to democracy in the twenty-first century.

    In short, among the priorities of the AAUP leadership in recent decades is not more responsibility towards the membership but rather the suppression of dissent within the organization, as most clearly evidenced in the 2013 “top-down” dictates that anyone wishing to challenge the validity of a national election must spend a few hundred dollars on certified mail postage just to file the complaint (cf. Section VIII.E. at http://www.aaup.org/about/elected-leaders/elections/aaup-election-rules). Further, these Election Bylaws – propagated by the leadership to safeguard their incumbency – fly in the face of the spirit if not the letter of the AAUP Constitution and contain other provisions which are in direct conflict with that document. Indeed, the incumbents also altered the AAUP Constitution in order to increase the length of their terms and slow the pace of integration of new leaders through the less frequent exercise of the franchise by the membership.

    Let us recall that the AAUP leadership of recent years has, nationally, in a conference and in some chapters, conducted undemocratic elections re-run by the US Department of Labor in response to member complaints (cf. e.g., http://www.dol.gov/olms/regs/compliance/annualreports/highlights_12.htm). Logically, one way of ensuring autocratic rule is to make it far too costly for future elections to be challenged. Whether this recently imposed onerous “policy” would pass DOL muster remains to be seen. In any event, election turnout subsequent to these past problematic elections has been among the lowest in the organization’s history, depriving this leadership of any claim to a membership “mandate.”

    Further, the “Declaration” provides only one brief citation from a seminal document of the organization while claiming to celebrate the AAUP’s centennial heritage. In short, it reflects the views and interpretations of a small subsection of the leadership who have not even revealed themselves as the individual authors of the statement. Indeed, the AAUP leadership is rushing to print a new edition of the Redbook for the centennial to “codify” all of the “policies” created by the hand-picked committees since the last published edition.

    In this “Declaration,” as in so many of these endeavors, the leadership of the AAUP has failed to seize the day and make this an occasion for dialogue and reflection within the organization. This is all the more noteworthy and reprehensible in the age of the Internet. Instead, the AAUP leadership gutted the budget of the Assembly of State Conferences whose Constitution was established precisely to foster that sort of dialogue; the money was shunted to the collective bargaining branch of the enterprise where agency fees in new AFT/AAUP joint union locals will generate more revenue for the organization. Indeed, the Chair of the ASC reportedly resigned in protest of this funding transfer (Clayton Rosati), a resignation that was hushed up just like that of a former chair of Committee A several years ago (David Montgomery).

    Advocacy chapter membership is down, apparently reflective of the professoriate’s response to the devolution of the AAUP and the relegation of the ASC and the conferences to third-class status. Thus, the sole locus of discussion within AAUP that crosses the boundaries of containment established by the AAUP leadership is this blog’s forums — and there is strong evidence that the national AAUP leadership disagrees with the freedom of expression and dedication to the AAUP principles exercised herein (https://academeblog.org/2014/07/07/aaup-response-to-open-letter-to-barbara-bowen/). To its credit, however, the AAUP leadership has not (yet) resorted to censorship of this medium as it did with the former AAUP-General listserv (cf. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/09/25/aaup).

    Dewey and Lovejoy are turning in their graves that the basic principles of true faculty self-governance are only cursorily applied within the very organization they founded nearly one hundred years ago. In this time of crisis in higher education, the AAUP leadership in its structure and operations incorporates the same structures and operations which are hastening the demise of the very “idea of the university.”

    The centennial approaches: “The AAUP is dead; long live the AAUP!”

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