It is time for a direct and specific disavowal of a key component of the sacred text of the AAUP: the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Most genuflect before its presence as either the Magna Carta of higher ed, the common law of the profession, the great classic document of academic freedom and praise its endorsement by some 250 different organisations and societies. To criticise the 1940 Statement is almost akin to apostasy, and defaming a holy text. I have never seen a statement on an AAUP-sponsored platform criticise the statement. I am sure, since you are reading this, it is not due to censorship but perhaps due to self-love and self-censorship.
The 1940 Statement, while certainly commendable in many areas, requires when engaging in extramural utterances (public advocacy), that professors “at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” This paternalistic, civility standard arrogantly defines how professors should behave when engaging in extramural utterances. This is an existential threat to academic freedom which I encountered directly on my campus, and have seen it invoked on other campuses in Illinois.
Oh, remember, on your next 142-character tweet, make sure you also incorporate a disclaimer that you are not speaking for your institution. If you are interviewed by the media, make sure you bow your head and say, “I am not speaking for my university. I am not the president, provost, academic vice president, nor am I a member of the governing board. Before we begin, may I reiterate I am not speaking for my university.” Yes I have seen AAUP disavowal of the impracticality of disclaimers, but not the overall civility test that hovers over the academy.
For all I know, this gratuitous, civility test first appeared in the 1925 Conference Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure. When the solons met in 1940 to formalise finally the Coolidge Era document, they must have reaffirmed that paternalism in commanding adults with advanced degrees, to behave as gentlemen and gentlewomen. Repeatedly for seventy-five years, AAUP has tried to distance itself from its self-inflicted wound of an ex cathedra civility test before academic freedom is tolerated.
Before the ink was dry on the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP knew something was amiss. The sponsors of the 1940 Statement issued an oops, follow-up “interpretation” that meekly stated, if an administration believed “extramural utterances …raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness,” it should “assume full responsibility,” and that the AAUP is “free” to investigate. That’s hardly an assertion of faculty rights, or an effective modification of the civility test.
Then a quarter century later, the AAUP, for the second time, tried to plug this lacuna in the protection of academic freedom. In 1964, the mercifully short and concise, Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances appeared. It repeats the vague “fitness” standard, and is minimally effective in challenging the capacity to dismiss professors on the basis of comportment. One may presumably make a mistake, evoke emotion and display passion as long as an academician is not construed as psychotic, incompetent and unable to discharge the duties of teaching, service and scholarship. The so-called fitness standard is reactive to the civility test. It does not remove it. It is hopelessly vague, and administrations have gleefully cited the AAUP good-manners test to destroy academic freedom, and persecute professors as if Senator Joe McCarthy were alive, living and well on campus.
Has anyone heard of Steven G. Salaita? Has anyone heard of the AAUP censure of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that took place last June? Steven Salaita was fired for a perceived lack of civility. His academic executioners, in a display of raw arbitrary diktat, concluded his passion and emotion demonstrated a lack of fitness to teach in an impartial manner. They alleged he was so harshly critical of Israel during the Gaza war last year, that he would treat Jewish students in a prejudicial manner. That is why Chancellor Phyllis Wise fired him, and, although, the fired chancellor tried to backpedal from imposing a civility standard, Dr Salaita has not been rehired or reinstated. Did the 1940 Statement contribute to his summary dismissal? Maybe, but I do know in Illinois, administrations have used a civility test to dismiss tenured and non-tenured faculty from Norman Finkelstein’s alleged violation of Vincentian values to Dr. Salaita. Why give DePaul, U. of I. and other academic-freedom deniers even more fodder to engage in viewpoint cleansing?
For the third time in 1970, the AAUP tried to distance itself from the absolutism of the civility test. The 1940 Statement was revised with nine so-called “interpretive comments.” The fourth interpretive comment includes the 1964 Statement on Extramural Utterances, and attempts to repair once again the damage of the 1940 Statement by stating public advocacy “rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness.”
What is needed, if the AAUP is serious about its opposition to civility tests, is to produce, but make it brief, another Redbook statement that directly eliminates a civility test. Having a fitness standard is an honourable but ineffectual rejoinder to this problem. Trying to harness the civility test to fitness is no longer adequate. The only solution is to remove altogether the civility test. If folks like civility, as I do, fine, but not as an authoritarian standard in the AAUP’s most sacred, “biblical” text. For those who believe the civility-test specifics are unexceptionable, here is a direct critique:
“[A]t all times be accurate.” Errors are frequent in human expression, and beware of the “fact checkers.” It is one thing to mislead intentionally and engage in libel, which academic freedom would not protect. It is another to be human and to err. To state that a mistake, in an extramural utterance, whether incidental or major, could be grounds for dismissal, and the destruction of an academic career, is unacceptable with or without the fitness loophole.
“Should exercise appropriate restraint.” Risible nonsense. The battle for critical thinking, and the pursuit of the truth is hardball. This is not a pillow fight in protecting professors who rabidly and emotionally denounce war, a foreign country, their own country, administrative incompetence or lack of shared governance, homophobia and the like. Folks may lose their temper in an email or on Twitter and Facebook. Requiring “appropriate restraint” is demeaning and insulting. Academic freedom fighters can ignore it, but it is there, staring us in the face…and Dr Salaita is teaching in Beirut!
“Should show respect for the opinions of others.” This is as absurd as the previous behavioural mandate. Some opinions do not merit respect, but mocking, sarcastic, mordant and scathing criticism. Some opinions and actions are so antithetical to human rights and dignity, that neither the opinion nor the individual uttering them deserves respect or civility. Example: Dr Ben Carson proclaiming that a Muslim should not be president.
While the United States Constitution was a pro-slavery document that reaffirmed the institution of slavery in three distinct areas, it was later amended or by-passed by subsequent events. The actual words supporting slavery are literally still in the document. While one cannot actually cleanse the civility test from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP can begin the conversation, and the actions necessary to render it moot and no longer in effect. A specific suggestion is to revise the 1964 Statement on Extramural Utterances. Strengthen the well-meaning but defenciveness of a fitness standard, by disavowing a civility test in the first place.