Is the AAUP a Nakedly Partisan Left-Wing Group?

Jonathan Marks at Minding the Campus has denounced the AAUP, claiming that it “takes a sharp left turn.” Marks claims that the AAUP’s Centennial Declaration is “the most nakedly partisan document to emerge from the AAUP in recent memory.”

Marks writes, “According to the Declaration, higher education faces one and only one enemy, corporations or business interests,’ which, the document implies, seek to ‘dictate teaching or research agendas.’

The Declaration says nothing like this, It never identifies corporations as an enemy of academia, let alone as the sole enemy. It simply states, “corporations or business interests should not dictate teaching or research agendas,” which seems like a reasonable and nonpartisan ideal.

Ironically enough, Marks asserts that “No one who has been paying attention to higher education over the past decade will think that concerns about the ‘corporatization’ of higher education are the exclusive province of the left.” If that’s true, then why does Marks condemn the AAUP’s modestly-worded concerns about corporatization as evidence of a left-wing conspiracy? Why would expressing concerns about corporate influence “forfeit whatever reputation for nonpartisanship the AAUP may once have had”?

Marks is also upset that the AAUP has issued a call for proposals to present at the AAUP’s 2016 conference, encouraging “reflection on racial, social, and labor justice in higher education.” But what’s wrong with that? Nothing prevents anyone from making proposals about other topics. And nothing in the call for proposals suggests that conservative viewpoints about racial, social, and labor justice will be excluded. If a conservative wants to argue that affirmative action is racial injustice, that social justice is a bad priority for colleges, or that unions harm the interests of faculty and students, I am confident that the AAUP is willing to let their arguments be heard. I regularly invite conservative organizations to speak at the AAUP conference to do exactly that. Unless Marks thinks that conservatives and Republicans are inherently unjust, I see nothing partisan in free and open discussions of racial, social, and labor justice.

Instead, Marks seems to think that some topics simply shouldn’t be heard because he deems them too liberal, and then denounces the AAUP as “left-wing” for believing in the free exchange of ideas. It’s interesting that a comment on Marks’ article declares, “the source of our present political fractiousness is university faculty. Such people should be allowed nowhere near young impressionable minds.”

22 thoughts on “Is the AAUP a Nakedly Partisan Left-Wing Group?

  1. I’m always happy to hear from my old graduate school friend, John, who was in my Committee on Social Thought cohort and often bested me at chess, though I don’t think he has the better of this argument.

    Since he says I find things in the AAUP centennial declaration that aren’t there, I note that I neither said nor implied anything about a conspiracy, left wing or otherwise.As for the rest, I direct readers to Rudy Fichtenbaum’s speech, to which I refer in my piece ( and the Centennial Declaration itself. I think that a fair-minded reading of these documents will sustain the reading I present in the piece to which John links.

    As for the conference topic, I must disagree with my old friend when he says that I suggested, concerning racial, social, and economic justice that such topics “simply shouldn’t be heard.” I could hardly think that since they pop up with some regularity in my courses. What I did suggest is that, coupled with Fichtenbaum’s folding in of the AAUP’s mission into the struggle against neoliberalism,deregulation, mass incarceration of African Americans, and the rest, the call for proposals seems linked to the call, also made by Fichtenbaum, to be part of a “social justice movement.” Again, I leave it to others to judge whether the concerns identified by Fichtenbaum are, as I said in the piece, the concerns characteristic of a politics located somewhere to the left of the Obama administration. But i am surprised John questions that claim, which seemed to me uncontroversial. Why not just own up to the fact that present leadership wants, for principled and prudential reasons, to be identified with that left, and get on with the argument as to whether that’s a good thing or not?

    • I think that fundamentally the mistake Jonathan Marks makes, in his essay and this comment, is relying upon Rudy Fichtenbaum’s personal essay as a declaration of AAUP policies. If you read the AAUP declaration and the AAUP call for proposals, it’s hard to justify any of Marks’ conclusions. It would be like saying that America’s politics are left-wing because Barack Obama is president and he made a progressive speech advocating social justice. That being said, I think the AAUP needs to be political, and today the political attacks on higher education are coming mostly from conservatives and Republicans. By defending academic freedom, the AAUP has probably been to the left of the Democratic Party (and the Republican Party) for its entire history. The AAUP fundamentally hasn’t changed its values in 100 years, although it has moved to the left along with the rest of the country on most social issues; but Republicans and conservatives are probably more anti-higher education than they have ever been before. The AAUP isn’t more partisan; but the attacks on higher education are more partisan.

      • Thanks for this reply. I agree that Fichtenbaum’s address isn’t a declaration of AAUP policies, though, since Rudy Fichtenbaum has been president since 2012, I think his speech is not a bad guide to the AAUP’s present direction or to the atmosphere in which the Centennial Declaration was produced. People can read the Declaration for themselves. I will note here only that two of its ten propositions deal with potential threats to the independence of academic research. In one, the sole threat identified is “corporations or business interests”; in the other, the sole threat identified is that research may be turned exclusively to “enhancing the profit margins of corporations.” That’s perfectly in line with Fichtenbaum’s address.

        It’s true that, at its inception, the AAUP was tied into progressivism. So the defense of freedom of teaching and research was tied to a distinctive political movement from early on. But the authors of that old document seem to have been more aware of the tension between the spirit of partisanship and the spirit of scholarship than the authors of this new one.

        • Professor Marks, you accuse the AAUP of ‘dramatically simplifying’ higher education’s problems and claim the AAUP is forfeiting its (small, to accept your implication) non-partisan reputation. I remember similar claims against individuals and organizations in the 1960s. Most of us, then, recognized this as an attempt to both circumscribe debate and to avoid the real issues.

          Let me put it this way: The United States has veered right over the past thirty years, so much so that people once seen as quite conservative would be vilified today as “liberal” (Richard Nixon comes to mind). Does my pointing that out improve debate or explore solutions on national problems? No, it only frames debate in a way I like… not something particularly helpful, more generally. It simplifies debate by eliding issues, replacing them, instead, by ‘left’ and ‘right.’

          In terms of higher education, issues cannot be located by partisan politics, as you try to do by claiming a leftward tilt to the AAUP. The Democrats and the Republicans both push “corporatist” agendas (there is little difference, really, between the Democratic governors of New York and Connecticut and the Republican governor of New Jersey, for instance, not in terms of higher education) and the first great warning against growing corporate influence (against the “military-industrial complex,” something with more significance to higher education that many might think) came from Dwight Eisenhower.

          Rather than trying to tar the AAUP with a leftist label, why not address issues themselves? Why, for example, is joining a social-justice movement a bad thing, as you imply?

          • Thanks Professor Barlow. I don’t agree with you that the distinction between left and right (or even Democrat and Republican, which is perhaps what you mean) does not apply to higher education. But even if it doesn’t, Fichtenbaum’s speech folds what he recommends, which I have argued is reflected in the Centennial Declaration, into a much broader political and social movement.
            So what’s wrong with joining a social justice movement? Nothing for you or me, just as there would be nothing wrong with you or me joining the Catholic Church (though my grandmother would turn over in her grave). An organization that has, at least in the past and I suspect still today, wishes to distinguish between partisan zeal and the spirit of scholarship both for reasons having to do with the defense of academic freedom and reasons having to do with being a professional association for a variety of members, needs to tread carefully in that area. That doesn’t mean it can’t take stands, of course. For example, the AAUP probably can’t avoid taking a position on unionization, just because there may be some among its membership who don’t want to go the unionization route. Similarly, I don’t think, of course, that the AAUP has to remain neutral on questions of justice–e.g. the treatment of adjuncts–or the character of higher education–e.g. whether it’s a public trust even though there may be some members who think for profit universities are terrific and would be delighted to see more privatization.
            But the Declaration (along with Rudy Fichtenbaum) seems to me to have, so to speak, joined the Church. Whether that’s a good idea or not depends on whether you think that corporatization (as opposed to populism, or sectarianism within the academy, or a loss of consensus concerning the basis/meaning of academic freedom, or cowed administrations in a competitive market terrified at any kind of bad publicity, or the push for colleges and universities to engage in boycotts, or the need for colleges and universities to take advantage of cost savings offered by technology–something I think well meaning people like Bowen argue for–or an outmoded colonial era governance structure, or the irresponsibility of colleges and universities that need somehow to stay afloat and fill their seats–not because they are cold hearted followers of “revenue streams” but because they are afraid of going under) is practically the only problem that requires our attention. That view seems to me to stem from a politics (yours sound a bit Naderite to me) that it’s perfectly legitimate to have but that is rather narrow for a representative professional body and that, in at least some of it manifestations, may not even be all that academic freedom friendly (walk a little further to the left and academic freedom is a “bourgeois right).

          • Actually, I say that left/right distinctions don’t apply to higher education.

            I am not sure that there is a necessary divide, however, between “partisan zeal” and “the spirit of scholarship.” In fact, creating such a divide may reduce both, enhancing nothing. Also, your examples gainsay your point, at least to some degree. Questions concerning adjuncts overlap with questions of academic freedom, for example.

            Your final paragraph is a bit confused, so I cannot respond to it well. I am not sure what “a bit Naderite” means, for example; certainly, I have never been a fan of the creator of PIRGs, whose organizational strategy takes advantage of student inattention in order to gain funding. I suspect you mean that I must see both American political parties as inherently similar–which is not what I meant at all. What I do claim is that their approach to education is much the same and that no one should rely on politicians to fix the problems of academia. That’s very different from Ralph Nader’s attitude: Certainly, I will choose one over the other.

      • Unfortunately, the so-called Centennial Declaration isn’t actually a document of policy of “the AAUP” but of the national AAUP leadership. A search at the AAUP Website reveals no evidence that the Declaration was ever vetted by the general membership and adopted by the Annual Meeting of the Association.

        Like so many other “policy documents” of the AAUP of the past two decades or more, this is indeed a partisan document — but not in the sense that Jonathan Marks declares it to be. It is simply more evidence of the lack of democracy within the AAUP that a document like the Declaration was created without the kind of open dialogue that the traditional AAUP principles and documents stand for.

        These “policy” statements by the AAUP leadership which purport to speak for all of us in AAUP remind me of an old “Lone Ranger” joke:

        Lone Ranger: “Tonto, there are Indians to the north of us, Indians to the south, and east and west. We’re surrounded!”
        Tonto: “What do you mean by ‘we,’ white man?”

        Indeed, who is the AAUP that composed that Centennial Declaration which purports to speak for us? Did the preceding Annual Meeting elect a Centennial Commission to open a dialogue on the evolved role of the Association? Were drafts of the statement circulated to the conferences and chapters for reaction and comment? There’s no trace of any such document history at when one enters the keywords “centennial declaration.”

        Instead, the national AAUP leadership autocratically arranged for its creation and dissemination and invites citizens to endorse it and join us (cf.

        What do you mean by “us,” national AAUP leaders?

  2. Let me make a general observation here: the AAUP is a very complex organization that does a lot of different things, including the defense of academic freedom. The AAUP stands for the belief that you do not violate the rights of others by believing in something, or expressing a viewpoint, or joining an activist movement. And that’s true of the AAUP itself and its members, including its president. So, you might not like some activist positions of the AAUP (and I don’t like some conservative positions of the AAUP). But even if the AAUP is allied with some leftist movements, don’t imagine for a moment that it’s going to embrace the misguided delusions of those few leftists who think that academic freedom is a “bourgeois right” to be dismissed, or that it’s going to ban conservative viewpoints from its conferences.

  3. The problem with the Centennial Declaration is that it is not a “policy” statement of the AAUP in the usual understanding of the term. The document was created by the national AAUP leadership and imposed upon the organization by fiat.

    A keyword search of the AAUP Website using the words “centennial declaration” does not reveal any communications to the AAUP membership to solicit contributions to the genesis of such a document, nor of any vote taken at the Annual Meeting to endorse it. In short, it indeed appears to be a partisan statement, but not in the sense that Jonathan Marks intends the word. The document is a statement by the national leadership that we, the membership, never had any substantive role in creating.

    This commenter is reminded of the old Lone Ranger joke:

    Lone Ranger: “Tonto, there are Indians to the north of us, Indians to the south — and east and west! We’re surrounded!”

    Tonto: “What do you mean ‘we’, white man?”

    The national AAUP leadership invites citizens to join “us” in endorsing the Centennial Declaration born of its autocratic top-down administration: Where is the evidence that the membership at an Annual Meeting elected a centennial commission and charged it with the creation of that document? Where is the evidence that drafts were circulated to the conferences and chapters for input and reaction before its adoption at an Annual Meeting? What is the distinction between an address by the AAUP President and the Centennial Declaration? Who is the AAUP?

    And so, dear national AAUP President and leadership: “What do you mean ‘we’?”

    • I think the “we” is the president and leadership who are inviting the membership to individually express their agreement with the Centennial Declaration. That seems pretty democratic to me. Speaking as a member, I don’t want the AAUP to get the consent and approval of the entire membership before it can ever make a statement on anything. A declaration is not imposed by fiat because nothing is imposed.

      • On the contrary, official statements and declarations should be vetted through a democratic process that reflects the membership as a whole. This is how major AAUP documents in the past of the organization (before the last two decades, at least) were promulgated: with public comment from the membership, then revision by the originating committee, with submission to National Council and then usually raised on the floor of the Annual Meeting as well.

        This kind of democracy, like truly open and free nomination and election procedures, makes the AAUP leadership of the past two decades feel uneasy — too threatening to their hegemony. So they have devised constitutionally unauthorized Election Bylaws to restrict access to the franchise and protests of elections, and have extended the terms of office to ensure that the rollover into the leadership of any fresh blood is kept to a bare-bones minimum.

        All of this has been transparent to the membership at large and, as a result, for example, member participation in AAUP elections has fallen to all-time lows, a minuscule percentage of the entire member roster. Therefore, the national leadership cannot make any true claim to a mandate from the membership for anything it currently does or says: declarations, statements, etc.

  4. I think a national organisation should proudly proclaim itself as leftist, progressive, democratic socialist and back it up with specific policy initiatives. You bet.

    Those values encompass workers’ rights, the resistance of capitalist exploitation of labour, the right to teach courses and publish books that are critical of the State of Israel, the right to denounce colonialism and occupation, the right of adjuncts to organise, the right of full-time faculty to organise, the right to resist arbitrary and capricious attacks on progressive values by administrators and governing boards, the right to tear down the ivory tower and engage in robust, “uncivil,” attacks on the present order, the right to search for the truth and defy the prevailing narrative that claims only the center-left to center-right ideological spectrum is legitimate and the RIGHT to convene annual conferences and set progressive themes in their call for papers.

    Organisations should stand for something: they should tolerate dissent and debate, but we live in a world of growing repression of the higher-educational system in the US. If that is surrendered to the thunder of the right or to bland liberalism, then the last bastion of resistance to American exceptionalism, white privilege, and the corporate buy out of critical thinking will be eliminated.

    It is a struggle worth fighting for and not apologising for. I know what the struggle feels like and to me it is NOT an abstract concept.

  5. I dissent. Professional organizations of scholars ought to promote scholarship not partisan politics. It’s impossible to argue that promoting so-called “social justice” is not partisan politicking. But if a majority of the AAUP want to turn the AAUP into another leftist advocacy group, I suppose they can do that. Just don’t expect the public to continue to regard professors as scholars devoted to the truth as opposed to just another set of partisan activists. I doubt that the consequences of that change in perception will be renewed public support for public universities.

    • The argument you make is one of false distinction. Every decision in scholarship has political implications. The two cannot be separated.

      You are even providing an example of this: public support for public universities is inherently political. Therefore, scholars must always take into account the political or lose funding. What you are calling for is a faculty that bends to the will of the majority. Or so you say.

      • It’s not that complicated. Professors are respected because of their expertise in their areas of scholarship. If they want to engage in politics, which is a perfectly legitimate and indeed, public spirited, activity, they should do that through political advocacy groups or the political parties. Turning scholarly groups into political advocacy groups may give some momentary pleasure but the long term cost in credibility and trust is significant.

        • No, Douglas, professors are respected because of their success within the public sphere of engaging in public debate using their scholarship as their grounding. The only scholars most Americans have heard of are those who step beyond the ‘ivory tower.’ In your comment above, once more you are making an artificial distinction, one that has, furthermore, no use other than keeping faculty out of the public sphere–itself an external political act relating to scholarship.

          No one is ‘turning scholarly groups into political advocacy groups,’ for the distinction is itself a political one and it has already been done. There is nothing scholarly about it. By making the distinction, you are creating the “political,” not the scholars involved. You are forcing the faculty into politics, whether the role is active or passive.

          Simply put, you want scholars to be scholars on your terms and those are, essentially, political terms. “Keep out of politics” is a political statement. Can’t you see that you, by making it, are disenfranchising the faculty? By doing so, you force faculty into politics whether we want to be there or not.

    • @Douglas

      I agree with you completely. Academic speech deserves special workplace protections. Using those protections for political speech is an abuse of company resources, the same as a corporate exec using his credit card to buy stuff for his mistress. The academy with few exceptions should be about truth not advocacy. The purpose of college should be education not indoctrination. Facts and theory are mostly amoral. Now obviously like the divinity school or political ethics classes have to be somewhat political but those sorts of exceptions are rare and can be isolated.

      I taught Fourier theory without advocating either for or against Bonapartism. Fourier’s politics and Fourier’s heat transfer equations are separable.

      Society is simply not going to hundreds of thousands of political activists receiving state subsidies to promote their personal agendas. They are willing to fund hundreds of thousands of educators who develop student’s command of knowledge, thinking and learning skills.

      The executive he is free to have a mistress, and free to use his personal credit card to buy her gifts. Where it crosses into theft is when he uses the company card to buy her gifts. Similarly when academics take the resources that were supposed to be deployed to advance human / American knowledge and deploy them for their political pet projects they are stealing. Academics should be free to have their political opinions, and they are free to pursue political interests. They aren’t free to do it on University time with University resources. They need to carefully distinguish when they are speaking as a member of the faculty in their area of expertise and thus subject to high professional standards and when they are speaking as a member of the public.

      • That’s a beautiful metaphor: professors are married to truth and facts, but they like to cheat on them by hanging out with politics and indoctrination. Like many metaphors, it suffers from some fatal flaws. The truth, unlike a marriage, has a disputed meaning. Some truths are political, and accusations of lies are sometimes politically motivated. Banning “politics” from many discussions is one good sign that the truth is not really being sought. The way we get to the truth is to allow disputed facts to be argued about, and not banished in the name of stopping “politics.”

        • Mr. Wilson – Let’s test your analysis with some not-so-hypothetical facts. Suppose a scholarly group comprised of scholars who study American institutions decides that the group should promote the boycott of Israeli universities in order to pressure Israel into making some greater accomodation to the Palestinian Arabs. I suppose there are lots of “disputed facts” involved in making that determination, including, inter alia, whether the goal of the boycott movement is peace between Israel and the Arabs or the elemination of Israel as a Jewish state. What does not seem to be much in dispute is that the resolution of the claims between Israel and the Arabs doesn’t have very much to do with the scholarly pursuits of the members, who, if you recall our hypothetical, study American institutions. Please explain how the rest of us should view this decision by this group to encourage the boycott. Is this the pursuit of truth, the result of careful scholarship, or naked politics? Should the tax authorities treat this as scholarly activity (meaning the group remains eligible for treatment as charitable or educational organization with tax-deductible contributions) or as incidental political activity by a social welfare organization (contributions are not tax deductible)?

          Let’s take another hypothetical, purely imaginary in this case. Suppose the American Economic Association were to endorse the GOP candidate for president, whomever that turns out to be, because a majority of the members thought that Mrs. Clinton’s turn left would ruin the economy. Would that be OK? You’d wouldn’t mind seeing TV ads proclaiming that “America’s economists endorse GOP candidate?” Suppose the AEA stops short of endorsements, but decides to lend its institutional name and support to Speaker Ryan’s plans to reform entitlements because a majority of members think those reforms are economically desireable. You’d have no problem with that, right?

          • My defense is primarily of individuals expressing their views. I’m less enthusiastic about associations making collective statements, but I still think they have that right. The proper response is to criticize a group if you don’t like their ideas. Your example of the IRS is exactly what I’m talking about. If the IRS revoked non-profit status to a scholarly group because they criticized Israel, that would be a clear example of a politicized decision to violate the rights of others in the name of imposing a “non-political” ideology.

          • I’m wildly enthusiastic about individual scholars becoming involved in politics. That’s their right and a public service to boot. My only objection is to the hijacking of scholarly associations to serve the political goals of some, perhaps even a majority, of the members.

  6. As for tax status, the general rule is this: charitable and educational groups are entitled to 501(c)(3) status, which means that donations to them are deductible and they don’t have to pay taxes on their income. To qualify, though, you can’t be engaged in politics, even a little bit. The IRS defines politics as participating, directly or indirectly, in the election of any candidate for office in the US. Theoretically, a charitable or educational organization can engage in issue advocacy without losing its non-profit status. However, going beyond explaining the merits of different positions, and advocating for one or the other, arguably is not “educational” and should lead to loss of the 501(c)(3) status.

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