Response to Jonathan Marks

In a post published yesterday on this blog, Aaron Barlow replied to a Weekly Standard review, by Professor Jonathan Marks of Ursinus College, of Joerg Tiede’s recently published study of the founding of the AAUP, University Reform.  But Aaron focused more on a New York Times column by Arthur Brooks so his discussion of Marks was relatively brief.  Therefore I want to reply further to Marks’s review and to its contentions about the AAUP.

Marks begins his review of Tiede’s book by acknowledging that were he dismissed from his academic position for writing for a conservative publication or for expressing conservative views, the AAUP “would be on my side.”  According to Marks, “the AAUP has been good at distinguishing its commitment to academic freedom from the generally liberal political commitments of its members.”  He’s correct, of course.  The AAUP has defended and will continue to defend those whose academic freedom has been violated no matter what their views may be.

Yet by the close of his review Marks is taking a rather different stance.  He concludes that “in spite of the organization’s record of defending academic freedom, even for conservatives, it is sometimes hard to believe that the American Association of University Professors is serious about academic freedom.”

How in just a few hundred words does Marks move from his opening praise to such skepticism?  Largely it’s because, as Tiede’s book demonstrates, the AAUP was not founded solely as an organization whose mission was, in Marks’s words, to stand “above the fray” in defense of academic freedom.  Instead, its purpose from the beginning was to establish the professional standing of the professoriate and to defend professional rights, including the right to academic freedom, against what AAUP’s founders perceived to be the main threat to those rights, the domination of higher education by business-oriented boards of trustees and their servants, autocratic administrators.

For Marks this apparently amounts to a sort of original sin that continues to tarnish the AAUP’s work.  Specifically, Marks points to the AAUP’s recent Centennial Declaration, which, he complains, “denounces ‘corporatization’ and the influence of ‘business interests’ as very nearly the sole enemy of the common good.”  According to Marks, “the AAUP’s focus on this issue alone in a declaration meant to sum up its principles advances the organization’s most partisan, and least attractive, legacy.”

Let’s put aside the fact that the Centennial Declaration neither focuses on this issue alone nor aims to sum up the organization’s principles, which may be found most clearly summarized in AAUP’s mission statement and developed more extensively throughout the literally thousands of pages of documents on our website, the most important of which are collected in the 2015 eleventh edition of AAUP Policy Documents and Reports (the “Red Book,” which was edited, I might add, by Joerg Tiede).  Instead, let’s ask why Marks finds the Association’s concern with expanded corporate interest in academia so problematic.

To be sure, it is certainly true that corporatization does not represent the sole threat either to academic freedom or to the professional status of the professoriate.  For instance, the AAUP has, along with many conservatives, opposed the growing pressure for “trigger warnings,” which may arguably be a byproduct of the corporatizing push to treat students as “customers,” but still represents an independent threat both to academic freedom and to liberal education.  And, as Marks knows well because we previously corresponded on the issue, the AAUP shares his opposition to academic boycotts, including the academic boycott of Israel, which no one would claim is being pushed by big business.  Nonetheless it would be hard to deny that the growing influence of money in higher education — eerily evocative of the very Gilded Age conditions that prompted the Association’s creation a century ago — is a major threat to academic freedom, independent thought, and professional standing.  Indeed, I would argue that it is the single greatest threat and to deny that would be to shackle the ability of the AAUP not only to defend the rights of those who oppose such influence but also the rights of those who don’t.

The AAUP’s record in defense of academic freedom is hardly perfect.  As Marks points out, “its nearly complete silence about the dismissal of professors by overzealous, or sometimes just cynical, boards during World War I” represented a shameful abandonment of the very principles it first declared just months earlier.  Marks does not mention the almost equally disastrous silence of the Association during the massive dismissals of alleged academic Communists (and more than a few plain old liberals) during the heyday of the second Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s, so well documented in Ellen Schrecker’s No Ivory Tower.  But it would be absurd to blame these failures on the AAUP’s opposition to the untoward influence of business on higher education.  Nor would it be reasonable to claim, as Marks does, that such failures stem from the Association’s “interest in furthering the political influence of scholars.”  In fact, with notable and praiseworthy exceptions, it was largely the very trustees and imperious administrators against which the AAUP’s founders railed that were to blame for the repression of those terrible years.  That the AAUP too often capitulated in the face such actions can hardly be attributable to the Association’s hostility to those who actually took them.

The notion that the AAUP — or for that matter any other professional organization — can stand “above politics” is at best idealistic and at worst a cynical ploy to advance a different sort of politics (which was the point of Aaron Barlow’s post).  As Tiede’s masterful book demonstrates, the AAUP’s founders envisioned the Association as a vigorous advocate for the academic profession and its rights, including but not limited to its right to academic freedom.  Their vision is alive and well.  Moreover, there is nothing to be ashamed of in the Association’s refusal to remain, in Marks’s words, “above the fray.”  As political scientist Clyde Barrow put it in comments at a session on the history of the AAUP at the American Historical Association this past January:

“Can one imagine the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lamenting that his organization has become identified in the public mind with the fortunes of business? Can one imagine the president of the American Medical Association lamenting that his organization has become identified in the public mind with the fortunes of the medical profession? Only a professor would be embarrassed by the prospect of joining an organization that collectively represents his/her economic and occupational interest!”

Marks is clearly a thoughtful and intelligent scholar.  And while I may disagree with his critique of the AAUP (and probably disagree with him on many other issues as well), I want to conclude by stressing that his membership and participation in the AAUP, and that of other conservative scholars, are more than welcome.  He is probably correct that most AAUP members are liberal in their politics, but as a professional association we welcome people of all political views who support our mission.  After all, it’s hard to imagine 40,000+ academics agreeing fully on almost anything.

3 thoughts on “Response to Jonathan Marks

  1. Thanks to Hank Reichman for his challenging and generous response to my review.

    In his excellent book, Tiede argues not only that the AAUP was built on the model of a progressive movement, because it sought to shed an outmoded way of governing for a way of governing more suited to the times, but also that it was founded in part to defend progressive professors who wished to intervene in politics. The American conception of academic freedom, unlike the German one on which it was based, emphasizes extramural speech because “the development of social science in particular created a professional class of faculty that included members who used their expertise to advocate the reform movements of the progressive era.” Cattell was a bit of an outlier, but hardly outside the mainstream of progressivism, in maintaining that among the most important tasks of scientific and educational professionals was to oppose the political machine and the business corporations, along with their materialistic aims. My argument was not so much that this was a “sin” as that this idea of the educational and scientific professional as political vanguard, sits uneasily with the idea of those same professionals as concerned solely, in the “formation and promulgation of their opinions,” with “their scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow experts.”

    People like Dewey don’t have much trouble with this tension because they suppose that their positions, which may appear partisan to others, are in fact the product of scientific inquiry. But in retrospect, as much as many may still appreciate the legacy of progressivism, this view seems naïve. And indeed, the smug assurance that the democratic community is on its way to being (voluntarily) guided by . . . us college professors is not, if indeed it is part of the legacy of the AAUP, an attractive one.

    Reichman says that it would not “be reasonable to claim, as Marks does, that [the failure of the AAUP to defend academic freedom during World War I] stem[s] from the Association’s “interest in furthering the political influence of scholars.” But it’s Tiede who writes about Dewey’s view (which Dewey shares with other intellectuals) that the war, via the involvement of academics in government, could “in the end effect such changes in the practice of government and finally in its theory as to initiate a new type of democracy.” It’s true that the AAUP also hopes to gain and does gain more influence over efforts to standardize higher education as a result of its war effort, which included its support for wartime restrictions on academic freedom. But it seems to me that Tiede throughout supports the view that the more narrowly academic governance related goals of the AAUP are tied into much broader social and political reform goals. Perhaps many of these goals were praiseworthy, but it does not seem to me that the “bargain” whereby academics gain enhanced freedom in return for performing certain social functions is likely to hold up if it turns out that the social function the academics have in mind is advancing a reform agenda associated with a particular political party or movement. That is why I said in the review that “it is not hard to see how the public might balk at conferring a special status on academics—a status that gives their speech even more protection than the First Amendment already confers—when they offer themselves not as gadflies but as advocates and potential rulers.”

    Let me take up finally the question of the Centennial Declaration, which Rudy Fichtenbaum calls a “charter of values that should define the colleges and universities of the twenty-first century.” I don’t think my assumption that the Declaration is meant to “sum up” the AAUP’s principles going forward is as far-fetched, then, as Reichman thinks, though perhaps I should have said “values” instead. Does the document make it seem as if corporate interests are nearly the sole threat to our universities? Perhaps that was an exaggeration. But as I pointed out to John K. Wilson in a recent exchange, two of the Centennial Declaration’s 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.”

    I also don’t think it’s wrong to use Rudy Fichtenbaum’s recent speech to the AAUP to think about the present direction of the AAUP and the spirit behind the Centennial Declaration. Fichtenbaum sees the threat to the universities as part of the “neoliberal attack on working people,” including “the rule of markets, cutting taxes on the wealthy, reducing public expenditures that support working and middle class families, mass incarceration of African American males, deregulation, privatization, and the elimination of public goods.” We can have a debate as to whether that view is correct (Reichman thinks at least that the single greatest threat to higher education right now is the influence of money). What does not seem to me debatable is that when Fichtenbaum goes on to ask the AAUP to join a “social justice movement” he is asking an organization of scholarly and educational professionals to identify themselves with a distinctive political movement, located somewhere to the left of the Democratic party. There is some parallel, I think, between this proposed association and the association of the early AAUP with progressivism. A couple of commentators here have suggested that this is a noble and good and desirable thing. But I still see it as in marked tension with the argument that scholars deserve special protection because of the distinctive character and value of their activity as scholars. We, of course, having largely given up on the old optimism that supposes that scientific inquiry will eventually provide a non-partisan foundation for collective action, have less excuse than intellectuals in the earlier part of the century did for ignoring the tension. Yet we are less thoughtful than the early AAUP was on this score (the 1915 Declaration does explore the tension to a point).

  2. Pingback: On Extramural Expression: A Response to Jonathan Helwink | ACADEME BLOG

  3. Pingback: Conservative Scholar Opposes Harassment | ACADEME BLOG

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.