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.