On the Anniversary of the 1915 Declaration of Principles

The AAUP was founded on January 1 and 2, 1915. Shortly after the founding meeting, the Association’s first president, Columbia University philosophy professor John Dewey, appointed a Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, referred to as “the committee of fifteen.” The committee took up investigations of violations of academic freedom at the universities of Utah, Pennsylvania, Montana, and Colorado, as well as at Wesleyan University; the latter was a holdover from a predecessor committee of three professional associations of social scientist, known as “the joint committee of nine.” Both committees were chaired by Columbia University economics professor Edwin Seligman. At the second annual meeting, on January 1, 1916, the committee presented the central founding document of the AAUP, what we today call the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The “general report,” as the 1915 Declaration was originally known, followed a preliminary report by the joint committee of nine and was primarily authored by Seligman, Johns Hopkins University philosophy professor and AAUP founder Arthur Lovejoy, and Princeton University economics professor Frank Fetter.

The following is a brief excerpt from a longer chapter on the 1915 Declaration, taken from my recent book, University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Footnotes have been omitted.


The Genesis of the Report

The committee of fifteen not only oversaw a total of five investigations in its first year of existence, it also produced what came to be known as the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The 1915 Declaration was originally presented to the second annual meeting as the “General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” and appears to have received its current title in 1943. The committee used the term “general” to distinguish it from academic freedom in the social sciences, which had been the subject matter of the joint committee of nine. Widely considered the central foundational document of the American conception of academic freedom, the report was based on the preliminary report of the joint committee and on the experience the AAUP’s committee had gained through its investigative work. The general report adopted a number of conclusions of the preliminary report and also contained answers to many of the questions posed there. It continues to stand as the crowning achievement of the AAUP’s first year.

In August 1915, Seligman circulated a memorandum together with a letter by committee member Guy Stanton Ford suggesting how to begin to formulate a general report. Reflecting the predominant methodology in educational research at the time, Ford had suggested using a survey to determine the range of practices regarding appointment, tenure, and dismissal in order to distill from the results “adequate and fair institutional practice.” Lovejoy, in his response to Seligman, objected to such an approach because “little had been done anywhere towards regularizing this matter.” Only after principles had been formulated should current practice be surveyed, which Lovejoy admitted was the opposite of how he would approach most other topics. Lovejoy’s approach was not only normative rather than descriptive, but also indicated a code of academic freedom and tenure sufficiently specific to preclude wide variations in institutional practices. Throughout its history, the AAUP has maintained that same approach: the association’s principles of academic freedom and tenure are highly specific, and it expects individual institutions to adhere to these principles with little variation. The AAUP’s principles of institutional governance are much more general and conceptual, however, and allow wider variations in practice among institutions. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the AAUP’s first several formulations of principles of institutional governance were based on surveys.

Using the same approach employed in formulating the preliminary report, Seligman suggested to the committee that each member submit a draft report, on the basis of which he would write a prefinal draft to be discussed at a meeting. In late November, Seligman circulated that draft for the committee meeting over the Thanksgiving holiday in New York, after which a subcommittee consisting of Seligman, Fetter, and Lovejoy finalized it. Seligman presented the final report to the second annual meeting, where it was approved only after extended debate and extensive parliamentary wrangling. Following its approval, it was printed in the first issue of the Bulletin. […]

The Second Annual Meeting

Over the summer, Dewey had proclaimed to Seligman that the report of the committee would be the pièce de résistance of the second meeting of the AAUP. Its approval certainly took up a large amount of time at the meeting and, for a while, hung in the balance. Having disclaimed the central role of academic freedom for the founding of the AAUP at its organizational meeting, Dewey, in his presidential address at the end of his one-year term, explained why things had instead turned out the way they had. He was aware of criticism of the extensive attention that had been paid to academic freedom by the association and remarked on it in his address. Dewey not only defended the focus of the first year, but also argued that events had been singularly beneficial in establishing the association as something “more than a talking body”: “While a succession of incidents like those at Utah, Montana, Colorado and Pennsylvania was wholly unexpected (and, let it be hoped, never to be repeated), it may well be doubted whether any cut-and-dried, predetermined plan of ‘constructive’ work would have been equally effective in shaking a multitude of things together and making an Association on paper into a working unity with a mind and movement of its own.”

Seligman presented the report of the committee on the evening of December 31, 1915, and the next morning, at 10:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day, the meeting considered the adoption of the report. At this point, there were only about forty members in attendance, which immediately raised concerns over whether such a small number of members should make decisions on behalf of the entire association and, by extension, as one member argued, for the profession as a whole. Under its constitution, a quorum at an annual meeting simply consisted of those members present, and thus there was no question about the legality of voting to approve the report. Nevertheless, Dean Andrew West, who had been accused of impeding “the process of organization” at the founding meeting by one participant, rose to move that the report only be received but not approved. Opposition to West’s motion was immediately aroused. The main concern over not approving the report was that it would publicly undermine it if all that could be said was, as one member described it, “that it was not literally put in the waste basket when it came here.” University of Nebraska history professor George Howard, one of the faculty members who had resigned from Stanford over the Ross case, rose to call the report “a magna carta for our profession for a long time to come,” and warned that merely receiving the report would be used against the association by claiming that the report had been rejected over its “alleged radicalism.”

Trying to win support against giving full approval to the report, West responded by offering to approve “the general principle and attitude of the report” rather than the report itself. West stated that he disagreed with some of the details of the report, which should be supplemented. At this point, Dewey relinquished the chair in order to defend the report, noting that if the meeting decided that it had doubts about the principles enunciated in the report, “this association might just as well go out of existence.”

With a motion to receive the report on the floor, an amendment to further approve it on the floor as well, a second-order amendment was offered to forward the report for a referendum vote to all members of the association. Several speakers agreed that changes to the report should be processed in some fashion. At this point, unsurprisingly, a certain amount of procedural confusion set in, with further substitute amendments offered and parliamentary inquiries made, when Seligman, who arrived late to the meeting, spoke. Describing in detail the procedure employed in formulating the report, Seligman implored the meeting to pass a motion that would adopt and approve the report, and, acknowledging the expressed desire to see some changes, send it to the members of the association to provide comments to the committee. Seligman promised to attempt to incorporate changes submitted to him. After lengthy additional discussion, the necessity of asking the membership to approve or disapprove the report was raised again, at which point the transcript records cries of “Question” from the assembly. […]

Seligman again tried to formulate a motion that would satisfy the concerns expressed. He summarized the motion in three parts: that the meeting accept and approve the report; that it be sent with the stated approval of the meeting to the membership of the association with a request to submit comments to the committee; and that the committee be instructed to incorporate “such as seem wise in the report.” Although several more rounds of substitute motions were offered, in the end it was Seligman’s motion that Dean West seconded. At this point, rather incredibly, Fetter, who had not spoken throughout the discussion, moved to amend one more time: “I move to amend by striking out everything after the words ‘that this report be accepted and approved.’ ” The effect of this amendment was to bring the report to a final up-or-down vote in front of the meeting after all. The amendment passed, and the report was now before the assembly. As some members had voted against the amendment, Lovejoy rose to say, “it is important that a body of professors doesn’t distinguish itself by deliberating for two years, three years, four years and nothing happens.” The motion passed, and the report was approved.



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  1. Pingback: The 1915 Declaration, a Century Later | The Academe Blog

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