The 1915 Declaration, a Century Later

Yesterday, Joerg Tiede posted an excerpt from his new book about the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles. Tiede noted that although the Declaration was presented on December 31, 1915, the AAUP members did not vote to approve it until January 1, 1916. So on this, the centennial of the of the slightly misdated Declaration, it’s important to examine its past and how it is viewed today.

The 1915 Declaration has been an extraordinary object of affection for conservatives today.

In 2006, Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) cited the 1915 Declaration to support her claims that the AAUP has drifted rather far from its own founding ideals.

ACTA printed the 1915 Declaration in a 2013 report to educate trustees about academic freedom, with Larry Summers expressing his admiration: “The AAUP Statement of 1915 says sensible things about many of the issues—albeit with a commitment to the proposition that only professors can evaluate professors—that might be surprising to outsiders.”

Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars called the 1915 Declaration a sober, plainly-worded, and entirely lucid document.

When I interviewed David Horowitz in 2010, he declared: “My Academic Bill of Rights is entirely composed of the academic freedom principles laid down in the 1915 Declaration.

Why do these conservatives love the 1915 Declaration so much? Perhaps its greatest virtue is its oldness. Back in 1915, there were no civil liberties organizations, and the Supreme Court had never ruled a law restricting free speech unconstitutional. Academic freedom was a distant ideal.

Today, academic freedom (and the rest of academia) has advanced a long way. For those who are nostalgic for a lost world, 1915 Declaration has a few clauses that conservatives find very appealing.

Much like Woodrow Wilson was a progressive figure as president in 1915, and today is denounced by radicals as a backward racist, both stories are true. The 1915 Declaration is both a radical advance in advance freedom (for its time) and a backward document full of archaic ideas (viewed from the perspective of our time). We should admire its progress and still remain aware of its flaws.

5 thoughts on “The 1915 Declaration, a Century Later

  1. Conservatives who think that the AAUP has moved away from its founding principles should perhaps read the investigative report of the Scott Nearing case at the University of Pennsylvania, published a mere five months after the adoption of the 1915 Declaration. Nearing lost his position over his public advocacy against child labor. Members of the committee thought that Nearing had failed to live up to some of the provisions of the 1915 Declaration that conservatives like to cite today, and yet they found that the trustees had violated Nearing’s academic freedom.

  2. One part of the 1915 Declaration that appeals to many conservatives is the inclusion of the expectation of the exercise of restraint in extra-mural expression (N.B. the run-ons below are the unfortunate result of cut-and-pastes from the AAUP Website; the reader is directed to the link below to read the text more clearly): (page 9 of the pdf)

    One cannot help but note that the US Constitution has stood the test of far more time than one century, despite some of its “archaic” principles like slavery. The document was amended, not supplanted — which was not the case for the 1915 Declaration for reasons that may have far more to do with politics than is discussed in this blog posting. Note as well that the 1915 Declaration, in the final sentence quoted above, gives appropriate deference to citizens’ rights which, of course, are interpreted and effectively expanded/contracted by the rulings of the US Supreme Court which evolve over time, also without the abandonment of the original Constitution.

    • It’s not quite clear if the AAUP’s founders meant for the “peculiar obligation” to be a moral aspiration (as it is today) or an enforceable rule. As for the US Constitution, the document was not just amended, but reinterpreted over time. It is noteworthy that the 1940 Statement which effectively replaced the 1915 Declaration as the main statement of the AAUP’s principles was a political compromise issued in conjunction with the AAC. Whereas the 1915 Declaration was fairly radical for its time, the 1940 Statement was in some ways a step backward, with its attack on “controversial” teaching. The AAUP embraced the 1940 Statement as a way to get administrators to endorse its principles, and in order to get the 7-year tenure rule widely embraced. So the 1915 Declaration was in my view a better set of principles despite all its flaws. But the 1940 Statement was much more successful politically, in getting colleges to change their practices and policies to align with the AAUP’s ideals. However, the 1970 Interpretive Comments is, in my view, the greatest achievement of the AAUP in its history, and this amendment really turned the 1940 Statement into an excellent set of ideals (so good, in fact, that the AAUP still struggles to live up to them).

      • Obviously, because the 1915 Declaration reaffirmed that citizens’ rights should not be abridged, the evolution of citizens’ rights would prevail over the aspirations of the document. But that is a two-edged sword, of course, as public university professors discovered with the limitations on their speech imposed over time by SCOTUS int, for example, Waters v. Churchill and successor rulings like Garcetti v. Ceballos and their continuing interpretive evolution.

        Otherwise, your reply appears to reword and affirm the allusions, and conclusions of my comment, while adding a cheerleading section for the 1970 Interpretive Comments — whose URL I include here for the convenience of the reader:

  3. One of the most peculiar aspects of freedom in America has been how reactionary, elitist, militant, racist etc. folks have been the cornerstone of making us more free. While I do think this trend should come to an end, I do believe that it would be problematic to overturn the progression of individual freedom.

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