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.