Academic-Freedom Debate Prompts Offer to Unite in Fighting Speech Codes

January 10, 2009

Washington — Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, generally does not see eye-to-eye with critics of college campuses as hotbeds of political correctness and liberal indoctrination. When he debated Peter Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, over the meaning of academic freedom, on Friday at the group’s annual conference, both predictably came out swinging.

Mr. Nelson repeatedly characterized the scholars’ association as threatening professors’ freedom to teach, while Mr. Wood accused the faculty group of showing far too little concern for the plight of students who get bad grades or face disciplinary proceedings based on their political views.

So primed was he for a fight that Mr. Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, even took jabs at a few opponents who were not even in the ring, including the tradition-minded American Council of Trustees and Alumni and David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has made a crusade of urging state governments and colleges to discourage indoctrination in the classroom.

In the subsequent question-and-answer session, however, Mr. Nelson seemed downright sympathetic with those present when it came to the subject of campus speech codes. Anne D. Neal, president of the trustees-and-alumni group, asked him whether the AAUP could move beyond its disagreements with organizations like hers and work together on areas of common ground. Mr. Nelson replied that his group would be willing to work with hers to fight speech codes, which it has long opposed.

In a later interview, Mr. Nelson said he saw speech codes as such an affront to academic freedom and freedom of speech that offering to join others in fighting them was an easy call.

“One of the reasons you collaborate is to win,” he said. “I want to knock out speech codes.” —Peter Schmidt