Ernst Benjamin, chair of the AAUP subcommittee “Ensuring Academic Freedom In Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions” and former General Secretary of the AAUP:
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, argues in a recent blog post, “Politicizing the Classroom,” that the AAUP’s report “Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions” is an effort to politicize the university rather than to improve the quality of student learning. As the chair of the subcommittee that drafted that report, I disagree with his critique and especially with the contrived assumption that advocacy and learning are contradictory.
After all, Wood’s own arguments would be appropriate in a course on higher education or professional ethics—as would be this rejoinder. The AAUP publishes controversial reports for comment because debate may serve to improve the reports, just as debate may assist students to assess arguments and form their own conclusions. That is why the freedom to advocate and debate diverse views invigorates the classroom and is as integral to the classroom as dispassionate analysis.
Wood and I do agree, however, that “All academic personnel decisions, including new appointments and renewals of appointments, should rest on considerations that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic’s professional responsibilities.”
We may be able to minimize our disagreements if I re-emphasize that faculty should be rigorously evaluated on the basis of the quality of the professional work manifest in their teaching, scholarship and service. But I find no necessary link between specific political perspectives, collegiality, or advocacy, and the quality of research, instruction or service. Faculty who perform poorly should receive negative evaluations based directly on their unsatisfactory professional performance.
Who should do the evaluation? The AAUP has always urged that faculty are best qualified to evaluate their colleagues. We have, however, accommodated student teaching evaluation, and we have always accepted that the academic administration and the governing board have the last word. Nor do we challenge anyone’s right to criticize a university or its faculty. We urge simply that external critiques not intrude directly into the careful evaluation of faculty professional conduct by their academic peers through established procedures.
We urge this primarily because we believe that other teachers and scholars are best prepared to conduct an informed professional evaluation but also because academics are best qualified to distinguish politicized critiques from valid professional critiques. Where faculty peers fail to act professionally, the academic administration may properly overrule the faculty recommendation, as in other cases of discrimination.
Wood further suggests that the report seeks to defend the “liberal” (his term) university from the “ignorant mob” (his hyperbolic term). The AAUP’s “1915 Declaration,” which is quoted in our report, did stress (in defense of conservative ideas under attack by radical populists) “the dangers connected with the existence in a democracy of an overwhelming and concentrated public opinion.” This statement merely echoes Madison, de Tocqueville, and Mill.
Moreover, the report emphasizes not only the “Declaration’s” defense of the university liberal role as an “intellectual experiment station” but also its role as the “conservator of all genuine elements of value in the past life and thought of mankind which are not in the fashion of the moment.”
The authors of the “Declaration” also stated that: “Utterances in the classroom ought not to be supposed to be utterances for the public at large. They are often designed to provoke opposition or arouse debate.”
Compare this statement by NAS advisor Eugene Genovese: “Any professor who, subject to the restraints of common sense and common decency, does not seize every opportunity to offend the sensibilities of his students is insulting and cheating them, and is no college professor at all.” [Eugene G. Genovese, “Heresy Yes—Sensitivity No.” in Patricia Aufderheide (Ed.), Beyond P.C.,(St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1992), 230-32.] Of course, many effective teachers and good students prefer a dispassionate approach. In fact, adversarial and dispassionate approaches are both employed effectively in innumerable classrooms.
What has happened to the conservative critique of political correctness? Wood writes, regarding our assertion that expression of value judgments in the classroom should not be the basis of professional evaluation, “Are we to suppose that the AAUP would be happy to apply this principle to those whose ‘value judgments’ are in character racist, anti-Semitic, or misogynist and who express these views openly in class?”
Happy, no. But we do defend disagreeable speech. Our 1994 “Statement on Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes” declares: “An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas—and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults, almost always express ideas, however repugnant.”
This is not a license for abuse. Students may rightly respond, drop the course, write negative evaluations, or file harassment complaints. Colleagues should take such student responses into account and weigh their merits. Where there is a substantiated pattern of negative evaluations, drop outs, or harassment negative professional evaluations appropriately follow.
But the mere use of ugly words, epithets, or slurs is not an adequate ground for negative sanctions. If it was, books including Huckleberry Finn, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew, would be banned.
Similarly, if as Wood notes, a teacher mumbles, is incoherent, or rants, students and colleagues may negatively evaluate the instruction not based on the manner but on evidence of the consequent ineffective instruction.
Wood’s most troubling critique relates to the concept of political intrusion. He insists that, despite our statements to the contrary, we are really only concerned with external attacks and not internal suppression, which “is merely glanced at.” In fact, it is definitional. The report clearly states that “Even though political intrusion involves differences of opinion regarding extra-university societal controversies, it may nonetheless arise from within as well as from without the university, and with little public notice.” It then warns against both self-censorship and politicized collegial evaluation. Further, it warns that negative personnel decisions “by liberal academics to a conservative academic, or the reverse if based upon disagreement with the applicant’s views . . .constitutes political intrusion.”
Wood tries bolster his argument by quoting out of context our statement that: “this report on politically controversial decisions focuses only on those academic disputes involving the intrusion of external political, social, or economic concerns.” (His emphasis.) But this statement is about the nature of the concerns, not the sources of political intrusion. It follows the sentence: ‘The distinction between routine professional disagreements within the academic disciplines and larger social or political differences is sometimes difficult to make.” And it is followed by this sentence: “Thus this report does not address disagreements over university funding or support for particular academic programs.”
In sum, politically based criticism of faculty views is legitimate whether it arises in or out of the university; but politically based evaluation of faculty professional performance is wrong regardless of whether it arises in or out of the university. Contrary to Wood’s assertion that a supposed double standard is the “central folly” of the report, there simply is no double standard expressed or intended.
Nor is there, as he implies through the citation of various specific cases, a double standard based on political views. As the report notes, AAUP defended both professors Michael Levin, whose university accused him of denigrating the intelligence of African-Americans, and Linda Gottfredson when her university prevented her receiving a grant from the allegedly racist Pioneer fund.
Nor would we deny the right of a faculty member like Kenneth Howell or a student such as Julea Ward to express homophobic beliefs. Wood finds fault with AAUP president Cary Nelson’s express support for the reinstatement of Howell by asserting that Nelson acted on the “mistaken assumption” that Howell advocated his views when he was “just teaching his subject.”
But this is not true, as is evidenced on the Catholic web-site “Sancte Pater” (http://www.sanctepater.com/2010/07/instructor-of-catholicism-kenneth.html), which contains the following exchange:
Howell said, “I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.” He also said he’s open with students about his own beliefs. “I tell my students I am a practicing Catholic, so I believe the things I’m teaching,” he said. “It’s not a violation of academic freedom to advocate a position, if one does it as an appeal on rational grounds and it’s pertinent to the subject.” (Italics added.)
Nelson . . . agreed. He said while many professors choose not to share their beliefs with students, they are free to do so and to advocate for a particular position. “We think there is great value in faculty members arguing in a well-articulated way,” Nelson said. “What you absolutely cannot do is require students to share your opinions. You have to offer students the opportunity to freely disagree, and there can be no penalty for disagreeing.”
Well said, Professors Howell and Nelson. The AAUP will continue to defend the right of faculty like Professor Howell to advocate views with which we strongly disagree. Will Wood?
Wood also charges that our report supports Ward Churchill and ignores John Yoo. It is correct that the report mentions Churchill by name and not Yoo. But, although the excellent defense of John Yoo by his dean relieved us of the need to rise to his defense, it is not true that we ignored him.
Rather, we transposed the charges against Yoo from a governmental to an academic setting to provide a more relevant and challenging example: “It is a matter of professional judgment, however, whether a passionate defense, a denunciation, or a dispassionate critique is the appropriate mode of expression, for example, when writing about the use of torture against suspected terrorists.”
Concerns about the quality of the procedures employed in the Churchill’s dismissal did influence the report’s authors in the selection of potential procedural pitfalls to discuss. His case aroused concern that faculty should not be stampeded into supporting dismissal hearings for controversial academics. It prompted concern for procedures to ensure that hearing panels can exclude biased members, to ensure academic expertise on academic issues, and to ensure that administrations respect faculty recommendations in politically controversial cases and overrule the faculty only based on compelling written reasons.
Yet Wood ignores the dog that didn’t bark. The AAUP neither authorized an investigation nor voted to censure the university for dismissing Churchill because many of us felt that we lacked sufficiently compelling grounds to reject the findings of the faculty hearing committees. On the same basis we remain troubled that the university dismissed Churchill contrary to the faculty recommendation
The AAUP does have difficulty finding adequate grounds to intervene in cases where potential appointees to a faculty position complain that they were denied appointment because of their views. Wood cites the cases of astronomer Martin Gaskell and historian Mark Moyar, both turned down for appointments, as instances of the AAUP failing to rise to the defense of conservatives.
We were aware of the improper denial of a new appointment to Gaskell, though the situation was complicated by his consideration for an administrative appointment. In two previous cases we have allowed the administration greater leeway in the appointment of those whose administrative effectiveness may be impaired by their expression of their controversial political views. Nonetheless, although the case was resolved before we took action, I wrote in our internal discussions: “I don’t find the specific allegations in this case thus far to be adequate grounds to reject a candidate.” I also observed specifically that “being an evangelical Christian is not in itself a proper bar to faculty appointments.” I believe that both statements dovetail with the recommendations in our report.
I certainly agree with Wood that a case such as that of Mark Moyar (turned down for appointments allegedly because of his conservative political views), if supported by adequate evidence, would fall within the protections we extend to faculty members regardless of their views. In fields like history and English, however, the ratio of tenure-track positions to applicants is so daunting that such cases, regardless of political perspective, exceed our capacity to monitor fully. In this regard, I welcome Wood’s agreement that “we face a deterioration of the tenure system.”
The AAUP does not, as Wood implies, have a principle that enables faculty to “de-select” conservatives appointees to faculty appointments, although AAUP president Nelson did express reluctance to support the appointment to a faculty position of a “holocaust denier.” I didn’t agree at the time but many understandably would. Regardless, I think that Wood might agree that there is no sound basis for linking holocaust denials to a general principle about conservatives.
Moreover, Nelson has endorsed the present report, which, once again, states that “The fundamental principle is that all academic personnel decisions, including new appointments and renewal of appointments, should rest on considerations that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic’s professional responsibilities.” This principle entirely precludes reliance on political criteria in making faculty appointments.
Perhaps I can best clarify our basic disagreement with Wood if I begin with another statement on which we agree: “it makes no sense for an administration to discipline a faculty member for an off-campus statement that the faculty member could freely make on campus.”
We might also agree that, with the qualification and clarification that follow, faculty members might be disciplined for saying on campus something that they might say freely off-campus. The scope of the First Amendment is broader than the scope of academic freedom because academic freedom protects professional speech and when faculty speak within their area of professional competence they are expected to speak with professional competence and care.
The qualification is “within their area of professional competence.” For the AAUP, the distinction between intramural and extramural utterances is not geographical but substantive. That is why a modern historian is professionally responsible for promoting holocaust denial, in or out of the university, where an engineer is not. Or why the engineer may be responsible for an erroneous statement about a bridge failure that a sociology professor may utter mistakenly but without penalty.
The clarification, on which we likely disagree, concerns the term professional care. We do not believe that professionally careful speech is necessarily balanced, temperate or dispassionate. We do believe that professionally careful speech strives for accuracy and intellectual honesty and respects the rights of others to disagree; though it does not necessarily respect the substance of their opinions.
If faculty members are not free to vigorously advocate their views, subject to these standards of professional care, then we will have quietly returned to the age of McCarthyism. For, as Fritz Machlup observed in a 1956 essay quoted in our report, if faculty members are sanctioned for what they write or say they “may no longer be able effectively to question and challenge accepted doctrines or effectively to defend challenged doctrines.”
A university in which faculty are free to question, to challenge, and to defend, but never to impose, ideas and policies pertinent to their classes and professional expertise, is not a politicized university; it is an intellectually vibrant university and the only sort of university worthy of the name.