In September, the AAUP issued a statement on "Freedom in the Classroom" that has been roundly criticized for its substantial ideological blind spots--particularly for its working assumption that professors' academic freedom is synonymous with "anything goes." But that hasn't deterred those who wish to transform academic freedom from a public-oriented system of "duties correlative with rights" to one that attempts to ensure that academics are not accountable to one another or to the public.
This week, five prominent academics have followed the AAUP's wagon-circling example (recall how AAUP president Cary Nelson hoped the AAUP statement would encourage professors to say, "You shouldn't mess with me" to their critics), announcing the formation of an Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University. Aimed at ending the "aggressive incursion of partisan politics into universities' hiring and tenure practices," the group sees itself as a mobilization of oppressed academic forces against hostile, outside attacks.
"In recent years, universities across the country have been targeted by outside groups seeking to influence what is taught and who can teach. To achieve their political agendas, these groups have defamed scholars, pressured administrators, and tried to bypass or subvert established procedures of academic governance," the Committee's petition says. "As a consequence, faculty have been denied jobs or tenure, and scholars have been denied public platforms from which to share their viewpoints. This violates an important principle of scholarship, the free exchange of ideas, subjecting them to ideological and political tests. These attacks threaten academic freedom and the core mission of institutions of higher education in a democratic society."
The language here is worth looking at. It's vague, with unsubstantiated claims and imprecise quantifications. And where specifics should be, we find rhetorical extremism. That extremism, characterized by an inflammatory language of aggression and threat, of armed defense against intruders' attacks, vastly overstates the case in ways that go right to the heart of the real problem here, which is not that academics are being threatened by outsiders, but that academics are being legitimately criticized and scrutinized in ways that challenge their fundamental assumptions about themselves.
Spirited commentary and robust debate are not violations of academic freedom, but are its essence. And when academics complain that their livelihood is at risk because they are being challenged to defend what they do and to be accountable to the people on whose dime they do it--well, then we know we have a serious problem, and we can see, too, how the problem is reflected in academics' distorted presentation of it. I italicize above to make the point that what is happening to academics now is a version of what many academics themselves seek, as a matter of political principle and proper pedagogical procedure, to do in the classroom. Massive amounts of peer-reviewed ink have been devoted to the vaunted pedagogical value of "challenging students' assumptions." The working assumption, of course, is that students have some foundational knowledge to begin with, and that--in any event--the challenging can only properly go one way.
Hence women's studies professor Julie Kilmer, who recently wrote about how threatened she is by students who "resist" her "feminist theories and ideas": "[S]hould I ask if he or she has been placed in my class to question my teaching? How is my teaching affected if I enter the classroom each day asking, 'Is today the day I will be called to the president's office?'" As Mark Bauerlein has observed, "In her class, any student who contests feminist notions falls under a cloud of suspicion. The ordinary run of skeptics, obstructionists, gadflies, wiseacres, and sulkers that show up in almost every undergraduate classroom is recast as an ideological cadre." If students who ask legitimate questions are this unsettling to professors, it's no wonder that they read a questioning public as a terrible threat. But the thing to focus on here is the fear, not the threat--for the fear is real, while the threat isn't.
Academics aren't responding well when they are challenged to practice what they preach. As Campus Watch director Winfield Myers told Inside Higher Ed, professors believe that "academics, uniquely among all professionals, are beyond criticism--that they make up a sacrosanct, privileged group that demands protection from opinions with which they disagree." Myers went on to note the double standard at work, in which "ivory tower intellectuals who regularly render harsh judgments against the practitioners of other professions, from businessmen to clergy, and from politicians to the members of the military--claim immunity from criticism when it is directed toward themselves."
For the first time in history, academics are encountering a public that is well-informed about what goes on in the ivory tower, that grasps the central cultural importance of what professors do in their research and their teaching, and is legitimately and vocally concerned about mounting evidence that colleges and universities are not living up to the compact they have made with the American people. In exchange for exceptional autonomy, academics are charged with teaching and researching in a manner that is consistent with the disinterested pursuit of truth. They are also charged with maintaining a responsible system of self-governance that guarantees the integrity of the curriculum as well as decisions about hiring and promotion. They have failed, repeatedly and publicly, to keep their end of the bargain implicit in academic freedom--and the public is now doing what publics do in democracies. It is crying foul, demanding better accountability, seeking to understand how the problem arose, and debating how it can best be fixed.
In doing so, Americans are also, crucially, exercising their expressive and associative rights. They are speaking out about the need for higher education reform (which they have the right to do, and which is hardly a violation of anyone's rights). That means that they are interested in, and talking about, things like hiring and tenure--something that academics need to recognize is not in itself a violation of those processes. People are also becoming much more savvy about whether and how to donate money to their alma maters. Alumni give billions of dollars ever year. They are powerful, a force to be reckoned with. And it's simply wishful thinking--and dangerously confrontational strategy--for academics to believe that a hostile, isolationist stance, ratified with a transparently self-serving manipulation of "academic freedom," can make it all go away.
Already, nearly two hundred people have signed the petition--and are thus on record as endorsers of an attempt to discount and dismiss the very calls for dialogue and accountability that, if they care about free inquiry, they should be welcoming. Among the signatories is former AAUP general secretary Roger Bowen, who worked tirelessly to defend the idea that academics should not have to answer to anyone but themselves.
Informed people understand the value and importance of academic freedom, and know that it needs to be upheld for the sake of educational and scholarly excellence. They know that knowledge is a fragile thing, and has to be given room to grow, change, and spread. They are concerned about what's happening on campus not because they want to "target" anyone or "impose" an "agenda," but because they want to see academia be all it can and should be. Certainly there are uninformed folks who have urged interventions that would not be wise. But these are a minority, and their suggestions are swiftly dismantled and dispatched as the wrongheaded recommendations that they are. Academics who lump all their critics together--so that reasoned commentary is cast as procedural interference, and legitimate criticism is cast as an assault on foundational institutional norms--betray their own enterprise, which should be based on careful thought and judicious reasoning, not heated rhetoric geared to recruit unthinking followers.
The petition concludes with a rousing statement: "The future of higher education in America, its role in our country's democracy, and its contribution to world affairs is at stake. Join us in defending academic freedom!" These things are at stake--and academic freedom does need to be defended. But with its polarizing language and "noli me tangere" defensiveness, the Ad Hoc Committee is doing more to deepen the problem than to address it.