Review of Hans-Joerg Tiede's "University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors"

tags: book review, HansJoerg Tiede, University Reform

Luther Spoehr, a senior lecturer at Brown University, teaches a course on the history of academic freedom in the United States.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), says Hans-Joerg Tiede, has “something of a founding myth,” a simple cause-and-effect narrative in which philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy responds to Stanford University’s firing of economist / sociologist Edward A. Ross by establishing an organization dedicated to protecting academic freedom.   As with many such myths, there are elements of truth to this story:  Ross’ dismissal prompted considerable outrage, and Lovejoy, who had been on the Stanford faculty at the time, shared in it:  he resigned in protest.  But Ross was fired in 1900, and the AAUP wasn’t organized until 1915.  Besides, there were many such cases, at institutions as disparate as the University of Utah and the University of Pennsylvania; it was their cumulative impact that inspired prominent academics—not only Lovejoy, but also John Dewey, E.R.A. Seligman, James McKeen Cattell, and others—to move beyond outrage and create an organization that would try to prevent such incidents from happening again.

A major contribution of Tiede’s succinct, carefully crafted study is to demonstrate that Lovejoy and company had an agenda much broader than just academic freedom:  they sought “to establish the AAUP as a collective voice for the profession to respond to organized efforts to standardize higher education and, under Cattell’s influence, as a movement of the Progressive Era—a movement for university reform.”  They pushed for “empowering faculty and reducing the powers of governing boards.”  An ambitious agenda, and one that was rather successful over the decades, as dozens, then hundreds, of colleges, universities, and higher education associations responded to the AAUP’s call for clear and consistent standards for faculty evaluation, tenure, and dismissal.  While individual academic freedom cases gathered the headlines, as the AAUP became increasingly adept at publicizing incidents and articulating its professional values, the quieter work of institutionalizing protection for faculty, while not as “empowering” as the founders may have had in mind, has arguably had greater effect. 

Tiede’s book, however, only covers the AAUP’s first five years of existence, and so doesn’t really consider longer-term consequences.  Consequently, his book will be most interesting to historians of higher education, although it will be instructive for anyone interested in the roots of the many contemporary controversies over academic freedom and tenure.  And Tiede, although a computer scientist (at Illinois Wesleyan University) and not a historian, is well qualified to tell the story of the AAUP’s early years.  He is a member of the AAUP’s Committee on the History of the Association, a member of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and editor of the eleventh edition of the AAUP’s Policy Documents and Reports.  He has a discriminating eye for the nuances of the early arguments over the AAUP’s proper role and presents them clearly and fairly.

The AAUP’s early clout, such as it was, derived from the power of its arguments, the prestige of its founders, and the desire of the leading colleges and universities to attract the best faculty and enhance their prestige.  It had only 867 charter members, and because it originally restricted membership to faculty with more than 10 years’ service, it seemed unlikely to grow dramatically.  Its original “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” (1915) had to rely on logic and moral suasion, as when it argued that professors should not be considered employees who may be fired “at will.”  The “relationship of professor to trustees,” it said, “may be compared to that between judges of the federal courts and the executive who appoints them.”  Faculty, said the Declaration, “are no more subject to the control of the trustees, than are judges subject to the control of the president, with respect to their decisions.”  This, the “Declaration” asserted, was the only way to guarantee the objectivity and impartiality of the work that scholars produce.  But the AAUP wasn’t a trade union (although, controversially, that would change in the early 1970s) and lacked legal standing to act on behalf of professors.  Until colleges and universities agreed, the AAUP was whistling in the dark.  It had influence, but no power. 

No sooner had the AAUP sounded its trumpet (or its whistle?) than the United States entered World War I.  Facing wartime jingoism and intolerance, the trumpet was muted, despite case after flagrant case of violations of academic freedom.  (Carol Gruber’s Mars and Minerva:  World War I and the Uses of the Higher Learning in America [1975] is one of a number of excellent sources on this.)  Professors of German and German professors were especially vulnerable, but any controversial academic could be targeted.  Columbia’s President Nicholas Murray Butler and the University’s trustees used wartime emergency as an excuse to rid themselves of that pestiferous gadfly, James Cattell.  (Historian Charles Beard resigned in protest.)  Tiede, to his credit, does not shrink from pointing out the AAUP’s timorousness. 

After the war, the AAUP tried to broaden its appeal, but it still had only 2,378 members in 1920.  But by ending his narrative where he does, Tiede does not trace the arc of much of the AAUP’s history.  By the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, it counted about 100,000 members, many of whom enlisted in the fight against McCarthyism.  But its decision in the early ‘70s to add unionization to its repertoire caused division and dissension (how, critics asked, can autonomous professionals engage in collective bargaining?), and despite opening its doors to anyone engaged in teaching or research in higher education, its membership is down to about 45,000 today.

Meanwhile, old concerns about academic freedom haven’t gone away, and new ones crowd upon the scene.  Politicians like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, backed by aggressive legislatures, want to single-handedly rewrite the missions of public institutions (goodbye, “truth”; hello, “workforce needs”).  Trustees like those at the University of Illinois who targeted Steven Salaita inject themselves into the hiring process. The top-down corporatization of the university proceeds apace, operating by the Golden Rule:  “The one with the gold makes the rules.”  Conservative advocacy groups, such as David Horowitz’s wonderfully named “Students for Academic Freedom,” want students to monitor their professors’ views, seeking traces of radicalism.  From the left side of the political spectrum, radical students and professors call for students to monitor their professors’ views for traces of insensitivity and “micro-aggressions.”   

So it’s not as if there is no longer enough for the AAUP to do.  The question is whether it has the unity and the resources to do it.  Fortunately, the AAUP is not the only voice defending academic freedom these days.  Perhaps the most insistent one these days is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which focuses on free speech issues, especially involving students in public universities (see Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty:  Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate [2014]).

For that matter, the story of university governance isn’t just the story of the AAUP.  Readers wanting more on the history of this larger topic should check out two recent works:  Larry Gerber’s The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance:  Professionalization and the Modern American University (2014) and William Bowen and Eugene Tobin’s Locus of Authority:  The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education (2015).

Although the AAUP is not the only fighter in the field, it is probably the most important one for faculty, because academic freedom is not simply a synonym for “free speech,” but a specific set of rights and entitlements—freedom in the classroom, freedom in research, and freedom of extramural expression.  It is reserved to academics by precedent and hard-won agreements, and codified in the rules governing virtually all leading colleges and universities.  Tiede’s tightly focused book shows how hard it was to get the enterprise that would define and defend those rights off the ground.  One can only hope that subsequent histories of the organization will not have to chronicle how those rights were lost.

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