Responding to recent incidents in which colleges took action against scholars whose views had generated public controversy, the American Association of University Professors is urging academe to do more to shield faculty members from attacks on their jobs driven by pressure from advocacy groups.
A new report issued by the association today proposes several new steps for colleges and their faculties to take to ensure that decisions related to instructional personnel are not unduly influenced by political pressure.
Among its recommendations, the report calls for colleges to generally disregard complaints about faculty members' statements coming from outsiders—or even on-campus student groups objecting to statements heard secondhand rather than in the classroom—in making judgments related to the faculty members' performance.
The report also calls for colleges to put any compelling reasons for a faculty member's dismissal in writing, and for the members of committees that evaluate faculty members to be given a chance to defend themselves if publicly criticized.
In a news release issued today, the AAUP said the fundamental principle underlying the report "is that all academic personnel decisions, including new appointments and the renewal of appointments, should rest on factors that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic's professional responsibilities. Political restrictions on academic expression must not be countenanced—even when many faculty members support or acquiesce in them."
Who Speaks for Students?
The AAUP is inviting comment on the report, drafted by a subcommittee established to look at politically controversial academic personnel decisions, and the document remains subject to revision and to formal approval by the association's governing council. But Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, said on Thursday that the final report is likely to closely resemble the current draft, and that his organization is urging colleges to begin following the report's recommendations now.
One prominent critic of perceived ideological bias among college faculty members has already expressed objections to one of the report's key recommendations. David Horowitz, the founder of Students for Academic Freedom and an advocate of state legislation intended to protect college students from political indoctrination in college classrooms, took issue Thursday with the report's call for colleges to give little weight to those complaints about faculty members' classroom statements that come from student political organizations and not students actually in the class.
The guideline, Mr. Horowitz said, presumes students will "step up and confront" the faculty members who hold considerable power over them, which "will never happen."
"Once again," Mr. Horowitz said, "the AAUP wants professors to be unaccountable to anyone but themselves."
Mr. Nelson said the AAUP's leadership felt compelled to devise new protections for academic freedom because cable television, blogs, e-mail lists, and other new forms of electronic communication "are presenting us with a new reality" in which, virtually overnight, colleges can come under intense outside pressure to take action against faculty members with controversial views.
"I don't think higher education has faced this level of public feedback and participation before," Mr. Nelson said.
In addition to making it easier to mount campaigns against faculty members, changes in how people communicate have also put faculty members under pressure to publicly express their ideas in ways that leave them open to charges they have offended people or otherwise engaged in rhetorical excess. The report says, "Today, when the sound bite is more readily heard than the more thoughtful dissertation and intemperate speech is commonplace, strong language may be more necessary for those seeking a hearing for controversial views." Consideration of the manner in which faculty members express their views, the report argues, "is rarely appropriate to an assessment of academic fitness."
Among other reasons cited for issuing the new guidance, the report says, the AAUP is alarmed by the large share of recent controversies over academic speech that have involved adjunct faculty members, who can be dismissed relatively easily because they lack the same due-process rights as their tenured and tenure-track colleagues. Faculty members who have tenure have an obligation "to safeguard the rights of those who do not," the report says.
In its list of principles that should guide personnel decisions surrounded by political controversy, the report says:
- In dealing with allegations that a faculty member has engaged in indoctrination in the classroom, colleges should ignore the political views of the accused and consider only whether that faculty member used dishonest tactics to deceive students.
- Administrators should not discipline a faculty member for any off-campus statement that the faculty member could freely make on the campus.
- If faculty members involved in the early stages of the review of a colleague's actions believe that the process is moving forward too quickly or the outcome is predetermined, they should make their views known and call for the process to be postponed "until it can occur free of undue political constraints," or, at the very least, without haste and with necessary procedural safeguards.