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Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions

February 18, 2011
Contacts: Ernst Benjamin or Anita Levy

Political or religious beliefs should not be grounds to hire, fire, or discipline faculty

Update: A final version of the report was issued in August.

Washington, D.C. - The AAUP today issued for comment a new report that discusses the history and character of politically controversial academic personnel decisions, identifies weaknesses in the principles and decision-making procedures that currently safeguard academic freedom, and recommends enhanced protections in the conduct of these cases. The fundamental principle is that all academic personnel decisions, including new appointments and 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. 

“The public reactions to the irrational murderous attacks in Tucson, and especially President Obama's speech. have highlighted the rancorous quality of current political debate and the corresponding need to strengthen the policies and procedures safeguarding academic inquiry and instruction from political intrusion—though, of course, the problem is not new,” says Ernst Benjamin, a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure the chair of the subcommittee that wrote the new report. 

Politically controversial faculty dismissals spurred the founders of the AAUP in 1915 to protect academic freedom.  Moreover, politically controversial academic personnel decisions have periodically recurred despite substantial improvements in academic personnel policies promoted by AAUP and adopted by most colleges and universities. The AAUP’s current concern stems from a wave of contentious cases that have resulted from controversies surrounding the war on terror, the conflict in the Middle East, religious disputes, and the resurgence of the culture wars in such scientific fields as health and the environment.  The threat to academic freedom posed by these cases is intensified by the gradual erosion of the tenure system due to the substantial increase in the proportion of academics with contingent appointments who are subject to non-reappointment or dismissal without the procedural protections that benefit their tenured and tenure-track colleagues.

“Faced with increasingly invasive e-mail, blog, and Twitter campaigns against politically controversial professors, the AAUP studied both recent cases and more than half a century of earlier examples to give fresh and careful guidance to campuses making personnel decisions amidst impassioned public debate. The report offers very specific advice set against a background of nuanced historical reflection, taking note of the Association's own past successes and failures,” says Cary Nelson, AAUP president.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • It is imperative in a politically controversial proceeding to tailor questions narrowly to permissible issues of academic fitness, and to avoid any inquiry into political affiliations and beliefs.
  • Collegiality is not an appropriate independent criterion for evaluation. The academic imperative is to protect free expression, not collegiality.
  • Institutions should not discipline a faculty member for extramural speech unless that speech implicates professional fitness. 
  • Complaints regarding alleged classroom statements forwarded by outside agencies or individuals should be generally ruled out of consideration in initiating or conducting personnel reviews. 
  • When complaints regarding alleged classroom speech arise from or are promoted by student political groups, the complaints should be respected only to the extent merited by the complaints and only when they are based on evidence from students who were actually enrolled in the course or courses in which the alleged inappropriate conduct occurred and were present to observe that conduct.  
  • In the event that an academic hearing committee is convened, it should be elected or appointed by the faculty. 
  • In dismissal cases, it is essential that the hearing committee provide a written reasoned opinion, consistent with the evidence and with sound academic principles.
  • The governing board would be well advised to follow the advice of the faculty committee, particularly in politically controversial cases in which academic freedom is at stake.
  • If the board does reach a determination contrary to the recommendations of a committee, or increases the severity of sanctions, the board must provide written, detailed, and compelling reasons.

Read the executive summary (.pdf). The report was written by a subcommittee of the Association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and was approved by the committee for publication for comment. Comments are welcome and should be sent to Anita Levy by April 1.
The American Association of University Professors is a nonprofit charitable and educational organization that promotes academic freedom by supporting tenure, academic due process, shared governance and standards of quality in higher education. The AAUP has over 48,000 members at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

Media Contact: 
Ernst Benjamin or Anita Levy
Publication Date: 
Friday, February 18, 2011