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History of the AAUP

Events immediately before, during, and after its founding in 1915 helped to set the AAUP on its path as the primary defender of academic freedom in American higher education. Johns Hopkins University philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy and Columbia University economist E. R. A. Seligman, who had both conducted investigations into violations of academic freedom before the establishment of the AAUP, served as secretary of the Association and chair of its first Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, respectively, dedicating themselves to the task of both defining and defending academic freedom throughout the founding year. The two crowning achievements of that year were the first investigation by the Association of a violation of academic freedom, at the University of Utah, and the presentation of the founding document of the AAUP: the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

The AAUP was founded at an organizational meeting held at the Chemists’ Club in New York City on January 1 and 2, 1915. Seligman’s chairmanship of a committee on academic freedom in the social sciences in 1914, briefly described in the introduction to the 1915 Declaration, was his impetus to propose at that meeting that the Association should take up the issue of academic freedom, which was approved. Lovejoy, who had been the primary force behind the movement to found the Association, famously took the initiative to travel to Utah upon learning in the press of the dismissal of multiple faculty members. A subcommittee consisting of Seligman, Lovejoy, and Princeton University economist Frank A. Fetter wrote the 1915 Declaration, which continues to serve as the intellectual foundation for the American conception of academic freedom to this day. Lovejoy’s service on Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure extended until 1943.

Both the definition and the defense of academic freedom have been regular activities of the Association throughout its history. Through its policy documents and reports and its investigations—and, since 1930, through the imposition of censure—the AAUP has made major contributions to the establishment of academic freedom and tenure throughout higher education in the United States. In order to obtain wider acceptance of its principles, the AAUP has cooperated with other educational organizations, efforts that culminated in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The Association has also issued statements that further explain and expand the principles of the 1940 Statement and define the principles of academic due process.

While the Association has courageously defended academic freedom, it has also at times failed to do so. The report Academic Freedom in Wartime, issued during World War I, represented an early retreat from the Association’s principled declaration only two years before, and the AAUP failed to release any investigative reports from 1949 to 1954, during the height of the McCarthy era. In both cases the Association later reflected on these failures and sought to return to the principles that it has done so much to create and promulgate.

A variety of resources on the AAUP's history were developed in 2015 as part of the organization's centennial celebration. These include a timeline highlighting key events in the AAUP's history and a series of special publications. For additional information, see the list of selected readings on the AAUP's history and the lists of presidents of the Association and general secretaries of the Association.