The AAUP in the Trump Era

By Michael Ferguson

In a statement issued the day after the 2016 election, AAUP leaders cited a widespread concern among faculty members that Donald Trump’s presidency could be “the greatest threat to academic freedom since the McCarthy period.” That concern is being borne out. In the months following the election, US higher education has faced a growing array of threats: intimidation and harassment of faculty members; partisan suppression of scientific research; state-level legislation to curtail or eliminate tenure, hobble unions, and impose political litmus tests; federal efforts to ban immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries; and a wave of white supremacist activity on campus. The new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has publicly accused faculty members, “from adjunct professors to deans,” of trying to tell students “what to think” and has encouraged students to participate in “the fight against the education establishment.” The current hostile climate undermines the ability of colleges and universities to ensure that all members of the academic community can speak freely and engage in critical inquiry.  

The AAUP has been the leading defender of academic freedom for more than a century. In the Trump era, the Association is mobilizing to confront severe challenges to speech rights, freedom of research, and even “facts” themselves. Below are brief accounts of several areas of this work.  

Harassment of Faculty

The appearance of the “Professor Watchlist” website shortly after the November election was an early indication of the emboldening of groups that seek to stifle dissent. Funded by the right-wing advocacy group Turning Point USA, the Professor Watchlist names professors who allegedly “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Faculty listed on the site have reported receiving threatening and harassing phone calls, e-mails, and social media contacts.  

In December, the AAUP invited faculty members and supporters to sign an open letter to Turning Point USA requesting that their names be added to the watch list in solidarity with the listed professors. More than twelve thousand individuals signed the letter.  

In January, the AAUP released a statement addressing the issues raised by the Professor Watchlist and other efforts to intimidate faculty members. Targeted Online Harassment of Faculty brings AAUP policy to bear on these attacks and urges “administrations, governing boards, and faculties, individually and collectively, to speak out clearly and forcefully to defend academic freedom and to condemn targeted harassment and intimidation of faculty members.” It further recommends “that administrations and elected faculty bodies work jointly to establish institutional regulations that prohibit the surreptitious  recording of classroom discourse or of private meetings between students and faculty members.”

The AAUP is currently collecting reports from faculty members who have been targeted for their research or for statements they made in the classroom. Visit https://www.aaup.org/resisting-harassment-faculty to submit your own story and to find additional resources for resisting the harassment of faculty.

Faculty FAQS

Since the election, many faculty members have had questions about how to discuss recent political events in the classroom, respond to intimidation and threats, and speak out about racism and xenophobia on campus. The AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers address these and other concerns in “Frequently Asked Questions for Faculty in the Wake of the 2016 Election,” a joint document that provides practical guidance based on the two organizations’ policy and legal expertise. The FAQs give particular attention to the vulnerability of non-tenure-track faculty members in today’s politically charged atmosphere.

Immigrants and Undocumented Students

When the president signed the first executive order travel ban on January 30, AAUP members and supporters responded quickly: within hours, thousands had signed a statement of solidarity against the ban, which affected students and faculty members from the countries targeted by the order. The president’s revised March 6 travel ban, like its predecessor, has a chilling effect on academic freedom and the movement of people and ideas. The AAUP plans to join the legal fight against the executive order.

The AAUP also stands in defense of undocumented students, another group targeted by the Trump administration. In January, AAUP members participated in a national day of action in support of the sanctuary campus movement, and the Association will continue to provide information about the movement and news about opportunities for action in the coming months. Visit https://www.aaup.org/sanctuary-campuses for more information about this campaign.

Women’s and Science Marches

AAUP members have been on the front lines of the protest movement that emerged after the election. Delegates from AAUP chapters were among the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the January 21 Women’s March on Washington and in local satellite marches. Members across the country also joined the April 22 March for Science, voicing their support for independent scientific research and evidence-based policy. The AAUP was a sponsor of both marches.

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