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Choices of the Founders

By Matthew Finkin

University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors by Hans-Joerg Tiede. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

It is fitting on the centenary of the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure—actually, the Declaration was adopted by the AAUP’s annual meeting on January 1, 1916, and, as the author of this book recounts, its adoption was a rather near thing— that the Association’s early years be taken up afresh. This book supplements, but doesn’t entirely supplant, Walter Metzger’s magisterial 1955 treatment of the AAUP.

Hans-Joerg Tiede recounts the interplay of personalities and events that shaped the organization’s direction, the founders’ principled differences and pragmatic compromises. To accomplish this— and the book is a considerable accomplishment—Tiede has done a prodigious amount of detective work, probing the public pronouncements and private papers of key actors in the AAUP’s early history and drawing on autobiographical material (some published, some not), biographies, and institutional histories. He is judicious in situating the AAUP’s founders on the cultural and political plain of the time, explaining how they fit within the multifaceted Progressive movement. He draws deeply from the sources he has unearthed: he lets the actors speak for themselves. In this, he restores the significance of figures largely eclipsed in accounts that tend to focus on Arthur Lovejoy, E. R. A. Seligman, and John Dewey. These early leaders are given their due, as they must be, but so, too, are others. There is James McKeen Cattell, tactless, abrasive, and incisive, whose dismissal from Columbia University by its president, Nicholas Murray Butler, on trumped-up charges of treason in wartime was only weakly dealt with by the organization he helped found. (Tiede recounts Cattell’s feud with Seligman but does not delve into the latter’s role, if any, in the AAUP’s rather tepid response to Cattell’s dismissal.) There is John Wigmore, the Association’s second president, who appointed sixteen committees, giving them lettered designations to reflect a mission that went beyond the defense of academic freedom; who established the role of specific institutional regulations as an important part of the toolkit for the protection of academic freedom and tenure; and who sought to broaden the Association’s base of eligible members to established local chapters. H. W. Tyler, the organization’s long-serving secretary, was instrumental in securing the upstart professors’ association a seat at the august table of the American Council on Education and in pressing a policy of joint negotiation that led eventually to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Tiede even includes Harlen Fiske Stone, then of the Columbia law faculty, later chief justice of the United States, who assisted the AAUP’s leaders in a bitter struggle with Henry Pritchett of the Carnegie Foundation over the role of the faculty in the proposed Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association. As Tiede recounts the story, when Pritchett complained to Stone about the AAUP’s report in the matter, the latter wrote to Pritchett that the report “could give offense only insofar as the facts which it states are embarrassing.”

The struggle with Pritchett presents in microcosm the mission of the Association’s founders and the means chosen to pursue it. The former, set out in Tiede’s title, was nothing short of a wholesale reform of institutional government. The desideratum, set out in the 1914 call for the creation of the Association, maintained that in the conduct of higher education and research, nationally and institutionally, the “body of university teachers shall exercise effectual influence.” To do this, the leaders set their sights against the corporate model regnant at a time captured in Thorstein Veblen’s indictment of “captains of erudition.”

Academic freedom was an obvious component of the Association’s portfolio from the start, its role brought persistently to the fore by case investigations that had the effect of inviting yet more to be brought before Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Tiede discusses these early cases extensively and places them in the light of changing times and issues, of the evolution of the meaning and reach of academic freedom at the hands of Committee A. He fleshes out how closely the leadership’s thought adhered to progressive but prevailing academic mores, with baneful consequences during the First World War. In so doing, however, as Tiede explains, the founders never lost sight of their larger aspiration.

At the outset, the founders made two critical choices. First, the organization would be composed of only senior faculty members of recognized academic achievement. This decision opened up the Association to the charge, by Henry Pritchett, of being unrepresentative; it also posed the very practical problem of separating the academic sheep from the academic goats. The latter issue was dealt with by pegging membership eligibility to ten years’ service in professorial rank— instructors, an entry-level position at the time, need not apply—and by publishing the names of nominees in the AAUP Bulletin prior to approval for membership. Both of these elements were to change over time: eligibility for membership broadened, and the vetting process was abolished. At the time, however, restricting the membership to an academic elite was viewed as instrumental to achieving the mission, which explains the second choice as well—that the organization would eschew any identification as a labor union.

Though Cattell had been nationally prominent in proposing outright faculty control of institutions, even he recognized how unachievable that was, at least in the near term. Just as the 1914 organizational call said, what was sought was “effectual influence,” not control. A faculty union would be most unlikely to persuade boards of trustees, presidents, and the general public that power ought to devolve. A union might secure control, but only if it had the ability to seize it. That was inconceivable. In fact, such faculty unions as did exist at the time did not long survive the Great Depression.

Tiede’s account ends in the early 1920s, by which time the AAUP was on its way to becoming a feature of the higher educational landscape. With a century’s hindsight, what can be said of the choices the founders made?

The course they charted—that effectual influence was to be achieved as a result of painstaking deliberation by academics of the highest disciplinary standing followed by appeal to the academic community and the larger public for support—bore fruit as the profession burgeoned in the 1960s. The AAUP had by then recovered from a failure of nerve in the 1950s and had renewed these efforts. The Association’s key policy documents and reports secured widespread institutional adoption and came to be relied upon even by the courts. Membership grew to more than ninety thousand. No doubt the extraordinary demand for professorial talent facilitated these developments, but success could not have been achieved without the general respect the AAUP had earned.

Over time, however, the two foundational decisions were reversed. First, and earlier on, eligibility for membership was broadened to make the Association more representative. Even so, the institutional distribution today is such that Pritchett’s charge of unrepresentativeness might well be echoed. Second, the Association came full circle to embrace unionization, seeing in it a way to make the faculty’s voice more “effectual.” But the Supreme Court’s withdrawal, in the 1980 Yeshiva ruling, of National Labor Relations Act coverage for any faculty with even a modest measure of adherence to AAUP-recommended governance policies has made collective bargaining largely unavailable in the private sector. In the public sector, collective bargaining hangs by slender legal threads, dependent on the political agendas of state legislatures and the outcome of yet another case now before the Supreme Court. Mapping on to this state of affairs is the fact that tenure is being (or has already been) displaced by nontenured and adjunct appointments. The corporate model, the basic assumption of which the nascent AAUP sought to modify, has recrudesced. (One need not wonder what Veblen would say today when university presidents are called “chief executives” and are paid in excess of a million dollars a year.) The near hegemony that Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure enjoyed in disputes on academic freedom has been eclipsed by the courts, rarely resorted to a half century ago, and by labor arbitrators. The gain in the possibility of legal enforcement has been offset by a loss of conceptual coherence.

If an organization of the academic elite, dependent on the quality of its product and the public respect in which it is held, is incapable of deterring these developments, and if faculty unionism is incapable of reversing them, is there yet some other model—assuming, that is, that the goal of more effectual influence for the professoriate still serves the common good?

Tiede has done a superb job of illuminating the Association’s early years. But his investigation does more: it instigates further thought. His book should be of interest to anyone trying to come to grips with the role of the professoriate today and with the future of the AAUP.

Matthew Finkin is professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He served as chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure from 1980 to 1990.

Through an arrangement with the AAUP, Johns Hopkins University Press is offering a 30% discount off this book for AAUP members. Please order directly from the press's website,, using the discount code HWUP

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