One Historian’s Perspective on Academic Freedom and the AAUP

A former Academe editor considers our profession’s past century and its future.
By Ellen Schrecker

It’s our brand: academic freedom. Whatever else the AAUP does, the defense of academic freedom is what distinguishes it from every other organization. As the American system of higher education has evolved, so, too, has the Association’s mission, but despite embracing collective bargaining and the provision of other services to the professoriate, the AAUP has not abandoned its central concern with protecting the professional autonomy and intellectual integrity of the nation’s faculties. Yet if the Association is to remain relevant (or even to survive) at a time when the pace of change within the academy has spun out of control, not only will it have to reinvigorate its vision of academic freedom, but it will also have to bring that vision into today’s debates about higher education.

A little background helps. The American version of academic freedom was formulated nearly one hundred years ago, when the philosopher John Dewey and a group of similarly distinguished academics created the AAUP to provide a collective voice for their profession. Outraged by the arbitrary dismissals of colleagues by the businessmen-trustees who ran their universities, the Association’s founders hoped to establish an institutional presence that would support the right of professors to control the conditions of their employment— and, not coincidentally, to raise their status as well. The AAUP was not unique; other middle-class professionals were organizing similar groups to bolster their social and economic positions. But Dewey and his fellow public intellectuals faced a serious problem. Unlike the members of such other learned professions as medicine and the law, academics were not independent practitioners but employees—albeit highly educated ones.

Enter academic freedom: a concept that serves to distinguish the university from more mundane workplaces. Related to, but not identical with, free speech, academic freedom posits the free expression and autonomy of the faculty as a professional perquisite. Although often overlooked, that autonomy is as crucial for our professional survival and that of the institutions within which we work as the protection of political dissenters. Unless professors can control their own classrooms and research agendas, they will be unable to fulfill their academic obligation of maintaining the quality of American higher education and thereby contributing to the public good. For this reason, trustees, politicians, and other outsiders who intervene in faculty matters threaten the very essence of the university. Of course, the AAUP’s founders knew that the autonomy they were demanding was not unlimited. In order to retain their professional privileges, faculties would have to police themselves and ensure that their colleagues adhered to high intellectual and ethical standards.

Although they were among the academic stars of their generation, the Association’s early leaders expected their organization to stand up for the jobs and free expression of college teachers everywhere— not just at such prominent institutions as Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago (where some of the most blatant violations of academic freedom had taken place) but also at teachers’ colleges, denominational schools, and second-tier public universities. To this day that universalistic outlook characterizes the Association’s approach to academic freedom. The experienced professionals who staff its Washington office deal with cases involving violations of AAUP principles at all kinds of institutions, whether the faculty members affected belong to the Association or not. The AAUP is, after all, the only organization specifically dedicated to the protection of academic freedom and to the representation of faculty as faculty.

Founding Principles

From the start, the Association has promoted the widespread acceptance of tenure as the bedrock of academic freedom. Without the kind of economic security that lifetime employment gives judges, for example, professors could be pressured to conform their teaching or research to the whims of powerful outsiders. The AAUP’s founding document, the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, emphasized that connection; and the organization devoted its early efforts to convincing the rest of the academic community to adopt the practice and, thus, ensure the independent authority of qualified scholars and teachers. Victory came with the joint promulgation of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities), a document that has since been endorsed by more than two hundred educational and scholarly organizations.

Contrary to common misperceptions, the AAUP’s tenure model does not guarantee lifetime employment. It merely protects college and university teachers from arbitrary dismissal once they win a permanent position. Deadwood can be pruned. Bad actors can be ejected. But, according to the 1940 Statement, so long as tenured professors fulfill their academic duties, they cannot be removed from their positions or otherwise sanctioned without some kind of a quasi-judicial procedure administered by their fellow faculty members. In the best of all possible worlds—and sometimes even in practice—similar procedural guarantees cover junior faculty members as well as adjuncts and other, less favorably situated academic professionals.

The AAUP has not always succeeded in its mission. Even when institutions jump through all the procedural hoops, there is no guarantee that the professoriate will protect its squeakiest wheels. During World War I, for example, the Association’s leaders blinked at the cases of faculty members dismissed because of their less than enthusiastic support for the conflict. The organization’s record during the McCarthy era was little better. Whether because of timidity or bureaucratic inertia, the AAUP did not deal with any of that era’s serious violations of academic freedom until after the witch hunt had largely abated. It did do better during the 1960s, when it tried to confront the mounting caseload produced by that decade’s political turmoil.

But we are taking too narrow a perspective on academic freedom if we focus only on the kinds of classic academic freedom cases that come from the reports of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Though attacks on politically controversial professors have not disappeared, today’s main threat to academic freedom and to the autonomy of college and university teachers is structural. At most institutions, faculties no longer control the conditions of their employment. With nearly three-quarters of the nation’s academic work in the hands of part-timers and people with temporary appointments who have little or no job security, does the kind of academic freedom the AAUP was formed to protect still exist? Has the near-disappearance of tenure destroyed the professoriate’s power and autonomy?

We are now living with the shards of a formerly influential profession. Beginning in the late 1960s, economic instability and the rightward shift of American political culture demoted the faculty from its oncecentral position within the nation’s institutions of higher learning. Officially, of course, professors never ran their institutions. Legally, the final say belonged to the trustees and, practically, to top administrators. But, at least until the 1970s, shared governance on many campuses protected the faculty’s autonomy and ensured that professors would have considerable control over their institutions’ main academic decisions— and their own careers. Their leverage came from the massive expansion of higher education after World War II. By the late 1950s college teachers were in demand, a situation that gave them more power than they had ever had—or might ever have again.

That so-called golden age ended in the early 1970s, and with it ended the economic security that undergirded faculty governance and academic freedom. Buffeted by the instability accompanying the end of the postwar expansion, American colleges and universities found themselves in a financial bind—as, of course, did most other sectors of the economy. In part as a result of tax revolts and reduced revenues, and in part as a result of popular hostility to the campus unrest of the previous decade, state legislatures and the federal government cut back on their funding of higher education. Private institutions suffered as well. Confronted with diminishing resources, academic administrators struggled to maintain solvency. In the process, they focused increasingly on their bottom lines, basing almost every decision on its economic, rather than its educational, consequences.

Desperate for savings and impatient with the presumed inefficiency of shared governance, these administrators emulated the corporate world’s decision-making practices by clawing back much of the faculty’s power. In a process that mirrored similar moves within the private sector, they transformed the academic labor market, turning secure, well-paying jobs into part-time and temporary ones. The hiring frenzy of the previous decade ended, while older professors retired without being replaced. Even though the contingent workforce was still only about 30 percent of the faculty, perceptive individuals, especially younger ones blindsided by the sudden setback to their careers, identified the crisis. Too many tenured faculty members at the top of the academic pyramid either assumed that the bad times were temporary or closed their eyes to the coming professional collapse. But others, who faced stagnating salaries and deteriorating working conditions, decided to explore collective bargaining.

Turn to Collective Bargaining

The AAUP was torn. While there was strong grassroots pressure from its state conferences, some of the Association’s members and leaders, especially ones from major research universities and similarly elite campuses, were initially ambivalent about unions. Because the labor movement was traditionally associated with blue-collar workers, these academics felt that collective bargaining was incompatible with their professional status. Some also opposed it on ideological grounds, insisting—as did administrators and trustees—that it would inject an unwanted element of class conflict into the community of scholars. Ultimately, however, the AAUP’s leaders, concerned that the survival of their organization was at stake, decided to support those chapters that wanted to bargain collectively.

For many, though by no means all, of the Association’s activists it was a reluctant decision, propelled in part by the belief that although “unionism on the industrial model,” as one eminent individual termed it, might be acceptable at Henry Ford Community College, Central Michigan University, or New York City’s St. John’s, it was inappropriate for selective colleges or major research universities. Unfortunately for the AAUP—and the academic profession in general—many status-conscious academics felt contaminated by remaining in an organization that embraced collective bargaining. Within a few years, more than 20 percent of AAUP members from elite campuses had quit. Today, with the AAUP’s membership roughly half what it was in the early 1970s and the academic profession in decline, it is imperative that the Association reach out to every member of the academic profession.

If we have learned anything over the past few decades, it is that the AAUP’s insistence on academic freedom, faculty governance, and economic security was never incompatible with collective bargaining. In fact, once the Association’s leaders decided to join the labor movement, they justified participation on the grounds that their negotiators, unlike those from other unions, would demand contracts that guaranteed the organization’s core values. And, as later researchers discovered, the advent of collective bargaining—even sometimes the threat of it, whether from the AAUP or its rivals—did spur many institutions to establish or strengthen faculty senates and other mechanisms for shared governance, even if their administrations did not always accede to what those bodies recommended.

But, as we know all too well, collective bargaining could not stop a generation of decline within the academic community. The twentieth century’s experiment in mass higher education may well be at an end. In its place we can already discern the lineaments of a new multi-tiered academic system that mirrors America’s growing inequality by steering the already advantaged into elite institutions that still offer the liberal arts while encouraging the others to take online courses or major in vocational subjects that may or may not pay off in employment. It is, of course, no surprise that a similarly hierarchical arrangement occurs within the nation’s faculties.

Despite these divisions, a consensus does exist, both within and outside the academic profession, that American higher education is in trouble. Significantly, however, the debate about the current crisis and the need to “disrupt” the nation’s colleges and universities all too often ignores the men and women who teach in them. Blue-ribbon panels designed to deal with that crisis rarely include more than a token professor, if that. Whether a stronger faculty voice—one that explained, among other things, why maintaining the quality of higher education requires more tenured professors, not fewer—could salvage the situation is not clear. But as pundits, bureaucrats, and businesspeople push “massive open online courses” and other technological quick fixes, it is clear that such a voice is needed.

That voice, however, must speak for the entire professoriate. Although it has taken a few decades for the realization to set in, American academics are now aware that their profession faces a serious threat. This situation presents an opportunity for the AAUP to recoup its lost members. We know all too well the need to work with the legions of nontenure- track faculty members without whom the organization cannot survive. But we have been less concerned about the similar need to bring in public intellectuals and eminent scholars at prestigious institutions who can command a national audience. While these individuals do not experience the same insecurity as their colleagues in non-tenure-track positions, they still face corporatizing pressures from their administrations as well as the occasional attacks from outside ideologues that their institutions’ visibility attracts. The AAUP must devote more resources to bringing these faculty members back into the fold. After all, with a strong chapter on their campuses, the increasingly stressed professors at the nation’s top-tier institutions will be better able to fight for the restoration of their own autonomy, not to mention academic freedom and the future of higher education. In short, they need the AAUP just as much as the AAUP needs them. American academics can afford neither elitism—nor anti-elitism.

New Mission

There are grounds for hope. Faculties are not impotent. The reinstatement of President Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia after the faculty rose up against her dismissal in summer 2012 shows that unified, mobilized professors do have power when they want to use it. The problem is that, because of the decline of the academic profession, such mobilization requires a major effort as well as a willingness to work with students, professional staff members, and other affected groups on and off the campus.

This could be the AAUP’s new mission, for there is no other organization that represents the interests of every member of the academic profession, no other organization that can articulate the crucial relationship between the autonomy and free expression of the faculty and the quality of higher education. To do this, however, the AAUP must grow. It must enter the public arena with a strong, collective message about the value of academic freedom and academic democracy. It must overcome the stratification and internal divisions that have made it so hard for the professoriate to speak with a single voice. Those of us with tenure must treat our less secure colleagues in part-time and temporary full-time positions with respect, acknowledging that it is the market, and not any inadequacies on their part, that forces them to endure abysmal working conditions and inadequate pay. At the same time, we need to recognize that in a political climate that has become increasingly hostile to organized labor, competition with other unions is equally unproductive. The old adage about the intensity of academic conflicts bearing an inverse relationship to the importance of the issue may well be true. But today’s issue is not trivial; preserving the academic profession requires solidarity. The enemy is not us.


Ellen Schrecker’s latest book is The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. A former editor of Academe, she also belonged to the AAUP’s national Council and Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. She is professor of history emerita at Yeshiva University. Her e-mail address is [email protected].