Political Repression and the AAUP from 1915 to the Present

How can we most efficiently defend the imperiled academy?
By Ellen Schrecker


I gave up my academic freedom when I was interviewed to teach history at Yeshiva University in the late 1980s. I had just published a book about the impact of McCarthyism on American higher education and expected to field questions about it. Instead, I was asked, “Are you a Marxist?” The question was inappropriate, but if I wanted the only full-time tenure-track opening in my field in New York City for several years, I would have to deal with my interlocutors’ real question: “Are you a radical who might make trouble on campus?” I fudged the answer. My second interview revealed what that trouble might involve: “What do you think about Israel?” Knowing that Yeshiva was an Orthodox Jewish institution with close ties to that country, I responded Talmudically, explaining that I supported Israel but not everything the then-Labor government did. I got the job. And until I retired in 2013, I kept a low profile with regard to Israel and Palestine. There were plenty of other struggles against oppression throughout the world I could join—including that for academic freedom.

Today, the limitations on my ability to address a controversial subject in public are widely shared. Nearly three-quarters of the instructors in American higher education have little or no protection for academic freedom. They are non-tenure-track faculty members with part-time or temporary appointments, most of whom, unless they are covered by strong union contracts or AAUP-recommended due-process standards, can be let go at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. An equally serious threat to the university comes from the well-funded right-wing political campaign against the teaching, research, and public service activities that deal with the country’s most controversial issues and its imperfect past. Whether the academic profession can survive this double whammy is unclear.

The AAUP, as the only national group that speaks for faculty members as faculty members, has a critical role to play in countering these threats. Given the ferocity of the current culture wars, we must make an unprecedented effort to mobilize our forces at every level, focusing primarily on activating our members to take collective action on their own campuses. We must also work closely in coalitions with other concerned groups and individuals within and beyond the academic community. Together, we can show our students, colleagues, administrators, and the rest of the country that faculty members are unanimously opposed to outside political interference with our freedom to teach.

As a historian who studies political repression and higher education and who’s been active in the AAUP since the 1990s as an editor of Academe, president of my local chapter, and a member of the national Council and of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the Committee on College and University Governance, I have long worried that we have not defended the academic community as effectively as we could. Today, after decades of economic austerity and right-wing propaganda have seriously undermined the power and prestige of the professoriate, the AAUP’s quasi-judicial mindset, meticulous policy statements, and detailed investigations of individual violations of academic freedom at relatively obscure institutions seem an inadequate response to the current war on higher education.

True, the AAUP cannot reasonably be expected to turn back more than forty years of a clever and well-funded campaign directed against the nation’s institutions of higher learning—especially when that campaign has been stoked by a barely concealed white supremacist backlash that scapegoats the university as a bastion of “woke” liberalism that threatens all the traditional values of an earlier invented Eden. Still, if the AAUP is to respond realistically to the right-wing war on higher education, it must adapt its traditional mode of operations to the academic community’s current condition.

The AAUP Invents Academic Freedom

When the AAUP conceptualized academic freedom in 1915, its founders took a necessarily defensive posture. Unlike their equally well-educated peers in law and medicine who had the power to delineate the parameters of their professions, the distinguished academics who established the AAUP did not have complete control over their work lives. They were salaried workers, subject to the authority of boards of trustees, whose members included some of the most powerful industrialists in the United States. Perhaps that would not have been a problem if the United States was not also experiencing the most widespread episode of violent labor unrest in its history. A handful of high-profile cases at Brown, Stanford, and the University of Chicago spurred some eminent professors to create an organization to protect their new profession’s status and freedom from interference by trustees, politicians, and other outsiders.

From the beginning, the AAUP embraced academic freedom as the rationale that would not only preserve the faculty’s professional standing but also guarantee the autonomy and integrity of higher education by enabling professors to do their teaching and scholarship limited only by the parameters of their disciplines and the judgment of their peers. Its founding document, the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, defined academic freedom as a public good, while describing the conditions required for its protection: faculty governance and, especially, tenure. In cases where tenured professors’ jobs were at stake, the 1915 Declaration demanded that faculty members participate in the decision-making. Outsiders, like politicians or trustees without academic training and expertise, “have neither competency nor moral right to intervene.”

Over the following years, the AAUP developed procedures for handling the sorts of cases that had led to its founding. It did not investigate every complaint it received, nor did it take on the essentially futile task of trying to compel institutions to reinstate the individuals whose claims it validated. Instead, its leaders sought to create a body of quasi-judicial reports that could become the basis for a kind of common law that colleges and universities would honor.

The AAUP also worked with college and university administrators to gain widespread acceptance for its vision of academic freedom. In 1940, in collaboration with the Association of American Colleges, an organization that represented several hundred four-year liberal arts colleges and universities, it published a revised version of its founding document. Not only did the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure spell out in much greater detail the specific procedures that institutions would be expected to follow if they sought to dismiss a tenured professor, but it also paid more attention to the off-campus political activities that often provided the rationale for firing a controversial instructor. While explaining that professors should not be disciplined when they “speak or write as citizens,” the 1940 Statement also stressed that they should do so with restraint and should, above all, emphasize that they are not speaking for their institution. That emphasis on propriety reflected the AAUP’s perennial concern about protecting the faculty’s status as highly respected professionals and its own reputation as a responsible, politically neutral organization.

Updated with interpretive comments in 1970, the 1940 Statement has had a long shelf life. To this day, it provides the canonical definition of academic freedom, referred to in almost every one of the AAUP’s official reports and policy documents and cited by or directly incorporated into faculty handbooks and union contracts of some six hundred four-year institutions. Nonetheless, despite its ostensible concern with protecting the rights of faculty members, the AAUP was sometimes missing in action. All too often, when confronted by political repression, it tended to remain on the sidelines, releasing principled policy statements but not taking more concrete action.

The AAUP in War and Cold War

The AAUP’s record during World War I was execrable. Although we have no definitive casualty list, dozens of professors may have lost their jobs for war-related reasons. Most colleges and universities, their faculties included, embraced the nationalistic furor whipped up by the Wilson administration. And the AAUP did not protest.

As the chair of the organization’s key Committee A explained in 1917, “We have to recognize that some things are just at present vastly more important than is academic freedom.” Accordingly, the organization did not investigate any of the dismissals of insufficiently patriotic professors that were brought to its attention. Instead, a special committee released a cringeworthy report, Academic Freedom in Wartime. Not only did it advise faculty members against engaging in any type of antiwar activity, but, worse yet, it warned professors of German or Austrian descent not even to talk about the war in public with their friends and neighbors. Once the war ended and the political climate changed, the academic community regretted its jingoistic excesses, and, to my knowledge, the AAUP never again wavered rhetorically in its adherence to academic freedom.

Although the AAUP released some strong statements during the Cold War Red Scare, it backed off from resisting McCarthyism. With one minor exception, it did not release any Committee A reports on the violations of academic freedom between 1948 and 1956, even though, as I explained in my 1986 book, No Ivory Tower, dozens of politically tainted faculty members suffered during the anti-Communist inquisition.

That did not have to happen. During the late 1940s, the AAUP took up the question of whether Communists should be allowed to teach. Its initial answer in the fall of 1947—reaffirmed repeatedly throughout the Cold War Red Scare—was “yes.” The Association refused to accept the general consensus that membership in the Communist Party by definition disqualified someone from a faculty position. As long as the party was legal, belonging to it was not, in and of itself, “sufficient grounds for dismissal.” There had to be some kind of concrete misbehavior like advocating the overthrow of the government, proselytizing in class, or showing a “more than normal bias so uncritical as to evidence professional unfitness” to justify dismissing a controversial faculty member. To do otherwise, to punish professors for their political views, would encourage a crackdown against teachers “with other unorthodox views.” Self-censorship would flourish, while campuses “would become havens of cautious mediocrity,” and higher education would turn into “an instrument of indoctrination for an authoritarian society.” By defending controversial college teachers, Communists included, the chair of Committee A wrote, “the Association will perform one of its most essential duties.”

These were bold statements. The organization’s leaders hoped that their opposition to firing faculty members only because they belonged to the Communist Party or, later, invoked the Fifth Amendment during an anti-Communist investigation would encourage administrators to do the right thing. But the AAUP’s actions, or rather inaction, spoke more loudly. The organization had plenty of opportunities to act. There were loyalty oaths, federal and state anti-Communist laws and investigations, and covert FBI interventions, although not all of these were known at the time. At least one hundred college teachers lost their jobs and were subsequently blacklisted. How many more suffered such a fate we may never know; both the victims of those purges and the institutions that fired them tried to keep such dismissals secret—the former, understandably, to enhance their prospects for future academic employment, and the latter to avoid unfavorable publicity. Tenure was no protection, and junior faculty members could simply be denied reappointment without any explanation. Rarely did their fellow academics protest any of these dismissals.

Nor, at the time these actions were taken, did the AAUP. Beginning with the University of Washington’s ouster of three tenured professors in early 1948 and the University of California’s imposition of an anti- Communist loyalty oath on its faculty the following year, the AAUP was silent. It was not until 1956, when the worst of the inquisition had passed, that the organization finally released a special report on some of McCarthyism’s most notorious violations of academic freedom. We don’t know what difference timelier action would have made. Though some administrators assumed that they might be censured by the AAUP, they brushed it off. Still, action by the main institutional champion of academic freedom might have helped the nation’s faculties put up a stronger fight.

Significantly, the faculty members targeted by the inquisition were never charged with subverting the government or indoctrinating their students. They merely refused to answer an official investigating committee’s questions about their relationship with the Communist Party. Many were (or, more likely, once had been) in or near the party and might have agreed to say so had they then not also been asked to identify their comrades or former comrades. But because the Supreme Court did not protect these faculty members’ refusal to name names, the only way they could avoid prosecution for contempt of Congress was to rely on the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer the investigators’ questions about their politics. But to a public unversed in the intricacies of constitutional jurisprudence, taking the Fifth looked bad, as if such witnesses were still secret Communists.

As far as I can tell, every institution of higher education that housed a “Fifth Amendment Communist” took action. In some cases, presidents and trustees summarily dismissed these faculty members; others went through the motions of providing due process but ended up with the same result. Only a tiny handful of institutions kept unfriendly witnesses with tenure on their faculties—and then only if those people willingly revealed their politics to their colleagues and administrations, if not to the House Un-American Activities Committee or the FBI.

But how could universities reconcile their ostensible commitment to academic freedom with the dismissal of professors whose only offense was to invoke a constitutional protection? Despite the AAUP’s strictures against dismissing faculty members for belonging to an unpopular, but legal, political group, most of the academic establishment operated on the Cold War assumption that Communists were by definition unfit to teach. And Fifth Amendment witnesses, unless they cleared themselves with their employers, were similarly disqualified. Despite no evidence of academic misbehavior, the institutions that ousted their unfriendly witnesses based their purges on a demonized stereotype of American Communists that portrayed them as not only concealing their political affiliation but also following the rigid party line dictated by Moscow.

Whether or not their administrations actually believed that the professors they fired were too dishonest and doctrinaire to keep their jobs, they were under pressure to dismiss them. And there were no mainstream voices calling for resistance. On the contrary, the academic establishment encouraged cooperation. In a widely publicized statement released at the height of McCarthyism in March 1953, “The Rights and Responsibilities of Universities and Their Faculties,” the Association of American Universities (an organization then consisting of the presidents of the thirty-seven leading research universities in the United States and Canada) described the academy’s new obligation of candor. Besides stressing the duty of faculty members “to maintain [their university’s] reputation,” the document explained that because the professoriate requires the “fullest freedom to speak and the maximum protection of that freedom available in our society, . . . invocation of the Fifth Amendment places upon a professor a heavy burden of proof of his fitness to hold a teaching position.”

Two years later, the AAUP finally responded to McCarthyism. It appointed a special committee to investigate the recent violations of academic freedom, whose 1956 report, Academic Freedom and the Quest for National Security, reiterated the organization’s opposition to dismissing professors on any grounds other than “professional fitness.” The committee recommended censure of several institutions, but because it also claimed that Communist teachers could subvert the “educational process by dishonest tactics,” it seemed to justify sanctions against party members and unfriendly witnesses. Accordingly, it explained, if those professors’ activities resulted in “publicity harmful to” their institutions, they would have to reveal their past politics to their universities, even if that might expose them to later criminal penalties for waiving the Fifth Amendment.

The AAUP’s mixed messages were the product of deep internal divisions. While many members and quite a few leaders were bothered by the organization’s inactivity, its more conservative officers and staff members hung back, fearful that confrontations would not only antagonize the academic administrators with whom they hoped to work but might also damage the AAUP’s traditional reputation for neutrality. In any event, by the time the Cold War Red Scare petered out in the late 1950s and a more proactive cohort of leaders took over, the damage had been done.

The self-censorship that the AAUP had warned against in 1947 was rampant. Left-wing discourse essentially disappeared from American campuses. Professors pruned their reading lists and avoided research on controversial topics. The eminent cultural critic Leo Marx recalled with chagrin that he even stopped using the word capitalism in his lectures, substituting industrialism instead. It took about a decade before the chill dissipated—pushed off the nation’s campuses by the civil rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War movement, and the student unrest that forced the academic community during the 1960s and early 1970s to confront such real-world issues as militarism, racism, and sexism instead of McCarthyism’s hyped-up menace of Communist teachers.

Austerity and Academic Freedom

As student protests swirled through the nation’s campuses— and received massive media attention—higher education began to lose favor with the US public. Although students’ demands for an end to the war in Vietnam and the elimination of racism, sexism, and other forms of inequality at their own campuses were eminently reasonable and their demonstrations essentially peaceful (unless the police intervened), ordinary citizens were nonetheless discomfited by the unprecedented tumult. Conservative pundits and politicians demanded tough measures. They blamed the unrest on radical professors and spineless administrators who supposedly coddled the dissenting students.

That narrative proved popular. After Ronald Reagan swept into the California governor’s mansion by denouncing Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, ambitious politicians of both parties rushed to punish the student protesters and the institutions that housed them. By the early 1970s dozens of states and the national government were considering proposals that ranged from criminalizing participation in disruptive demonstrations to an unsuccessful attempt to make the University of North Carolina order its students to clean their rooms. Few of these measures passed and fewer were enforced. Economic sanctions, however, were ubiquitous. Politicians at both the state and federal level withdrew financial aid from protesters and drastically reduced their previously unstinting funding for higher education. Although the nation’s campuses calmed down quickly, their earlier troubles left scars that did not heal.

Ironically, the anti-Communist purges that undermined academic freedom in the United States during the McCarthy era coincided with what many scholars consider the “golden age” of the American university. As the system of public higher education expanded exponentially to fulfill its newly democratized post–World War II mission of educating a growing middle class, the nation’s leaders feared that there might not be enough scholars and scientists to handle the expected tsunami of baby boomers or meet the Cold War challenge of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik. What this meant for academic freedom was that by the mid-1960s, the academy was so eager for warm bodies with advanced degrees that even radical teachers who had been dismissed or were denied tenure for political reasons could almost always find another position. The job market effectively gave them the economic security that tenure traditionally supplied.

Even so, violations of academic freedom were commonplace. I know of more than one hundred people let go for their political activities during the 1960s and early 1970s, and it is likely that there were hundreds more. Still, given the attention the campus troubles received, there were surprisingly few high-profile dismissals of tenured radicals. Most of the people who lost their jobs for political reasons during the sixties and seventies were junior faculty members lacking tenure and not reappointed for ostensibly “academic” reasons. Unless their dismissals involved particularly flagrant violations of due process, the AAUP rarely took their cases. Nor was it asked to.

One request that the organization rejected was that of the gifted American historian Staughton Lynd, an activist in the civil rights movement in the South and a national leader of the antiwar movement, who was denied reappointment by Yale and then blacklisted and driven out of the academy. Despite support from such eminent figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Lynd’s request that the AAUP look into his blacklisting at several Chicago institutions so split the organization’s staff and elected leaders that no investigation ensued. Unlike Lynd, however, most other radicals viewed the AAUP as part of the establishment and did not request its help when they were fired.

The AAUP’s ambivalence about the campus unrest of the 1960s coincided with a major internal debate about whether to engage in the collective bargaining that was just then emerging within the academy. The Association’s more circumspect national leaders feared that unionization would undermine its identity as an organization of professionals, while many local chapters, especially at regional public colleges and universities, looked to the labor movement to gain more control over their working conditions. Finally, in 1971, fearful of losing members to competing organizations, the AAUP’s leaders agreed to countenance collective bargaining.

Meanwhile, major changes were sweeping through American higher education as the public largesse of its golden age came to a sudden end. The financial crisis of the 1970s and subsequent adoption of a neoliberal regime by the country’s political leaders brought austerity to most campuses. Besides raising tuition, administrators responded to the decline in state funding by adopting corporate practices that undermined their faculties’ power—centralizing decision-making and downgrading the instructional staff. Today’s campuses contain more administrators than teachers, while some 70 percent of those faculty members hold part- or full-time temporary non-tenure-track appointments. In the process, the two main structural props of academic freedom—shared governance and tenure—were seriously impaired.

At the same time as the working conditions of faculty members deteriorated, a stealthy and well-funded network of right-wing business leaders and libertarian ideologues were conducting a long-term campaign to delegitimize the academy’s expertise and democratic values. It subsidized a counterintelligentsia of think tanks, endowed professorships and academic centers, journalists, and publications to spread free-market doctrines while questioning mainstream scholarship and science.

During the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, as Nancy MacLean documents in Democracy in Chains and Isaac Kamola and Ralph Wilson describe in Free Speech and Koch Money, right-wing philanthropists poured millions of dollars into demonizing higher education as infested by “political correctness” whose advocates supposedly purveyed a dogmatic brand of left-wing identity politics while suppressing free speech and conservative discourse on their campuses. Not surprisingly, that widely disseminated portrayal of a narrow-minded academic elite—plus the rising cost of a college education—undermined the popularity and prestige of the academy. Accordingly, when the Republican Party signed onto the conservative network’s program and red state legislatures promoted the repressive measures now threatening the university, the nation’s increasingly fragmented and demoralized faculties seemed unable to mount an effective response.

What Is to Be Done?

The AAUP is not to blame for this deplorable situation. But at a time when faculty members on contingent appointments handle nearly three-quarters of the instruction within a battered but corporatized system of higher education now under attack from a powerful authoritarian movement, it is clear that the AAUP’s traditional response of investigating individual cases and developing policies to implement its 1915 and 1940 principles will not save the academic profession.

True, the AAUP has not been silent. Its leaders, especially current president Irene Mulvey, have testified before state legislatures and released some powerful statements, often in conjunction with other organizations. It has also produced some thoughtful reports on the dire situations in individual states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. And, at the local level, now strengthened by its recent affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), it has focused on organizing collective bargaining chapters. But all too often it has failed to take advantage of its unofficial franchise over academic freedom to intervene more effectively in the current culture wars.

Terrible laws are now on the books. Still, it may be possible to head off or at least weaken new ones, as the AAUP’s Ohio conference has recently done. There will be litigation. And, to its credit, the national AAUP recently joined that battle by submitting an amicus brief in the key lawsuit against Florida’s horrific “Stop WOKE” Act. But we need more than lawyers. Given the political proclivities of the current Supreme Court, we cannot count on it to defend the integrity of higher education. So, if the justices will not protect academic freedom, who can? Faculty members have the numbers and the potential power—but only if we are willing to exert it. If the AAUP were to take a more activist stance and build upon its founders’ original vision of a more democratic university for a more democratic society, it could make a big difference in the struggle against the authoritarian Right.

That struggle, however, will require concerted action and one-on-one organizing by the AAUP’s staff and members at the national, state, and, above all, local levels so that, as faculty members, we can present a united front against the partisan attack on higher education. Our first task is to alert our own members to the threat. Then we can expand our efforts—creating a buzz on our campuses by connecting with students, administrators, nonacademic staff members, local community groups, and concerned citizens to mount teach-ins, organize rallies, circulate petitions, and write op-eds and columns for student newspapers and the local press. We should also reach out to the rest of academia and to like-minded organizations beyond higher education to form coalitions within the disciplines, the labor movement, political groups, and the media.

The main function of the Far Right’s attack on public schools and universities is not to punish individual educators for teaching the truth but to encourage their colleagues to muzzle themselves. To prevent that self-censorship, we must sever the connection between the educational gag laws and their enforcement. Faculty members must support their frontline colleagues in red states and in those nearby K–12 systems already wracked by the culture wars. At colleges and universities that are not yet under attack, we should take prophylactic measures to ensure that administrators, who claim they support academic freedom, will not violate it when the forces of repression reach their campuses. If those authorities see that their faculties have already organized themselves against those obviously unconstitutional measures, they may think twice before implementing them.

There have been some promising ventures. The recent formation of an umbrella organization of social justice academic unions, Higher Education Labor United, offers encouraging evidence of the growing desire for solidarity. There’s also the successful faculty senate resolutions campaign of 2021–22. Under the initial aegis of the African American Policy Forum, a few academics developed the template of a resolution against the educational gag orders that faculty senates and similar bodies could adopt. Citing several AAUP policy statements, the document was designed to be easily adapted for each campus’s individual culture. Not only does the resolution support the K–12 teachers already under fire and reaffirm the institution’s stated adherence to academic freedom, but it also asks its administrators and trustees to endorse it. About eighty colleges and universities— from the Ivy League and public flagships to religious institutions and historically Black ones—have passed these resolutions. Professors elsewhere may be developing similar projects on their own or in their AAUP chapters and union locals. They may need some help—and the AAUP should try to supply it.

Ultimately, however, the nation’s faculties must take collective responsibility for defending themselves. Naturally, the AAUP should support them. But we can’t continue with business as usual. We will have to adapt our organization to the massive structural changes within higher education and the hollowing out of the nation’s full-time tenured faculties. Ironically, and in a perverse way, the current campaign against the university by Ron DeSantis and others offers us an unparalleled opportunity to reorient many of the AAUP’s operations to reclaim our position as the main institutional voice for the academic profession. Empowered by our recent affiliation with the AFT, we can reconceptualize academic freedom, encourage solidarity and collective action within the academic community, and intensify the AAUP’s unconditional commitment to the struggle against the reactionary forces of ignorance that threaten us all. Our jobs, our students’ educations, and our currently endangered democracy may depend upon it.

A former editor of Academe and current member of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, Ellen Schrecker is a retired professor of history at Yeshiva University who has written extensively about McCarthyism, higher education, and political repression. Her forthcoming book, The Right to Learn: Resisting the Right-Wing Attack on Academic Freedom, coedited with Valerie C. Johnson and Jennifer Ruth, will be published by Beacon Press in the spring.