From the President: Their Attacks Must Be Our Call to Action

By Irene Mulvey

As this issue goes to press, two of the three university presidents who appeared at the US House’s December hearing “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism” have resigned under intense outside pres­sure. It’s hard to know what will happen between now and the time this column is published, but the hearing and the broader context in which it occurred raise urgent issues for all of higher education.

Clearly, the hearing was planned as a McCarthyite spectacle, allowing some legislators to take advantage of genuine pain and grief to score political points and gener­ate sound bites. It’s #funnynotfunny to call it a “hearing,” since no attempt was made to actually listen and learn about what’s happening on our campuses or about whether, in the aftermath of October 7 and the resulting war in the Middle East, college administrations in the United States are attempting to protect the safety of all students while upholding fundamental prin­ciples of academic freedom and free expression. Finding fault with the college presidents and their legal­istic, context-dependent answers misses the point that they were called upon to play a role in a piece of performative political theater designed to obfuscate and enrage.

The hearing made evident the necessity for our campuses to remain places of free and open inquiry, places of robust debate where no speech is censored, where we model the intellectual condi­tions for vigorous disagreement, for learning, and for intellectual growth. The hearing demonstrated the difference between current political discourse, the intent of which is often to polarize, and the climate we seek to cultivate on cam­pus, in which all points of view can be expressed and deeply held beliefs are investigated and challenged. In times like these, it is natural to expect students, faculty, and staff to express very strong feelings. Silenc­ing voices and suppressing ideas are antithetical to the core educational mission of our colleges and uni­versities, yet this is exactly what is happening at campuses all over the country. The national AAUP stands with our many chapters, in particu­lar at Rutgers, Penn, Columbia, and Cornell, that have released strong statements affirming academic free­dom and denouncing censorship.

These latest political intrusions into higher education must be situated in a broader context. The congressional hearing, the silencing of speech, and the violations of aca­demic freedom happening as a result of the Israel-Hamas war are just the latest front in the ongoing battle to control higher education, a battle the AAUP has been fighting since its founding in 1915. Our recent report Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida’s Public Higher Education System details attempts by the Florida governor and his cronies to force public institutions of higher education to conform to a partisan ideological agenda. These attacks are a tragedy for Florida stu­dents and their families. Nationally, millions of dollars of outside funding have poured into colleges and uni­versities over the last several decades, and these contributions often come with strings attached—outrageous and inappropriate demands for donor control over curriculum, research, and hiring.

In other words, attempts to undermine university autonomy and to control what can be said or learned or taught on our campuses are nothing new. When faculty have academic freedom protected by tenure and academic due pro­cess, they can provide independent expertise on science, business, public policy, and all other aspects of the human experience. Some individuals with power, influence, and an agenda would silence those independent voices.

The egregious violations of academic freedom on display since October 7 are a call to action for fac­ulty and enlightened administrators. All of us must do our part. Step one is to strengthen the commitments of our colleges and universities to academic freedom by reviewing our institutional policies—particularly campus policies on outside speakers and students’ rights—and ensur­ing that they comport with widely accepted AAUP-recommended standards. Step two, even more important, is to demand and strengthen genuine shared gover­nance. In recent months, we have seen the best policies on academic freedom ignored and even unilater­ally rewritten by administrations in order to silence speech. Now is the time to ensure that faculty have well-functioning structures of governance in place and that the mechanisms of governance are understood by all. Only then can they uphold academic freedom and thwart unilateral action by administrations.

Faculty work involves more than teaching and research. The faculty’s role in strengthening governance and demanding protections for aca­demic freedom is essential to higher education’s survival as a pillar of American democracy.