State of the Profession: Defending our Principles

By Henry Reichman

My wife is a criminal defense attorney who worked for more than three decades as a public defender. Many, perhaps most, of her clients were guilty of the crimes with which they were charged. But the defense attorney’s job is not to justify the defendant’s actions. It is to make the prosecution prove its case, to offer mitigating evidence, and most important to ensure that the defendant’s rights, and hence the rights of all citizens, to due process and fair treatment are not violated.

In my role as chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, I think often about how similar our work can be to my wife’s. For the AAUP frequently investigates cases in which the actions or words of faculty members may well be worthy of rebuke or punishment. In those cases our role too is not to approve or support what the faculty members did or said but to defend their rights to academic freedom and due process, both under the law and under long-standing and widely accepted AAUP principles.

Professors whose actions call into question their basic fitness to teach may be subject to termination, but only after adjudication by a representative faculty body. Take the case of Melissa Click, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri who was summarily dismissed after the university’s board of curators found that she had “assaulted” a student during an incident in which she called for “muscle” to have that student removed from a public space. There is no real dispute about Click’s actions, which were caught on video. And she herself has acknowledged and repeatedly apologized for those actions. So why did we investigate her case and place the University of Missouri on our censure list?

Several individuals posed that question in e-mails after the report of our investigation, which I led, was published. “I can’t believe you defended Melissa Click,” wrote one educator. “Violence and restriction of civil rights should never be tolerated. . . . Violent people should not be teaching anything. . . . From your support of her actions it appears that you condone violence and very unprofessional conduct.” Or, as another writer put it, “You think it’s just fine for Melissa ‘Get the muscle’ Click to silence a voice she doesn’t like just because that voice is in disagreement with your politics.”

While it’s debatable just how violent Click’s actions really were, neither I as an individual nor the AAUP condone them. Nor do we necessarily agree with her political views, which remain largely unknown to us. As the report noted, however, our concern was not Click’s actions or opinions but whether she “was afforded the protections of academic due process called for under AAUP-recommended standards.”

“We cannot say that a reasonably open-minded review of the case by an appropriately constituted faculty hearing body might not have produced a conclusion similar to that reached by the curators,” we concluded. “But the critical point . . . is that such a process—mandated by MU’s own rules—did not take place.”

In other words, charges that the AAUP excuses or even approves Click’s actions are no more valid than charges that a criminal defense attorney supports the crimes of her client. Had the University of Missouri adhered to its own policies (which reflect AAUP-supported standards), charged Professor Click with misconduct, and held an appropriate faculty hearing resulting in her dismissal, the AAUP would have had nothing to say about the matter, even if some of us might have thought the punishment excessive.

Of course, just as many of my wife’s cases result in plea agreements, some cases in which faculty members are charged with misconduct never come before a hearing body. At one university a tenured faculty member was found to have falsified his claim to a PhD. Confronted with evidence, he chose to retire, a solution an embarrassed administration hastened to offer. But even that charlatan was entitled to due-process protections had he chosen to contest the matter.

Tenure and academic freedom were never intended to protect demonstrable incompetence and unethical behavior. Even tenured faculty members can and sometimes should be dismissed for just cause. But such terminations will be legitimate only if those charged receive the full due-process protections to which the principles of academic freedom entitle them. And it is those principles, and those principles only, that the AAUP defends when we assist faculty members denied their protections, even when the actions of those faculty members may be questionable or worse.

Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, chair of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and first vice president of the AAUP.