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Ten Decades of AAUP Investigations

The most noteworthy investigations over the decades.
By Jordan E. Kurland

Reflecting on fifty years of staffing investigations, the author comments on an investigation of his choice for each of the AAUP’s ten decades.

1915–24 University of Utah (1915)

While the AAUP’s founding 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure was being drafted, its first investigation provided thorough analysis of an actual situation in which the need for adherence to these principles was compelling and the flaunting of them by the trustees and the president was devastating.

1925–34 University of Missouri (1930)

In 1929 the “roaring twenties” reached Springfield, Missouri, where two sociology professors teaching a course called “The Family” circulated among the students a questionnaire on the economic status of women, the sexual code, and the moral ideals on which the family as a social institution is based. Responses were voluntary and anonymous. Objections to the project, mainly from townspeople, led the president to order that copies of the questionnaire be confiscated and destroyed and to recommend to the governing board that the two professors be dismissed. The four charges against them were that the document “tended to make students sexually immoral,” that it was “shocking to students, especially women students,” that it “could not produce any scientifically valid conclusion,” and that it “tended to create the condition that it is alleged to correct.” The board dismissed forthwith one of the professors, who held a renewable one-year appointment. The other professor had indefinite tenure, and the board suspended him for a year without pay.

1935–44 University of Pittsburgh (1935)

This investigation dealt with a professor of American history whose scholarly writing and classroom teaching were beyond reproach but who incurred the hostility of the city’s business and religious leaders. Influential trustees objected to his extramural activity in behalf of the New Deal and other progressive causes and to his not having hesitated to express (also outside the classroom) dim views of religious institutions and beliefs. The chancellor of the university, a notorious academic autocrat who had survived a previous AAUP investigation, looked on his board members mainly as skilled fundraisers, particularly of the massive amounts needed to construct a skyscraper in the center of the campus, the Cathedral of Learning, that was to stand as a monument to his accomplishments. He looked on the faculty members as skilled help to teach and produce scholarship at his bidding, similar to the skilled workers who designed and were constructing his cathedral. All university faculty members served on one-year appointments, renewable at the chancellor’s pleasure. The history professor’s ninth renewal was to occur in the midst of a key fundraising phase, with trustees urging the chancellor to dismiss him. The chancellor did so, paying him in a lump sum for another year as severance salary.

1945–54 University of Texas (1946)

In sharp contrast to the previous decade’s report on the University of Pittsburgh, where trustees essentially served as fundraising supporters of the chief administrative officer, the trustees of the University of Texas functioned in the manner of the 1915 University of Utah trustees. Their reputation for high-handedness spans the decades and has continued through the current decade, but they were especially intrusive in the university’s academic endeavors during the late 1940s. They treated a liberal president who had enthusiastic faculty support like a hired underling. They publicly demanded recommendations from him to dismiss specific professors whose writings and utterances allegedly did not comport with true Texas values. The president did not comply, whereupon they dismissed him as well as professors he had refused to recommend for dismissal and professors who objected to his dismissal. A scheduled discussion with AAUP leaders on possible avoidance of censure was preceded by offers to reinstate professors who had just been dismissed. The trustees described the reinstatements as actions that should satisfy the AAUP and suggested that, with the faculty cases resolved, the board would welcome the Association’s withdrawal of its objections to the dismissal of the president. Increasing crowds of faculty, students, and alumni called for the president’s reinstatement, to no avail. The AAUP declined to back away from supporting him, and censure was imposed.

1955–64 Academic Freedom and Tenure in the Quest for National Security (1956–1958) 

Of all the AAUP investigations, this has been far and away the largest and arguably the most important. During the McCarthy-era onslaught against academic freedom and due process, the AAUP issued several statements in defense of its principles. It did not, however, pursue what had won the AAUP its special reputation: investigations of violations of academic freedom. For seven years, as case after case of academic freedom violation was brought to its attention, the Association issued not a single investigative report. The inaction came to an emphatic end in 1955 with the departure of the chief administrative official and the election of new officers and Council members. In 1955 the Council charged a special committee of eight professors with assessing the general issues of concern and the particular issues in cases at eighteen institutions of alleged pro-Communist activity and of refusal to testify against others. In its report issued in 1956 and a supplementary report two years later, the special committee published findings in all of the cases and received praise for restoring the AAUP’s good name.

1965–74 University of California at Los Angeles (1971)

In the richness of its complex subject matter and in the thoroughness, skill, and value of the investigating committee’s analysis of the many issues presented, this report yields to no other that the AAUP has produced. Because its content cannot be summarized in a single paragraph, a few comments will have to suffice:

Despite the report’s title, the resulting censure was directed against the University of California Board of Regents. The UCLA chancellor, with faculty support, had declined to act against the assistant professor whose dismissal the regent sought, whereupon they took the matter out of his hands.

During its site visits, the investigating committee interviewed a collection of prominent Californians. Among them were regent chair William French Smith, who was to become President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, and Governor Ronald Reagan, a regent ex officio.

When the investigating committee submitted its report to Committee A, an unrelated episode led to criminal charges against the assistant professor, and a draft of the report with an invitation for comments was delivered to her jail cell. When initial discussion of potential censure removal occurred, she had broken parole and was a fugitive from justice. Years later, legally cleared, she applied for and obtained a full-time position at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She had been granted tenure by the time censure was removed, and she recently retired at the rank of full professor.

1975–84 State University of New York (1977)

Among all the AAUP investigations, only the 1956 McCarthy-era special committee undertaking that involved eighteen institutions was larger in scope than the 1977 SUNY endeavor. The State University of New York at the time consisted of four university centers, two medical centers, fourteen four-year colleges, three specialized colleges, six two-year agricultural and technical colleges, four statutory colleges at Cornell, and one at Alfred. The SUNY budget for 1976–77, referring to a need to “respond creatively to fiscal restraints,” called for the abolition of 528 positions throughout the system. With faculty appointment terminations being announced and implemented at campus after campus, an AAUP investigating committee visited eight of them and documented departures from AAUP-supported standards. In all, 62 tenured faculty members suffered termination of appointment, with 29 of them eventually reinstated; 103 nontenured faculty members received notice of termination, with 34 later reinstated. The need for these mass actions was unclear: no financial exigency was declared, and the number of full-time SUNY faculty members, after two years of layoffs, increased slightly, from 7,748 in 1975 to 7,870 in 1977. The investigating committee found sweeping violations of tenure rights and faculty prerogatives. Noting that “a primary purpose of tenure is to protect the faculty’s right of dissent,” the investigating committee concluded that “few will venture openly to disagree with administrative decisions, so that precisely the atmosphere of fear that the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure seeks to dispel has settled on the campuses.”

1985–94 The Catholic University of America (1989)

The investigation concerned the case of a well-known Catholic professor of moral theology who, over more than twenty years on the Catholic University faculty, established himself as a scholar who scrutinized accepted views, including noninfallible teachings of his church, and did not hesitate to publicize his dissenting conclusions. At the end of his initial term of service in 1966, the board of trustees, almost all of them bishops, acted to deny him reappointment, whereupon his colleagues in the School of Theology, and then the full faculty by vote of four hundred to eighteen, resolved to withhold further teaching until the board rescinded its action. The board did so. Less than two years later, the professor was spokesperson for a group of eighty-seven Catholic theologians who publicly dissented from a provision in a papal encyclical that categorically banned artificial contraception. The board threatened to suspend the theologians in the group who were from Catholic University, but the administration succeeded in having their case heard by a faculty board of inquiry. The faculty board concluded that the dissenters had acted with academic propriety, and the trustees took no action. In a third encounter in 1987, the charges against the professor, characterized as “erroneous teaching with respect to sexual ethics and marriage,” came from the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The professor declined an invitation to recant, and the church hierarchy in the United States subsequently suspended him indefinitely from teaching Catholic theology.

1995–2004 Bennington College (1995)

In early summer 1994 the Bennington administration revealed that the board had determined the existence of financial exigency and that notices of termination were being sent to twenty-seven professors, approximately half of the college’s full-time faculty members. About two-thirds of the notified professors had what Bennington called “presumptive tenure.” The recipients were told that they did not meet newly defined professional requirements for positions at the college in their discipline. The administration also announced the suspension of all existing governance practices, the structural reorganization of the faculty by designating a faculty core, and the elimination of presumptive tenure with all new appointments. The president appointed a faculty review committee to handle appeals. Most of those on notice used this venue, and all but two were rejected. The candidacies of these two were forwarded to the president, who turned down one but reinstated the other. The AAUP investigating committee speculated that the president was fearful of dismissing the sole survivor because he was the leader of the faculty’s opposition to her and that dismissing him would bring about an uproar among faculty and students that was best avoided. The investigating committee was terse in its conclusion: “Academic freedom is insecure and tenure is nonexistent today at Bennington College. Both seem to have flourished in the past but not to have survived the abrupt, excessive, inhumane, and profoundly procedurally flawed actions that culminated in the events of June 1994.”

Three years later, having more supporters on the faculty because of new hires, the president dismissed the outspoken critic of her actions whom she had refrained earlier from dismissing. The investigating committee dealt with this dismissal in a supplementary published report.

2005–14 Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Universities (2007)

This is another investigation of very large scope, encompassing the five universities in the city, all of them flooded to various extents during Hurricane Katrina. The five institutions are the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, the University of New Orleans, and Southern University at New Orleans in the public sector and, in the private sector, Tulane University and Loyola University New Orleans. All of them closed down almost entirely for the semester after the flood and then were faced with questions of when they could reopen, how many students would return, and which faculty and staff members would not be retained. Committee A established a special nine-member committee to monitor the situation, develop advice regarding technical and safety considerations in coping with a natural disaster, and undertake the five authorized investigations. The investigations focused on the adoption or restoration of adequate official applicable policies, respect for tenure rights and for the faculty role in making academic judgments, and resisting use of the crisis to rid the institution of undesired programs and professors. Adherence to AAUP-supported standards varied from institution to institution. The administration of the university with the least damage from Katrina and the smallest student loss summarily dismissed seventeen professors on the spurious grounds of program discontinuance. Censure was imposed on the administrations of four of the five universities. One was removed the following year, another the year after that, and the remaining two an additional two years later.

Jordan E. Kurland, the AAUP’s associate general secretary, has served for most of his five decades in the national office as staff chief for Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.


Jordan was a gentle giant. In the cases where he invited my involvement, he proved to be teacher, motivator, guide and critic. Over the years and unofficially, he also volunteered advice when I called as an administrator. He, the same calm voice of best behaviour. And, yes, he remembered everything -- from 1965 to l995 and on -- as though it all happened yesterday.

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