The AAUP Condemns Escalating Assault on Academic Freedom at Penn

Statement from AAUP president Irene Mulvey:

The AAUP condemns the escalating assault on academic freedom at the University of Pennsylvania and across the United States. Academic freedom and the autonomy of colleges and universities are being undermined by an opportunistic governmental interest in “antidiscrimination” and “campus safety” deployed to restrict what can be said or expressed on campuses.

Attacks are escalating nowhere more clearly than at Penn. Going beyond pressuring university administrators, Marc Rowan, a deep-pocketed donor who co-leads the board of advisers of Penn’s Wharton business school but has no particular expertise in either academic matters or higher education administration, posed to Penn’s board of trustees questions that indicate a remarkable lack of understanding of academic freedom and shared governance and that threaten to destroy the excellent reputation of the institution. This is of a piece with hostile takeovers of public universities in Florida and other red states. Academic freedom and shared governance are bedrock principles on which the globally preeminent system of higher education in the United States was built. As the Penn AAUP chapter makes clear, these principles ensure that professionally qualified subject matter experts, not donors or politicians, make decisions about curriculum and scholarship. They ensure that the hiring, promotion, and discipline of faculty members are based only on their fitness to do the work of research and teaching, and that fitness is determined by members of the academic profession. These norms ensure that higher education serves its fundamental purpose: to foster free and open inquiry that can produce knowledge for the public good in a democratic society.

The AAUP once again “rejects the characterization of pro-Palestinian speech or critiques of the Israeli state as invariably antisemitic” and reiterates the connection between the suppression of speech and violations of academic freedom that we are seeing in connection with the Israel-Hamas war with legislative attempts to dictate or outright censor teaching about the perpetuation of racism and other accounts of state-enabled violence in the United States (AAUP, “Polarizing Times Demand Robust Academic Freedom”). Today’s actions are of a piece with prior partisan political campaigns “to restrict the public education curriculum and to portray some forms of public education as a social harm” and are unacceptable (AAUP, Legislative Threats to Academic Freedom: Redefinitions of Antisemitism and Racism). Especially during times of intense pressure from donors, alumni, parents, trustees, legislators, or any other external actors to limit academic freedom and otherwise impose restrictions on speech, campus events, or associational rights of faculty and students, college and university administrations must stand unequivocally in support of the core educational mission guaranteeing robust academic freedom for faculty and guaranteeing our students’ right to hear and right to learn.

The AAUP has been clear: “institutional authorities must refrain from sanctioning faculty members for expressing politically controversial views and should instead defend their right, under principles of academic freedom, to do so” (AAUP, “Academic Freedom in Times of War”). Yet, in the name of combating campus antisemitism and often under pressure from legislators and others, administrations have canceled events, withdrawn funding for events, unilaterally drafted restrictive policies for outside speakers, shut down student organizations, and disciplined faculty and students for exercising their rights of speech and expression. Examples abound, in particular, at Penn, Rutgers, NYU, Cornell, and Columbia. Administrative actions have created a national “climate of chilled speech and censorship that violates core principles of academic freedom” (AAUP, “Censorship Will Not Defeat Antisemitism”). 

In the last year or two, state-level interference in higher education has concentrated on public universities. Recent events show that private universities are not immune to undue interference from legislators. Any attempts by external actors to dictate curriculum, to assert what constitutes permissible subjects of research and teaching, or to undermine the faculty’s central role in hiring and promotion have no place in a democracy where higher education must serve only the public good. 

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, December 19, 2023