The Time Is Now to Resist Political Interference

A statement from AAUP president Irene Mulvey.

Although not unexpected, the continued actions by the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce represent an alarming escalation of attempts by partisan political actors to control what may be said, taught, or thought on our college and university campuses. As part of the “formal investigation” launched after its contentious December 5 hearings, the committee gave the University of Pennsylvania two weeks to respond to a remarkably wide-ranging demand for documents and information on reports of allegedly antisemitic incidents and the university’s response to such incidents. Harvard University responded to a similar request last month. Committee chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) deemed Harvard’s response “woefully inadequate,” and threatened the university with “compulsory measures.”

Let us be clear, the congressional committee’s overly broad demand for documents and data is not a neutral request for information. It is instead an effort to control, intimidate, and ultimately suppress certain speech and expression on our campuses. Although today’s inquisition targets groups and individuals that criticize the state of Israel or US policy toward Israel, it is actually an expansion of a broad effort to undermine the integrity and democratic mission of US higher education. As such, its repressive effects are not limited merely to those who espouse controversial views about the Middle East, but to all members of the academic community.  

Two years ago, before allegations of antisemitism surfaced as the latest campus crisis, the AAUP’s report Legislative Threats to Academic Freedom: Redefinitions of Antisemitism and Racism, stated that “[p]roponents of overly broad definitions of antisemitism and proponents of eliminating teaching about the history of racial and other violence share a desire to mobilize the government to enforce particular, emaciated accounts of history, harm, and injury.” It’s all too clear that today’s attention to antisemitism is being used to expand the decades-long, well-coordinated, and well-funded partisan political attempt to dictate what can be taught and researched in our nation’s institutions of higher education. That campaign seeks to justify and obscure other incursions against academic freedom and shared governance—from the dismissal of untenured and tenured faculty without due process to the wholesale elimination of academic departments and disciplines in the name of austerity.

The AAUP calls on administrators, faculties, trustees, and all who care about higher education as a public good in a democracy to resist political interference. The time is now to recommit to academic freedom and open inquiry, to foster an environment in which deeply held beliefs must stand up to academic challenges and in which historical context is investigated in all its complexity. 

Faculty members must protect academic freedom by engaging in collective action: monitor conditions on campus, speak up, and offer assistance when colleagues, students, or student organizations are unfairly maligned, sanctioned, or shuttered. Faculty must refuse to draft new and unnecessary policies that restrict expression or peaceful protest and refuse to accept repressive measures.

The AAUP also calls on administrators—especially those feeling pressured to prove they are fighting antisemitism—to explain that censorship is never the answer to accusations of bigotry and hate. Administrators must reiterate their commitments to academic freedom, freedom of expression, shared governance, and institutional autonomy. In a volatile political climate where differences in political viewpoints slide too quickly into accusations of “hate,” free inquiry, debate, and discussion must not be sacrificed in the name of fighting a weaponized concept of discrimination that does little to advance campus equity but instead subjects our colleges and universities to unwarranted interference and control.

Publication Date: 
Thursday, February 8, 2024