AAUP President Takes a Current Look at Academic Freedom

Article excerpt

Since its beginning, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has championed the theory that the three-legged stool - tenure, academic freedom and shared governance - supports America's system of higher education. In fact, the organization was founded when philosophers Arthur O. Lovejoy and John Dewey took exception to Stanford University's firing of noted economist Edward Ross because Mrs. Leland Stanford didn't like his views on immigrant labor and railroad monopolies.

Nearly 100 years after Lovejoy and Dewey convened the first meeting out of which the organization grew, the American Association of University Professors is still fighting for academic freedom, and Gary Nelson, Ph.D., AAUP's president, is the organization's most vocal spokesperson.

In his latest book, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, just released in paperback by the New York University Press, he discusses assaults on academic freedom, contingency, unionization, and reflects upon his AAUP presidency.

In the book, Nelson discusses several threats to academic freedom. Chief among those threats is what he calls "Instrumentalization," or the notion that higher education is first and foremost job training. He says that even in the months since his book has been published it has become clearer that a current idea is that what all students need from college is job training - not intellectual inspiration, training in critical thinking, experience in active citizenship and the freedom to discover who they are and what their best life's work might actually be. And this idea is gaining force.

"Republican and Democratic politicians alike seem to agree that job training is all that matters. Such beliefs are a threat to academic freedom and the opportunity it gives to help students lead more fulfilling lives," says Nelson.

Administrators at most universities falsely claim, Nelson argues, that their institutions are in financial crisis. These claims are increasing and are threatening the existence of many humanities and social science departments and, as a result, the careers of many faculty members. "Academic freedom doesn't mean much to a French professor if the French department is closed. We need to refocus and make certain that the money colleges have is spent on teaching and research, not more administration," he says.

Nelson writes that the disciplines that can generate outside resources are more secure in the corporate environment of today's higher education institutions. But the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to financial cuts. He argues that the general public understands science and engineering breakthroughs, and it recognizes that if academics are to make breakthroughs in these disciplines, researchers must pursue controversial ideas without fear of reprisal. In the public's view, advances in medicine, chemistry and engineering require academic freedom. But, he argues, the same is true of the humanities and social science fields, both of which are much less well understood by the American public.

"Academic freedom protects the cutting-edge research that keeps fields like English and history alive and vital. Academic freedom protects research that corrects errors and incorporates new knowledge. That research filters down to the faculty members and students who do not do research. The academic freedom that protects research and free expression has made our college and university system the best in the world," says Nelson.

America's colleges and universities must prepare for the next generation of students, many of whom will be first-generation college attendees or students from immigrant families. To meet the needs of these students, Nelson says, institutions will need to offer more advising, more courses designed for student needs and more full-time teachers who can provide students with the attention they need.

Universities and colleges might indeed need to hire more teachers to keep up with growth in admissions and to meet the needs of the next generation. …