Friday, June 17, 2005

When even your friends desert you 

Robert KC Johnson writes about the role of the AAUP in protecting academic freedom. The news isn't good.

Responding to real and imagined threats to academic freedom played a role in several contested races this past spring for the AAUP�s governing council. Defining the concept as chiefly a tool for protecting the professoriate�s dominant ideological faction, a successful slate of candidates headed by Yeshiva�s Ellen Schrecker ran on a platform of resisting outside scrutiny of the academy and limiting publicly available information about academic matters. Schrecker, whose scholarly works have focused on McCarthyism, is particularly quick to play the �McCarthyism� card when attacking critics of the academic majority; she has even written about Internet-related �virtual McCarthyism.� The Schrecker viewpoint accurately reflects the approach of Joan Wallach Scott the current head of the AAUP�s �Committee A� (which handles academic freedom and tenure issues). Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a figure more representative of the contemporary academic mainstream than Scott, a highly regarded specialist in women�s history and gender theory.

As yesterday�s Inside Higher Ed reports, Scott, Schrecker, and the AAUP are now targeting CUNY, expressing �grave concern� about the state of academic freedom in the City University system. CUNY�s offenses against academic freedom? The non-reappointment of two adjuncts (Susan Rosenberg and Mohamed Yousry) convicted of terrorist acts; and what Scott termed CUNY�s unwillingness to resist �outside pressures� in the recent withdrawal by Brooklyn professor Timothy Shortell of his bid to be Sociology chairman.

According to an AAUP press release on the issue, these three events suggest a �pattern of failure to safeguard the university from political interference in matters of academic appointments.� As I�ve noted previously, adjuncts have no right of reappointment under the current CUNY contract. (The AAUP has vehemently opposed such provisions, not just at CUNY but nationally.) Surely, however, the AAUP cannot seriously contend that being indicted for or accused of a criminal act�even if that act was associated with political causes that enjoy disproportionate support in the academy�should confer upon an adjunct an �academic freedom� right to reappointment that adjuncts with clean criminal records do not possess.

In a reply to a commenter later on, Johnson notes that the problem isn't fixed by having faculty take control of their local AAUP chapters.
It seems to me that the AAUP's Committee A is increasingly morphing into a body that views part of its mission as protecting the ideological status quo among the professoriate. Since it is dissenters whose academic freedom is most likely to be abridged, running for office within either the AAUP or PSC is not a terribly satisfactory solution--the reason dissenters are dissenters is that they represent the ideological minority.

It's a bloody shame what has happened to Committee A, which developed principles of academic freedom that most of us, of all political stripes, continue to believe in, has stopped thinking about what the professional standards of faculty should be.