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Press Releases | Intellectual Diversity

Professors Abuse Academic Freedom

ACTA Challenges AAUP to Uphold Professional Standards
December 18, 2006

WASHINGTON, DC—In a new essay, American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) president Anne D. Neal criticizes the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for failing to uphold academic standards. The AAUP is a mouthpiece for professors across the country.

“If we are to have a meaningful dialogue about academic freedom today—and if we are to protect academic freedom for the future,” Neal argues, “we must first recognize that the AAUP should be regarded neither as the main arbiter of academic freedom nor as its most trustworthy protector.”

In her article, Neal argues that “following the AAUP’s lead, numerous academics are abusing the concept of academic freedom, interpreting it to make it mean whatever they want it to mean.” Recent examples include:

  • University of Wisconsin lecturer Kevin Barrett, who has invoked academic freedom to teach bizarre conspiracy theories about 9/11 in a course about Islam;
  • Faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who have attempted to use academic freedom as a reason to avoid assigning graded work prior to the midpoint of the semester;
  • AAUP general secretary Roger Bowen’s own statement that because of academic freedom, campuses should have a right to deny students equal access to military recruiters until“such time as the U.S. military changes its…policies to accord with the more enlightened of the academy”;
  • The University of California, which has eliminated from its academic freedom statement a prohibition against using the classroom as a “platform for propaganda” on the grounds that there is no longer a difference between the “interested” and “disinterested” scholarship; and
  • The recent statements of Bowen and AAUP president Cary Nelson that the AAUP’s founding document, the 1915 “Declaration of Principles,” is outdated. The Declaration states that “The university teacher…should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine…and should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves.”

Neal’s essay, “Freedom from Accountability?,” was published in the fall issue of the academic journal The Montana Professor. It expands upon an address she made last March at the Burton K. Wheeler Center at Montana State University, where a conference was held on academic freedom in the twenty-first century.

The editors of The Montana Professor asked participants at the conference and other education leaders to address the topic of academic responsibility. The new edition includes articles by Neal, the late Kermit Hall (formerly president of the State University of New York at Albany), and the AAUP’s Bowen, among others.

Neal calls for accountability on the part of the AAUP and the academics it supports. “We must recognize that the debate surrounding academic freedom is riddled with confusion on the part of academics and non-academics alike, and that some of the foremost self-styled defenders of academic freedom are defending it in bad faith,” she writes.

She continues: 

“And we must also recognize that under such circumstances, outside input is an essential and salutary thing. When universities fail to abide by professional standards; when faculty members put personal, social, and political agendas ahead of a fundamental commitment to truth; when even the AAUP loses touch with its guiding principles, outside input becomes a necessary means of reminding colleges and universities of their professional obligations and of protecting the academic freedom that allows them to govern themselves as they see fit.”

As a follow-up, the University of Montana will sponsor an informal debate between Neal and Bowen on February 14 in Missoula.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a bipartisan, national nonprofit dedicated to academic freedom, academic quality, and accountability in higher education. ACTA has a network of trustees and alumni across the country and has issued numerous reports including How Many Ward Churchills?, Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action, The Hollow Core, and Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century.

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