Trustees | Intellectual Diversity

AAUP Goes to Bat for “Freedom in the Classroom”

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  September 12, 2007 by Robin Wilson

The American Association of University Professors released a statement on Tuesday in response to critics who say professors regularly interject ideologically tinged material into classroom discussions and fail to present views that conflict with their own.

The statement, “Freedom in the Classroom,” was written by a subcommittee of the association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and is billed as a tool to help professors decide what they can and cannot safely say in the classroom–particularly when it comes to hot-button cultural and political issues.

It reads, however, more like a defense of the professoriate in the face of heavy criticism from people like David Horowitz, a conservative activist who has urged state legislators to make faculties more ideologically diverse. The report acknowledges that some of the complaints alleging professors’ intolerance have come from students.

In a news release describing the statement, the AAUP asks, “Does a teacher of 19th-century American literature have the right to ask his or her students whether the character of the obsessed Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick could justifiably be compared with President George Bush?”

It notes that “many critics of higher education and opponents of academic freedom would answer with a resounding ‘No!'” But the statement, according to the release, “defends the right of college faculty to make comparisons, contrasts, and analogies across the whole range of subjects and historical periods–no matter what course they are teaching.”

The statement says professors have opinions, sometimes controversial ones, because they are experts in their fields. Offering those opinions, it says, is a professor’s job and doesn’t count as “indoctrination” as long as a professor is careful not to put forward an opinion as “dogmatic truth.”

The statement also takes up the complaint that faculty members’ classroom presentations are ideologically unbalanced. Maintaining neutrality, it says, is not only something that professors should not strive for, it can sometimes be ridiculous. For example, says the statement, neutrality “would require an instructor in a class on constitutional democracy to offer equal time to ‘competing’ visions of communist totalitarianism or Nazi fascism.”

Cary Nelson, the AAUP’s president, said in an interview that the new statement would allow professors to say to their critics, “You shouldn’t mess with me.” He said he hoped the statement would also “stiffen the spines” of university officials who might be inclined to establish “kangaroo courts” to investigate complaints about whether “a faculty member has the right to make a certain analogy or reference.”

Mr. Nelson said he felt compelled to issue the statement because “people are being more careful about making political statements in the classroom.” He added: “We need to take back the classroom and reestablish faculty rights to have the classroom be an intellectually challenging space.”

But Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a frequent critic of the AAUP, said the new statement is faulty precisely because of its “bald unwillingness to acknowledge academic responsibility as well as academic rights.”

The statement, she said, ignores recent cases in which students complain they were coerced by professors into accepting an ideological premise in order to do a class assignment. Those cases highlight, she said, “the academy’s frequent failure to regulate itself” by disciplining professors who go too far.


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