An Imperfect Defender of Academic Freedom

An Imperfect Defender of Academic Freedom

The high quality of scholarly activity — including scientific discovery in the United States — relies on the considerable academic freedom enjoyed here. Academic freedom allows scholars to follow their independent judgment on what research avenues to pursue, and to report results without undue concern about political consequences.
Academic freedom depends to a considerable extent on the practice of tenure. Tenure allows scholars to disagree with their peers and to follow unconventional research paths without putting their livelihoods in jeopardy.
The scholarly activity that has flourished in the United States is due in large part to the American Association of University Professors’ vigorous advocacy of academic freedom and tenure.
Unionization, Bureaucratization, and the AAUP: A Professional Professoriate thoroughly documents the inception and history of the association from 1914 to the late 1990s, with nearly 1,000 explanatory footnotes and about 1,000 references in its bibliography. A major and recurrent theme of the book is the inherent difficulties the association faced in trying to protect professionalism within the academic bureaucracy  — a difficulty that physicians are now facing, with much of physician decision-making being controlled by HMO bureaucracy.
This book points out that academic freedom and tenure recognize the professionalism of faculty members who are authorities in their areas of study.
But oh, the bureaucracy of a higher education institution. 
Faculty members are unlike other professionals such as lawyers and physicians, who can operate outside a bureaucratic structure. As stated by the author, Philo A. Hutcheson, the basic idea of professionalism is that professionals have autonomy, expertise and a lack of specified work rules. However, the administrative structure in which professors are embedded invites conflict, since the essence of bureaucratic administration is set up to control employee activity and such control conflicts with autonomy.
As chronicled in the book, the early approach of the association was to invite membership into the organization only upon proof of excellent, long-term scholarly credentials.
Prospective members had to apply, and only those with 10 years or more at an academic institution were accepted. This restriction on membership emphasized the prestige of the association.
Their prestigious image was repeatedly used to influence decisions made by  institutional bureaucracies, governing boards, legislators and courts. The association continued to depend on an image of prestige even when it expanded to include all tenure track,  non-tenure track, part-time and adjunct faculty who applied for membership.
This influence and prestige was significant in establishing and institutionalizing academic freedom, tenure and other important aspects of higher education, and thereby the vitality of scholarship in the United States.
A focus on the power of prestige caused much of the association’s energy to be used to establish faculty senates at institutions of higher education. In theory, the prestige of scholars on faculty senates would lend major weight to faculty members in institutional decision-making. However, as the book points out, in a 1969 survey carried out by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education and the American Council on Education, only 38.8 percent of professors at all institutions rated campus-senate effectiveness as excellent or good.
As documented in this book, for the first 50 years of its existence, when serious breaches of academic freedom or tenure were evident, the association relied almost entirely on reasoned negotiations with university or college administrators. However, confronted by an arbitrary, capricious or dictatorial administrator, reliance on reason and the power of prestige did little to help faculty members faced with illegitimate termination, suspension, punitive teaching assignments or other forms of harassment.
The weakness of the “reasonableness and good faith” approach as the sole method the association used was especially evident during the McCarthy era, when the association’s national office would not confront abusive use of charges of Communism to harass professors.
By the 1960s, many community colleges came on the scene. Faculty members at those community colleges did not, in general, have doctorates, and therefore commanded less prestige. In addition, increasing dissatisfaction among faculty members with protections from the association led other organizations to offer more aggressive approaches to addressing faculty concerns.
In the 1960s The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association both began to unionize higher education faculties, providing a concomitant right to strike as a method to gain job protection and to improve salaries and benefits. Some chapters themselves began to unionize. As a response to grass-roots pressure and to other organizations now competing for membership, the association slowly began to recognize that a union structure with the right to strike could be as  valuable a tool as negotiation.
As summarized in the book, in 1969 the association decided to pass up another tool for increasing the power of the professoriate. They looked into, but did not adopt, the power to accredit institutions of higher education.
The book also deals with other issues, including the increased percentage of higher education employees who are administrative and executive staff, as well as the greatly increased use of part-time faculty members —which gives greater control to administrators and reduces the power and autonomy of the professoriate.
This is a very valuable book for understanding both the historical pressures that shape higher education today and the sources of the association’s approaches to dealing with these pressures.                 



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