The Academic Establishment and Democratic Accountability

During this month of global democratic rebellion, one major establishment organization has boldly staked out a position against democratic accountability, political transparency, and public participation. On February 18, the American Association of University Professors issued for comment a 73-page report,“Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions,”. This new draft report, whose recommendations AAUP President Cary Nelson has urged university officials to adopt immediately, essentially demands that the public butt out of the management of colleges and universities, particularly with respect to the hiring, tenure and firing of controversial professors. Although the report is not limited to decisions involving the Middle East, it is clearly intended to reduce whatever influence Israel’s supporters may have in university processes.

The AAUP report is especially concerned to rebuff efforts by legislators, outside groups, student groups, and even scholars from other universities to influence the hiring, tenure, and firing of professors who maintain politically controversial positions regarding Israel, i.e., anti-Israel professors. The stated reason for the policy is a supposed “disturbing increase” in efforts by outside groups to interfere with politically controversial academic personnel decisions “arising out of the war on terror, the conflict in the Middle East, and a resurgence of the culture wars in such scientific fields as health and the environment.” Specifically, the report finds especially “disturbing” what it calls “the attacks on scholars of the Middle East by students and outside groups who dislike their views on Israel and Palestine and seek to deny them tenure or impose other sanctions.” These cases invariably involve anti-Israel academics who are controversial with public interest groups, legislators and students who challenge the one-sidedly anti-Israel training that is given in many programs of Middle East studies. The report bemoans that the “attacks have become more prevalent in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, as has the failure of many administrators and faculty members to offer adequate resistance.”

The AAUP’s call for merit-based (as opposed to politically motivated) academic personnel decision-making may be entirely welcome, as is its concession that anti-conservative bias is as unacceptable as anti-liberal bias. More questionable, however, is the AAUP’s aversion to public transparency with respect to public, taxpayer-supported post-secondary educational institutions. This aversion is troublesome for several reasons: as an affront to democratic principles, as a barrier to accountability, and as a symptom of substantive political bias. The bias problem is particularly problematic, despite the report’s effort to appear even-handed, in light of the political context in which it is released. Given the well-documented liberal (and arguably anti-Israel) bias of many academic institutions, several external monitoring groups have emerged to try to even the playing field. These external groups have themselves become the subject of controversy, and their perceived excesses have largely motivated this report. The problem is that the AAUP’s new report addresses only the perceived excesses of the external watchdog groups, while virtually ignoring the internal problems which led to their creation. To put it more bluntly, external pro-Israel groups have emerged to battle internal anti-Israel biases within the university. By lashing out at the external groups, while giving the internal constituents something approaching a free pass, the AAUP report would function as a device to reduce the influence of Israel-supporters.

The AAUP’s aversion to external meddling extends even to input from an institution’s own students as well as faculty from other institutions. For example, the report insists that colleges entirely ignore complaints regarding alleged classroom speech filed by student political groups unless “they are based on evidence from students who were actually enrolled in the course or courses in which the alleged inappropriate conduct occurred and who were present to observe that conduct.” This is especially disturbing in light of numerous reports of students who are forced to drop inflammatory courses due to professorial bias. If the AAUP’s recommendations are adopted, universities will be required to ignore all first-hand accounts of professorial misconduct by students who are present to witness the misconduct if those students are not enrolled in the course. Since students who remain enrolled in such courses are vulnerable to professorial retaliation, this measure would effectively squelch what little opportunity exists for protection of students’ rights against misconduct and bias. This proposal can have no justification other than to insulate professorial misconduct from review.

Similarly, the report disturbingly attempts to marginalize efforts by academics themselves to ensure accountability within their profession. For example, the AAUP report warns that “[u]nsolicited accusations, even from academics at other institutions, should be viewed with heightened skepticism in politically controversial cases.” While skepticism is always appropriate when it comes to academic decision-making in politically controversial cases, institutions do themselves no favors when they ignore or belittle the warnings that are issued by other academics. Yet the AAUP report insists, senselessly, that “procedures should ensure that such accusations never in themselves provide an acceptable basis for initiating a disciplinary proceeding, and they should generally not be considered in evidence in any personnel proceeding” (emphases added). It is important to emphasize that the AAUP is not merely suggesting that warnings from scholars at other institutions should be insufficient as a basis for taking adverse action in a politically controversial case, which would be a reasonable recommendation. Rather, it is insisting that universities should never even consider such warnings and should never even investigate to determine whether they are meritorious.

As the spirit of political freedom circles the globe, this is not an opportune time for the AAUP to insist that the university’s elite faculty governance be freed from the strictures of accountability, transparency, public reporting, and democratic participation. The AAUP is right to insist that scholarly merit, rather than political correctness, be the basis for academic personnel decisions. It is wrong, however, to twist that important principle in ways that undermine democratic principles, frustrate accountability efforts, and evince substantive political bias. At a minimum, the AAUP’s credibility requires it to address more forcefully the problem of internal professorial bias and to preserve accountability mechanisms that can provide at least a modicum of protection for students’ rights.