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Report on Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions

Events last month in Tucson highlight the rancorous quality of current political debate and the corresponding need to strengthen the policies and procedures safeguarding academic inquiry and instruction from political intrusion.  Of course, the problem is not new.  Politically controversial faculty dismissals spurred the founders of the AAUP in 1915 to protect academic freedom.  Moreover, politically controversial academic personnel decisions have periodically recurred despite substantial improvements in academic personnel policies promoted by AAUP and adopted by most colleges and universities.

Our current concern stems from a wave of contentious cases that have resulted from controversies surrounding the war on terror, the conflict in the Middle East, religious disputes, and the resurgence of the culture wars in such scientific fields as health and the environment.  The threat to academic freedom posed by these cases is intensified by the gradual erosion of the tenure system due to the substantial increase in the proportion of academics with contingent appointments who are subject to non-reappointment or dismissal without the procedural protections that benefit their tenured and tenure-track colleagues.

The AAUP has issued for comment a new report that discusses the history and character of such politically controversial academic personnel decisions, identifies weaknesses in the principles and decision-making procedures that currently safeguard academic freedom, and recommends enhanced protections in the conduct of these cases. The fundamental principle is that all academic personnel decisions, including new appointments and renewal of appointments, should rest on factors that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic’s professional responsibilities. Political restrictions on academic expression must not be countenanced – even when many faculty members support or acquiesce in them. 

The report’s recommendations include:

  • It is imperative in a politically controversial proceeding to tailor questions narrowly to permissible issues of academic fitness, and to avoid any inquiry into political affiliations and beliefs.
  • Collegiality is not an appropriate independent criterion for evaluation. The academic imperative is to protect free expression, not collegiality.
  • Institutions should not discipline a faculty member for extramural speech unless that speech implicates professional fitness.
  • Complaints regarding alleged classroom statements forwarded by outside agencies or individuals should be generally ruled out of consideration in initiating or conducting personnel reviews.
  • When complaints regarding alleged classroom speech arise from or are promoted by student political groups, the complaints should be respected only to the extent merited by the complaints and only when they are based on evidence from students who were actually enrolled in the course or courses in which the alleged inappropriate conduct occurred and were present to observe that conduct. 
  • In the event that an academic hearing committee is convened, it should be elected or appointed by the faculty.
  • In dismissal cases, it is essential that the hearing committee provide a written reasoned opinion, consistent with the evidence and with sound academic principles
  • The governing board would be well advised to follow the advice of the faculty committee, particularly in politically controversial cases in which academic freedom is at stake.
  • If the board does reach a determination contrary to the recommendations of a committee, or increases the severity of sanctions, the board must provide written, detailed, and compelling reasons.

Read the whole report (pdf). Read the executive summary. The report was written by a subcommittee of the Association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and was approved by the committee for publication for comment. Comments are welcome and should be sent to Anita Levy (alevy@aaup.org) by April 1.

-- Ernst Benjamin, Chair, Committee A Subcommittee on Academic Freedom and Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions