Home | IL Academe | About IL AAUP | Conference Corner | Calendar | Services | Committees | Contact Us | Grants | Reports | Links


Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure Report

By Peter N. Kirstein, chair of Illinois AAUP Committee A and history professor, St. Xavier University

Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure continues to battle for academic freedom, tenure, shared governance and non-tenured faculty. We received a complaint from a full-time non-tenure track instructor who claimed she was a victim of racial discrimination when an allegedly less qualified white full-time non-tenure track faculty member received a tenure track line. We advised the colleague to seek counsel, and to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Normally, AAUP does not have the expertise to determine if there were a violation of civil rights laws. While we remain engaged in the matter, the instructor thus far has not experienced job loss, sanctions or any pecuniary penalty as a result of the complaint. Usually, AAUP looks for sanctions or some employment degradation. However, discrimination in the area of employment is a persistent problem in the neo-liberal university, that is fueled with society’s growing hostility toward affirmative action as amplified from the judicial and legislative branches.

Another minority adjunct professor was the subject of a student complaint of ideological bias in the classroom. This is a frequent ruse for a student to purge a professor with whom a student disagrees. Students make take “reasoned exception” to material presented but should refrain from going after a person’s livelihood and avoid complaining to those with institutional power. One witnessed such behaviour with the vicious persecution of a teaching assistant at Marquette University, who was taped without her permission, and became an object of right-wing scorn and ridicule by a rogue, bully professor on campus. The adjunct, cited above, was able to thwart any sanctions by informing his or her institution of a prior Illinois Committee A ruling on a similar case at another university.

It is comforting to note that Illinois Committee A reports have become case law for instructors on other campuses to utilize as they battle for academic freedom and the right to be “sole judge” of how one presents material in the classroom. This is a warning to administrators. If a student comes to you and complains about a professor’s purported “bias” in the organisation and presentation of material, you should ask the student this question? “Have you addressed this pedagogical concern with your professor?” If there has not been an instructor-student conference, then the student should be asked to initiate such a meeting.

Administrators should only enter the fray after the professor and a student have failed to resolve the matter, and not before the student has subsequently spoken to a chair or division head. It is essential that administrators not intimidate tenured or non-tenured faculty by asking them if they are “balanced” or if they are teaching both sides of an argument. Many topics do not merit counter-argumentation such as child pornography, Jim Crow, slavery, colonial settler occupation, and sexual assault. Let the professor determine when “balance” is necessary. The instructor of record is in charge of the classroom, and not an administrator or department chair who seeks equipoise over critical thinking, stability over controversy, and the satisfaction of consumer (student) demand.

Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure is here to help. Yet we need help too. We need governors, governing boards, university presidents, provosts and others with institutional power to recognise that education does really matter. It is their primary responsibility to allow unfettered pursuit of the truth to dominate pedagogy. The AAUP cannot swim upstream very far. It can complain, write briefs, claim to be the common law of the academy, but since it is not a policing organisation, it has significant restraints on its power. It is a soft power that relies on the status of its documents that span a century.

The ultimate fate of the American university is in the hands of those on a campus: administration, faculty and staff. In the face of defunding and the withering away of the tenure system, we are left with mindless assessment, a demoralised professoriate, and a higher ed system that is preoccupied with survival. Yet the struggle continues for academic freedom and critical thinking: we owe it to our students to keep our eyes on the prize until the bitter end.