If I were dismissed from my college faculty for writing for The Weekly Standard, the American Association of University Professors, founded in 1915, would be on my side. It wouldn’t matter that, as seems likely, many of its 45,000 members loathe TWS and all that it stands for. After all, the AAUP supported Mike Adams, a professor denied promotion at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, allegedly because of columns he had written for the conservative website Townhall. Presumably, few in the membership approved of columns such as “Liberal Lawyers and Litigious Lesbians,” but the AAUP has been good at distinguishing its commitment to academic freedom from the generally liberal political commitments of its members.
It may, therefore, seem churlish to complain that AAUP has my back for the wrong reasons. Yet Hans-Joerg Tiede’s meticulously researched and absorbing history of the founding and early years of the organization reveals, without intending to, a weakness in our understanding of academic freedom that continues even now to undercut its defenders. Tiede chairs the AAUP’s Committee on the History of the Association.
It is “something of a founding myth” that the AAUP was begun primarily to defend academic freedom. Tiede embeds the early AAUP in the politics of progressivism, a politics favored by a number of its founders, including its first president, John Dewey. Just as progressives like Herbert Croly, and Dewey himself, considered the ideas of the Founders unsuitable for modern industrial conditions, the founders of the AAUP thought that “the traditional mode of governance, in which a lay governing board appointed and empowered a president, was no longer adequate for the modern university.” To establish the claim that the American conception of academic freedom emerges out of this progressive context, Tiede draws on the writings of the Johns Hopkins philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy, arguably the most influential figure in the early history of the association. But he also does us a service by drawing our attention to James McKeen Cattell, then a renowned experimental psychologist, now neglected even in the history of academic freedom, although he was evidently the first to call for the establishment of the AAUP.
Cattell decried the university “president under the existing system” as “not a leader, but a boss” responsible to a board of trustees that is responsible to no one. He and Lovejoy, whom Cattell “directly influenced,” advocated “sweeping changes to the governance of colleges and universities,” the end of which was to establish (as Lovejoy put it) a “self-governing republic of scholars,” a “virtually autonomous body . . . with approximately complete control over all the activities of the institution.” Or as Cattell said, “the university should be a democracy of scholars serving the larger democracy of which it is part.”
This reference to the “larger democracy” is important because Cattell, at least, tied university reform to political and social reform. Tiede begins his book with a quotation in which Cattell drew a parallel between his hope for university reform and his notion that “the industrial trusts will in the end be directed by the world’s greatest democracy.” Cattell did not conceal his expectation that academic experts would, and should, come to constitute a “scientific or advisory department of the government [that would] rank co-ordinate with its executive, legislative, and judicial departments.” Although the AAUP was formed in large part to increase the influence of professors over higher education in a period of rapid expansion and new demands for national education standards, its disposition toward academic freedom was also shaped by the view that academic freedom is good because it enables academics to have political influence.