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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Partying like it’s 1915

Well, the San Diego gig was pretty fun and anticlimactic all at the same time.  Anne Neal is quite savvy about these things, as I expected she would be, and opened by disavowing the rock-em-sock-em-robots model of debate—after I had gone first and criticized ACTA for publishing pamphlets like this one, which go after what I politely called “a low-information conservative constituency, that is, people who can be counted on to be outraged that there are literature courses that deal with ‘masculinities’ and anthropology courses that deal with ‘the historical foundations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism.’” This was clever in at least two ways: it effectively announced that Ms. Neal was going to do the Daniel-among-the-lions thing not in the Horowitzian manner of claiming to be the lonely exponent of intellectual diversity in a sea of academic groupthink, but in a post-partisan, “let’s avoid predictable debates and look for solutions” mode; and it therefore forced me to take the tack Obama took in his first debate with McCain, that is, to mark my points of disagreement by saying stuff like “Ms. Neal is right about X; but there’s another point to be made here as well. . . .” Not that I did this with anything like Obama’s poise.  If I could, after all, I would be vice-president-elect right now.

For debate prep, I read this talk, which Ms. Neal had kindly sent me two years ago.  It didn’t come up during our presentations, so on the way out, I took the opportunity to thank her for sending it to me, and asked if I could clear up two little things concerning her remarks about the AAUP.  The first is her remark that the AAUP’s 1915 Statement of Principles “no longer appears on the AAUP website.” She makes the point a bit more polemically here, where she says, “Students’ academic freedom to learn was foundational to the AAUP’s conception of the rights and responsibilities of faculty.  But—tellingly—the 1915 statement no longer appears on the AAUP website.” The clear implication is that we have scrubbed the record. But the fact of the matter, I told Ms. Neal, is that Johns Hopkins UP, the publisher of the AAUP “Redbook” (officially, AAUP Policy Documents and Reports, now in its tenth edition), permits the AAUP to put no more than 30 percent of the book online.  The 1915 statement is still in the print edition, on pages 291-301.

And what’s so important about the 1915 statement?  The passage at issue is this:

The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.

It appears to be an article of faith on the right that, as Peter Wood’s rather overheated essay puts it, “the AAUP has long since attempted to distance itself from the 1915 statement” and “when the AAUP speaks on academic freedom today, it is in the awkward spot of invoking the authority of documents and traditions that it has, in substance, repudiated”—all because the 1940 statement and the 1970 interpretive comments don’t reproduce the same language about setting forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators.  This despite the fact that the 1940 statement clearly says that teachers “should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject,” and the 1970 comment explains that

The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is “controversial.” Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster.  The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.

This isn’t good enough for critics like Wood and Neal, who believe that something important is lost without that “divergent opinions” clause.

Now, you could make a case that the AAUP should go back to insisting that every college professor handle controversial material by setting forth justly without suppression or innuendo the divergent opinions of other investigators—even if you suspect that this gives the right a handy device for declaring climate change to be “controversial” and insisting that the divergent opinions of denialists and cranks be included in college classrooms.  But it’s just a wee bit wingnutty for people like Wood to suggest that the AAUP has distanced itself, or repudiated, the idea of students’ freedom to learn—when in fact the 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students is much more detailed and robust than the 1915 statement of principles.

Interestingly enough, because I was attending an AAUP meeting before my rendezvous with Anne Neal, I had a chance to ask some of my colleagues about this.  One suggested that the concept of student freedom has evolved over the past hundred years or so partly because the rest of the world has changed somewhat in the interim: in 1915, you couldn’t expect that students had access to “divergent opinions” on controversial matters, especially if they were arriving on campus from the sticks.  In 2008, however, when opinions on every controversial matter are available in an Intertube near you, it seems a bit infantilizing—of students and faculty alike—to specify that (and even how) divergent opinions should be presented in the classroom.  (Indeed, the 1915 statement repeatedly infantilizes students, particularly in the passage about “immature” students whose “character is not yet fully formed” and who must be introduced to scientific truth “with discretion” and “with some consideration for the student’s preconceptions and traditions.” Because, you know, it can be somewhat of a shock to show up to class only to find out you’re descended from monkeys.) Rather, it makes more sense to defend students’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom from capricious evaluation, as the 1967 statement does:

1. Protection of Freedom of Expression.

Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion, but they are responsible for learning the content of any course of study for which they are enrolled.

2. Protection against Improper Academic Evaluation.

Students should have protection through orderly procedures against prejudiced or capricious academic evaluation.  At the same time, they are responsible for maintaining standards of academic performance established for each course in which they are enrolled.

Reasonable people can disagree about this, of course.  But no, the AAUP hasn’t retreated from the idea that students should have the freedom to learn.  On the contrary, we’ve tried to spell out their rights more carefully, and we don’t go by everything in the 1915 statement because, uh, it isn’t 1915 anymore.

The other issue I wanted to take up with Ms. Neal concerned her critique of the AAUP’s amicus brief in FAIR v. Rumsfeld, a case involving the Solomon Amendment.  (Dahlia Lithwick covered the proceedings in Slate.) Ms. Neal wrote:

The academy’s original concept of academic freedom—which centered on the intellectual purity of both professors’ research and students’ academic experience—is out of favor with contemporary educators.  The principle of the disinterested search for the truth has been supplanted by a conception that frequently views professors more as political actors than as teachers.

This perspective was vividly on display last fall when various elite college faculties, as well as the AAUP, submitted briefs opposing the Solomon amendment. These briefs consistently and reflexively invoked academic freedom and faculty autonomy as a foundation, not for the objective search for the truth, but as a foundation for espousing a particular political viewpoint.

Um, well, actually, academic freedom and faculty autonomy are kinda meaningless if they don’t cover professors who espouse a particular political viewpoint.  But sure, you can say it’s a bit of a stretch for the AAUP to file an amicus brief in which academic freedom covers universities that adopt anti-discrimination policies and bar recruiters from employers who won’t hire gays and lesbians.  Some people I’ve spoken to don’t think that academic freedom should apply to entire institutions in this way.  And certainly, the argument got smacked down by the Supremes.  But, as I said to Ms. Neal, there’s another (secondary but important) issue here too: the reach of the Solomon Amendment has been expanded considerably, and the AAUP is perfectly right to object to this.  As the amicus brief argues:

The government is likewise incorrect that the Solomon Amendment merely earmarks federal funds for particular purposes. To the contrary, as currently applied, it penalizes the entire university if any “subelement” deviates from the government’s demands—without regard to whether the subelement itself receives federal funding. The government thus uses funding leverage to coerce universities to abandon protected speech in areas wholly unrelated to its exercise of its spending power.

This feature of the Solomon Amendment ignores the wellsettled law of unconstitutional conditions. Under this Court’s precedents, a funding condition violates the First Amendment when aimed at expression wholly unrelated to the purposes for which funding is given. Government may not place a speech-restrictive “condition on the recipient of a subsidy rather than on a particular program or service, thus effectively prohibiting the recipient from engaging in the protected conduct outside the scope of the federally funded program.” Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 197 (1991) (emphasis in original). That, of course, is precisely what the Solomon Amendment does.

Like the “equal-access” provision, this “subelement” rule is the product of changes to the original Solomon Amendment to make its consequences for universities ever more draconian. As originally applied, the Solomon Amendment limited any loss of funding to Defense Department funds, and to the particular “subelement” of the university found not in compliance. Thus, if a law school denied access to military recruiters, then only the law school, not the entire university, would lose funding. The Solomon Amendment has since been extended to cover funds from the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Homeland Security, and to provide that a violation by any part of the university triggers a loss of federal funding for the university as a whole.

Like the “equal-access” provision, the “subelement” rule’s indiscriminate reach into every laboratory, library and lecture hall across campus is unnecessary to serve the government’s purposes. The government provides no funds for career services activities, and military recruiting at law schools is unrelated to the reasons the National Institutes of Health provide scientists funding for infectious disease research or the Education Department provides teachers in training subsidies for bilingual education.

Ms. Neal replied, if I recall correctly, that she understood that the AAUP files any number of amicus briefs that touch on civil-liberty issues, and that the real target here was the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule.  Both of which are quite true.

Indeed, the Solomon Amendment has been an important piece of American wingnuttery for quite some time.  It manages to combine three key elements of right-wing culturewarriordom: homophobia, of course, but also the determination to support the troops against the dirty hippie students and their patchouli-smelly professors and, perhaps most important, the conviction that the highest goal of any new policy initiative is to piss off liberals.  As Rep. Richard Pombo (R.-CA) said when he co-sponsored the thing, the Solomon Amendment will “send a message over the wall of the academic ivory tower.” That message:  “Colleges and universities need to know that starry-eyed idealism comes with a price. If they are too good or too self-righteous to treat our Nation’s military with the respect it deserves, then they may also be too good to receive the current generous level of DOD dollars.” And as the AAUP brief correctly notes, that price has gotten progressively steeper with time.

But that was over a decade ago.  Nowadays, as Nate Silver points out,

Public sentiment on DADT has shifted dramatically since 1993.  A May, 1993 poll by ABC News and the Washington Post showed that 44 percent Americans favored allowing homosexuals (their wording) who have publicly disclosed their orientation to serve in the military, as compared with 55 percent opposed. An identical poll taken in July, however, shows 75 percent in favor versus just 22 percent opposed.

Likewise, 471 of the Fortune 500 companies now include sexual orientation in their employment nondiscrimination policies, and even Mormon owners of hotel chains want nothing to do with this Proposition 8 nonsense.

So my final words to Ms. Neal, before we parted ways, were something like this: you know, don’t ask, don’t tell, Solomon Amendment, Prop 8—someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.  Really.  You and I, we’ll still be debating about higher ed somewhere twenty years from now, and I’ll say, hey, remember the time when young gay and lesbian Americans would sign up to fight for their country, and the U.S. armed forces wouldn’t let ‘em?  And you’ll say hey yeah, remember when a bunch of linguists, including six who spoke Arabic, were dismissed from the military in the middle of a huge festering Middle East crisis because they were gay?  Weird, huh?  And I’ll say, you know, I tell my students this stuff, but they don’t believe me.  They say, “yeah, right, and next you’ll be telling us that we fought World War II with racially segregated troops.” And with that, we shook hands and wished each other safe travels.

I just hope I won’t have to bring too many divergent opinions on this into my classroom twenty years from now.  I suppose it’ll depend on how immature my students are.

Posted by Michael on 11/25 at 04:15 PM
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