Blogs > Cliopatria > The AAUP's Conflicting Interests

Mar 1, 2005 4:26 am

The AAUP's Conflicting Interests

My colleague Ralph Luker asked me earlier today about the article on the HNN homepage by David Hollinger, the California head of the AAUP. The article strongly takes issue with what Hollinger terms “the alleged lack of balance in the academic profession, including the discipline of history.”

I should say, to begin with, that while FIRE has emerged as a more effective organization in recent years, I believe that the AAUP is usually on the right side of academic freedom battles, and am a big fan of its 1940 and especially 1915 declarations regarding academic freedom. That said, the Hollinger piece, which accurately reflects the AAUP viewpoint regarding intellectual diversity, suffers from two severe shortcomings, one structural, the other intellectual.

The first, and most serious, problem in the AAUP’s response to the intellectual diversity crisis has been the organization’s failure to acknowledge its own conflict of interest. The AAUP, quite appropriately, represents the interests of the current faculty, not the applicants to jobs. Yet it is prospective faculty—those professors in, say, political, diplomatic, legal, or military history not hired by a University of Michigan when the department decides to craft a line to bring in its 11th Americanist dealing with issues of race while it lacks even one US diplomatic historian—who are most often the victims of the effort to create an ideologically homogenous professoriate. And it is the current faculty—those deciding that their department can’t go without that 11th Americanist dealing with race when their department covers other types of US history sparsely or not at all—that are the victimizers. There’s nothing wrong with people like Hollinger, on behalf of the AAUP, defending the status quo. But to do so without admitting their conflict of interest is disingenuous.

This conflict of interest perhaps explains the almost laughably low bar that Hollinger sets when determining whether a department is intellectually diverse. In Hollinger’s formulation, or what might be called the Michigan Rule, “To be balanced is simply to do an academic project professionally. To be imbalanced is to leave out of account something that the academic norms of evidence and reasoning in the interest of truth require you to take into account.” Carried to its logical extreme, this approach would hold that a department with 20 Americanists is “balanced” even if all 20 were specialists in women’s history, provided that each was viewed as having done their “academic project professionally” (presumably by the department’s other 19 women’s historians). Hollinger might see nothing wrong with an academy staffed according to the Michigan Rule. I do.

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mark safranski - 3/3/2005

Why would being a woman or minority group member affect the quality of the applicant's scholarship in diplomatic history ?

Perhaps your university simply needs to look for diplomatic historians and let race and gender sort themselves out. I'm not sure if every university and Colege in America can, numerically speaking, have their very own female or African-American expert on the Open Door policy or Cordell Hull's reciprocity agreements.

That being said I'm sure if you broadened out the department by enough subjects you will find plenty of women and minority applicants doing good work.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/3/2005

Not so much material interest, but--a la the Michigan Rule--pedagogical interest. And the AAUP clearly has interpreted it as its interest to protect the ability of departments like Michigan's to hire free from any outside pressure. I'm not saying that it's inappropriate for them, as an organization that represents majority opinion among faculty, to take that position. But this strikes me as an issue in which the interests of the majority of the curent faculty and the academy as a whole do not coincide.

On Jon's point, if I had any reason to believe that grad student unions would push for intellectual diversity, perhaps I could see them as part of the solution to this problem, although I have real problems with grad student unions for other reasons. But, based on the agendas of the grad student unions with which I'm most familiar (Columbia, Yale, NYU), there's little reason to believe that they care about this issue.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/3/2005

Jim's point is interesting and disturbing: this is a crisis that has been developing for some time, and as top PhD programs have phased out political/diplo/legal/mil. history, the supply issue has emerged, unsurprisingly.

Jim Williams - 3/2/2005

As usual, KC, I appreciate your stance. However, at my urging since we lacked a U.S. political or diplomatic historian, my department did a search in precisely those areas and came up with very few applicants, only a couple of women, and no minorities. At the urging of our provost, we canceled the search (my college doesn't interpret affirmative action prescriptively, but the provost wants searches to have a fair percentage of female candidates and some minorities) and advertised again much more broadly. We would have looked favorably on a political historian, but none came to the top of our pool of applicants. We finally hired a recent U.S. historian specializing in the environment and technology. In other words, perhaps because the demand for political and diplomatic historians is so weak, the supply (at least of scholars willing to apply to a good state school with a heavy workload, no TAs, and a low salary scale) is small.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/2/2005

Even more to the point, I'm not sure I see what material interest current faculty members have in making their departments imbalanced. Are their jobs somehow more at risk if they introduce more balance as you define it? In order for there to be a "conflict of interest," it seems to me you would have to answer that question yes.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/1/2005

None of those groups represent future faculty either. How do their interests coincide with solving the problem as you've defined it?

Robert KC Johnson - 3/1/2005

On the FIRE/AAUP distinction, an example from my own case. (I contacted both, and both were sympathetic.) The AAUP, however, argued that it would not even become involved until after the college had denied me tenure. FIRE, informally, became involved at once, and did not seek publicity from its efforts. (Like the AAUP, FIRE becomes involved in any case only when it is contacted by a party.) The problem, of course: waiting until the denial became official before even beginning to investigate the case would have meant that I could have begun to fight back only months after the dismissal took place--effectively meaning I would have been out of a job for a year. I would have persisted, but I suspect many people in my situation, especially those with families, would have just moved on. So I think FIRE's willingness to work more quickly is an advantage.

I agree with you on this concern about not repeating the 1950s timidity. The problem, of course, is the situation we face now is quite different than the 1950s: for every occasional high-profile government interference (i.e, Newt Gingrich saying that tenure should be abolished, or Gov. Bil Owens calling for Ward Churchill's dismissal) we have dozens of cases of departments framing lines in more subtle fashions to ideologically tailor the results. The AAUP only seems interested in fighting the former problem, while outright defending the conduct of those who engage in the latter.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/1/2005

Not really: can't imagine how graduate student unions could address this issue (or any other, effectively, in my opinion).

This ties in, somewhat, to my post below: it seems to me that the only realistic solution to the problem is outside pressure, either from alumni, other faculty, trustees, or effective administrators.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/1/2005

I think you're confusing the AAUP membership with the AAUP mission. The AAUP's mission is to defend the broader principles of academe. When a chapter is a bargaining unit, further, it has a legal duty of fair representation that may be contrary to the interests of a majority of its members -- and yet it must fulfill that duty. The broader issue here is that the AAUP has a (moral) fiduciary responsibility to future academics and potential academics as well as current professors and AAUP members. In the same way that a realtor's fiduciary responsibility is to whoever asked the realtor to represent him or her -- NOT who is paying the commission!! -- the AAUP's moral fiduciary responsibility is not to whoever pays dues. Generally, those will coincide, but it doesn't always happen that way.

A case in point is the workings of Committee A (on academic freedom). While the membership of the AAUP has control over some key decisions (e.g., approving or disapproving censure motions at the AAUP annual meeting each June), you do regularly get the academic-freedom committee and staff being far more diffident (or active) than the attendees at the general meeting might prefer. I saw that at the one meeting I attended, and it was a fascinating dynamic. The staff has a very keen sense of the AAUP's history and are very sensitive to charges that it's acting like the 1950s AAUP (which was incredibly timid). But they also have a sense of the AAUP's long-term strengths and they act to avoid undermining the levers they think are most important to defend.

FIRE has a much shorter history, and I am very hesitant to trust the judgment I've read elsewhere (which is that they address situations that are publicity slam-dunks). That wasn't the case when they addressed the situation at USF. I suspect that the AAUP generally waits until someone contacts Committee A with a concern while FIRE is willing to wade in with public statements even when no party contacts them. But take that with a large grain of salt, obviously.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/1/2005

...a graduate student union? If my memory is correct, you're not in favor of those, either.

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/1/2005

When you talk about the imbalance in hiring practices in regards to too much race theory and too few people teaching other subjects, I think we have something we can agree on.

I just hope that you can find a way to seperate that from the really wrong-headed "network" like alliance with that documentary that FIRE did (Vietnam happened you morons! [not you, them]) and Horowitzian discourse.

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