Americans’ Views of Political Bias in the Academy and Academic Freedom

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Read our press release. Comments on Gross and Simmons

For the AAUP Annual Meeting Panel “The Faculty, the Press and the Public”

By John W. Curtis, AAUP Director of Research. June 9, 2006.

I’d like to highlight three of the findings in this paper and suggest some implications for the AAUP and our work. I hope that these comments will, in turn, stimulate further discussion. The three findings I’ll discuss are the relatively weak support for academic freedom among the general public, the related issue of explaining tenure as a means to protect academic freedom, and finally the differing perspectives on the primary purpose of higher education.

I’ll preface my remarks by saying that I am not a fan of public opinion polling, and I do not feel that the AAUP should change its priorities based on such polling. (I should also point out that the authors do include a caveat about interpreting the results in a footnote that is well worth reading. [fn 6, p. 3]) At the same time, I do think that we need to understand how the issues on which we work are perceived by a broader audience, and we do need to think about how we can most effectively communicate our fundamental principles to that general public audience.

Soft support for academic freedom

There is both good and bad news in this paper regarding support for academic freedom among the general public. On the one hand, Gross and Simmons find that 79 percent of Americans are opposed to “government control” of what is taught in college classrooms, and about the same proportion agree that academic excellence is best maintained by keeping politicians from interfering with university research (p. 14). These numbers indicate strong support for the general principle of higher education as an autonomous institution in American society, and I think that autonomy is something we should emphasize in communicating the importance of the work we do to protect academic freedom.

The survey results also indicate that a majority of Americans (62 percent) support the right of faculty members to express antiwar sentiments in their classrooms, specifically with reference to Iraq. But I have to wonder how strong this apparent support for academic freedom really is, when I look at two other findings from the survey. I’ll quote these items verbatim, because the wording itself is part of what contributes to my unease:

  • Fifty-five percent of the general public agrees with the statement “There’s no room in the university for professors who defend the actions of Islamic militants.” Now, I think that our first reaction to such a finding, as academics, might be to try and parse the nuances of this statement. “There’s no room” seems pretty clear to me: it means people should be fired (or not hired in the first place) for advocating such a position. But what exactly is the problematic behavior here? “Defending the actions of Islamic militants.” What could be included under that heading? Would simply exploring the justifications advanced by certain groups constitute “defending” those groups or their actions? And who exactly are “Islamic militants?” Given the general lack of knowledge in our country about Islam, about nations and groups in the Middle East and elsewhere, and given the very vague definitions of “terrorism” employed by elected officials in their public pronouncements, I would think that defining exactly who qualifies as an “Islamic militant” would be very problematic.
    One could argue that this is really a shortcoming of the survey instrument, or of public opinion polling itself. I agree that the answers we can expect from this type of survey are not going to be as nuanced as we would like them to be. However, at the same time I think we need to give this particular response some credence, as a reflection of the weak support for academic freedom among the general public at the point when it matters most: when we’re talking about an opinion with which we strongly disagree. (I’m hesitant to make a reference to the case of Ward Churchill here, because of all the baggage his particular case carries with it; yet I think that is, in fact, an excellent example of precisely this phenomenon.)
  • The second finding from the survey that troubles me is the response to the statement “Public universities should be able to dismiss professors who join radical political organizations like the communist party.” According to this paper, 62 percent of Americans agree with this statement (p. 14). Now I have to say that, when I was first reviewing the questionnaire items for this survey in draft form, I argued that this item should be removed because it seemed so completely anachronistic to me. “Radical organizations like the communist party?” Who worries about that anymore? The Red Scare is relegated to the dustbin of history and everyone knows that President Reagan vanquished communism decades ago.

    (As a frivolous aside, I note that “communist party” is written in the questionnaire using lower case letters. Of course, this was a telephone survey, so I suppose that doesn’t matter.)

    But I was surprised at this result from the survey, and I think we need to give it some heed. The statement in the questionnaire is quite specific, that universities should be able to dismiss professors for joining the Communist Party. Even if the reference seems peculiar, I think the ease with which it apparently evoked general agreement is something we should worry about, and I’ll be interested in hearing what other panelists think about that.

In general, then, I think that the results of this survey are not very comforting when it comes to general public support for academic freedom. Gross and Simmons refer to a “no funny business” cluster comprising 70 percent of the survey respondents holding these ambivalent views. While the concept of academic freedom seems to be one that people can embrace, when it comes to specific controversies I think we have our work cut out for us in defending the right of academics to examine—let alone advocate—unpopular points of view.

Tenure as protection for academic freedom

It might be argued that the concept of “academic freedom” is too abstract for us to expect to learn anything much from responses to a general public opinion poll. (I should note here that the phrase “academic freedom” is never even used in the survey questionnaire, so that our evidence in that regard is actually only indirect.) We might be better off, therefore, looking at something more concrete and more specific. “Tenure” is more concrete in a way, it’s not just an idea, it’s something that faculty can be said to “have”—or at least, that’s the way that we’re used to talking about it. But when we look at the evidence presented in this paper, we run into some challenges in discussing tenure as a means to protect academic freedom.

The first obstacle, as Gross and Simmons report here, is that nearly half (45 percent) of the general public has never heard of tenure for professors. I agree with their characterization that this is a “striking” finding. They go on to suggest that this lack of knowledge allows “considerable room for partisan framing of the issue.” I’d say that’s an understatement! And it also cuts both ways: for those who find tenure itself problematic, this means that the general public may well be receptive to polemics about how tenure “protects incompetence” or “impedes” the ability of colleges and universities to “respond flexibly” (I used the “F-word” there) to the “evolving needs” of employers or industry or whomever is supposedly demanding the flexibility to exploit faculty in a continuing drive to better “develop the workforce” or “stimulate economic innovation.”

At the same time, perhaps this means that there is also room for the public to be educated about what tenure really is about. We in the AAUP, of course, would never engage in partisan polemics; our task is only to communicate The Truth. Yet there is considerable work to be done here. Our message is that tenure is not about protecting incompetence, rather that it is about protecting academic freedom. Tenure does not shield faculty members from reviews of their performance, but only ensures that they cannot be removed without due process and appropriate evaluation by their peers. It’s not a lifetime job guarantee, but rather a means to protect faculty members who are willing to tackle controversial issues in their teaching and research. In fact, we would argue that tenure as a means of protecting academic freedom is a vital part of a truly democratic society. We know all that—the question is, are we able to get that message across effectively to the general public? Recent legislative actions in Colorado, Illinois, and South Carolina would indicate that we may not be as effective in this task as we need to be. Certainly, we and our allies were able to defeat these particular initiatives, at least for now, but it’s no secret that tenure is under continuing attack.

Again on this issue, the Gross-Simmons paper presents paradoxical findings: 80 percent of respondents support tenure as a way to reward accomplishments and 70 percent agree that it is essential to protect faculty in teaching, researching, and writing about controversial subjects (p. 13). Those are solid numbers—and yet they belie some equally prevalent negative perceptions of tenure. Eighty-one percent of people think that tenure sometimes protects incompetent faculty, and 58 percent think it takes away their incentive to work hard. Only 18 percent are willing to leave the tenure system the way it is; 69 percent want to modify it and 13 percent want to eliminate it. It would seem that the defense of tenure requires a different, perhaps more nuanced message—although I would caution that our enthusiasm for nuance sometimes comes across to the general public simply as confusing.

But this difficulty in communicating the importance of tenure is actually even greater than this survey’s results would indicate. For I would argue that the most significant threat to tenure, and therefore to academic freedom, requires an even more nuanced explanation. The greatest challenge we face is not the threatened elimination of tenure through legislative or governing board fiat—ominous as that threat may be—but the gradual erosion of tenure that has already taken place. The U. S. Department of Education’s fall 2003 census data indicate that only 35 percent of all faculty are tenured or on the tenure track—only one in three faculty members. That’s down from 57 percent in 1975. But how do we make the case to a general public audience that this gradual erosion of tenure represents a fundamental change in the nature of higher education? That, I would argue, is in fact our greatest challenge.

Perspectives on the purpose of higher education

The third finding from the survey I’d like to highlight is somewhat less dramatic, but I would argue is equally important in understanding the general public’s perception of higher education. Gross and Simmons report that 68 percent of Americans identify skills training for careers as the main purpose of higher education. Only 26 percent chose critical thinking as most important, and 6 percent said the primary purpose was to teach students about great works of literature, art, music, and philosophy (p. 17).

Interestingly, the survey indicates that the majority of those with a college degree felt that critical thinking was the most important outcome of higher education. It seems that those individuals who have managed to make it through the college experience themselves have gained a different perspective; unfortunately those individuals are still very much in the minority in our country.

So why is this finding important? Well, as an economist colleague once remarked, we’ve actually become too successful in communicating the economic benefits to the individual of completing a college degree. The message has become “go to college to get a good job.” I would argue that this focus on a private “return on investment” from higher education has become the dominant perspective in thinking about higher education in our society. Individuals and families weigh the decision to go to college, the choice of college, and even the choice of major, primarily according to financial considerations. How much will it cost, and how much will I earn when I’m done? This has led to a consumer mentality regarding higher education: the student is buying a product and expects (or demands) satisfaction. In this paradigm, faculty (or administrators) who throw up barriers to advancement like general education requirements, expectations for independent and critical thinking, or—horrors!—writing assignments are distracting from the student’s consumer experience.

At a macro level, the perception of higher education as return on investment means that governing boards and state legislatures emphasize the “workforce development” outcome above all others. Colleges and universities become part of the package offered to relocating corporations in the name of job creation. Higher education is viewed as important only insofar as it provides the training that corporate employers are looking for. Colleges and universities seek out their “market niche” and evaluate academic programs—and even individual faculty—based on their revenue-generating potential.

It may seem obvious to an AAUP audience, but the results of this survey along with observations of other developments in higher education indicate that we need to do a better job of explaining to a broad public why this consumer perspective on higher education is a problem. And I should also point out here that I think this third finding, the prevalence of a “return on investment” perspective, is related to the first two findings I discussed, the soft support for academic freedom and the difficulty of communicating the importance of tenure. If a college degree is nothing more than a commodity, a product to be purchased after comparison shopping for the best value among competing “brands,” then academic freedom (and tenure as a means to protect it) may very well be seen as irrelevant. In order to counter the “consumerist” view, then, we need to find different and clearer ways to describe higher education’s contribution to the common good. We need to argue forcefully that higher education must remain autonomous, and that academic freedom must be preserved as one of the bedrocks of our democratic society.

To sum up, then, I think this study provides us with renewed evidence of the challenges that confront faculty and all of higher education. To this audience, the challenges are not new. But I would argue that we must continue to find new ways to reach a broad audience with our messages about the importance of academic freedom and quality higher education. I look forward to taking up those continued challenges side by side with you. Thank you very much.