AAUP Criticizes Academic Freedom Provisions in Senate Bill · 22 September 2005

09/22/05

The Higher Education Amendments of 2005 is currently being considered in the U.S. Senate. It re-authorizes the Higher Education Act of 1965 and re-commits all monies that the federal government gives to higher education across the country including Pell grants, scholarships, and student loans.

The House version of the re-authorization act was passed earlier this year. Academic freedom language was also included in the House version of the bill, and was opposed by the Higher Education lobby including the AAUP.

Negotiations over the academic freedom provisions in the House bill led to a compromise statement on academic freedom issued by the American Council on Education and co-signed by 27 other higher education associations. The ACE statement was used as a template for the academic freedom language that was eventually passed in the House version of the bill.

Spurious Objections

In a September 8th letter to the Senate leaders on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee who will be considering the Higher Education Act, the American Association of University Professors praised the goals of the HEA but requested that the Senate remove a section of the act on Protection of Student Speech and Association Rights that was inspired by the Academic Bill of Rights.

In his letter to the senate leaders, Mark Smith, the AAUP's Director of Government Relations, begins by stressing that the AAUP has supported the HEA since its inception, and believes that four main goals must be addressed "in any reauthorization" of the act. .

These goals are:
1. To increase access to a college and university education
2. To increase the quality of higher education programs
3. To recognize and promote diversity in higher education
4. To support the openness of the academic community

It is ironic that the AAUP would quote these aims in a letter protesting the inclusion of academic freedom language that would further each goal individually and protect the rights of all students seeking a higher education.

Section 104 of the HEA on Protection of Student Speech and Association Rights, which the AAUP is protesting, states that:

It is the sense of Congress that:
(A) the diversity of institutions and educational missions is one of the key strengths of American higher education;
(B) individual colleges and universities have different missions and each institution should design its academic program in accordance with its educational goals;
(C) within the context of institutional mission, a college should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas;
(D) students should not be intimated, harassed, discouraged from speaking out, or discriminated against;
(E) students should be treated equally and fairly; and
(F) nothing in this paragraph shall be construed to modify, change, or infringe upon any constitutionally protected religious liberty, freedom, expression, or association….

Far from infringing on the intents of the HEA, or on the AAUP's four goals, section 104 explicitly encourages diversity in educational institutions and missions and praises America's institutions of higher learning for developing unique academic programs. It promotes openness in the academic community by insisting that all students "be treated equally and fairly" and that they "should not be intimidated, harassed, discouraged from speaking out, or discriminated against." This insistence on protecting students' academic freedom surely would help to increase the quality of higher education programs and ensure that students from a greater diversity of backgrounds have access to a higher education.

The AAUP's rejection of section 104 despite the clear parallels between the academic freedom language contained therein and the AAUP's self-proclaimed goals for any HEA reauthorization, reveals the AAUP's hypocrisy in failing to support the academic freedom of students despite explicit claims to the contrary.

The specific objections that to the academic freedom provisions contained within section 104 of the HEA are tired and baseless. Specifically, the AAUP states that "the setting of academic policy is best left in the hands of academic community" and that "substituting governmental oversight in the areas of curriculum, day-to-day coursework, and classroom discussions on college campuses across the country would threaten the well deserved reputation for excellence in higher education this country enjoys."

As the AAUP is aware from numerous exchanges with our organization, neither the Academic Bill of Rights nor the academic freedom language in the HEA which was inspired by it, would in any way remove day-to-day coursework or curriculum decisions from the hands of educators. They merely reaffirm the existing principles of academic freedom first developed by the AAUP itself nearly a century ago which hold that "the freedom to teach and freedom to learn" are inseparable and that professors and educational institutions have a responsibility to ensure that students' academic freedom is respected in the classroom. To claim as the AAUP does that section 104 of the HEA threatens to subvert the academic policies of universities is the height of absurdity.

Moreover, if the AAUP supports these principles but is opposed to legislating them, it should join us in persuading universities to implement academic freedom policies that all parties claim to support.

The AAUP's opposition to the academic freedom provisions of the reauthorization bill is an obstruction of the process of getting universities to implement the academic freedom policies the AAUP claims to support. We urge the AAUP to reconsider its position and to begin supporting what is increasingly clear is a historic movement in the annals of academic freedom in this country.

Letter from the AAUP:

September 8, 2005

Scott Fleming, Majority Staff
Jane Oates, Minority Staff
Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
U.S. Senate
Washington , DC 20510

Dear Mr. Fleming and Ms. Oates:

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has supported the Higher Education Act since its inception and we enthusiastically call for its reauthorization during the 109 th Congress. We have stressed four major themes that must be addressed in any reauthorization. The core goal of the HEA from the beginning has been to increase access to a college and university education, and any reauthorization proposal must build on that goal. Equally important is the quality of higher education programs. Increased access to lower quality programs will not help institutions, faculty or students. At the same time, the HEA must recognize and promote the diversity of our higher education system-the diversity among populations within the system, as well as among institutions and institutional missions. Finally, the uncertainty and tension in the world today make it especially critical for the HEA to support the openness of the academic community; doing so is the only way to ensure the continued excellence of our nation's colleges and universities. The Association strongly welcomes the Committee's introduction of S. 1614 to extend the authorization of programs under the Higher Education Act of 1965. We view it as a much preferable alternative to the version currently under consideration in the House. We especially welcome the efforts to maximize aid to students and institutions to meet the needs of higher education in these tight financial times.

Nevertheless, the Association has a major request growing out of the concerns I expressed to the committee in May. Congress historically has refrained from imposing federal control over the professional operation of our colleges and universities. The setting of academic policy is best left in the hands of academic community, administrations, faculty, and governing boards of the institutions themselves. The history of academic disciplines in this country has been a strongly contested history, a history that does not correlate with election returns. The Association's Statement on Academic Bill of Rights points out that a "fundamental premise of academic freedom is that decisions concerning the quality of scholarship and teaching are to be made by reference to the standards of the academic profession, as interpreted and applied by the community of scholars who are qualified by expertise and training to establish such standards." This longstanding practice has resulted in a much more dynamic, complex and wide-ranging academic environment than the picture painted by supporters of governmental intrusion into the academy.

Substituting governmental oversight in the areas of curriculum, day-to-day coursework and classroom discussions on college campuses across the country would threaten the well deserved reputation for excellence in higher education this country enjoys. Therefore, I respectfully urge the committee to strike section 104, Protection of Student Speech and Association Rights, lines 1-25 on page 25 and lines 1-5 on page 26.

Sincerely yours,

Mark F. Smith
Director of Government Relations