Cary Nelson, No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom

Had President Dwight D. Eisenhower not initially used it, I would have recommended the title Mandate for Change. Instead, Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (A.A.U.P.) and Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has a Kingian title for his recent volume on academic freedom No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. The title evokes Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” when the incarcerated civil rights leader wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” The book’s forays into academic-freedom practices in Canada, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe is a refreshing change from an American exceptionalism that eschews comparison.

Another parallel to Eisenhower is it being a memoir. It is highly unusual for a leader of a major organization to publish a critical analysis of that entity while still holding office. Reformers of organizations usually are not its leaders but the rank and file or external critics. Nelson writes with a passion that is moving and fearless. The reader becomes immersed in the flow as page after page unreels its humanism, courage and captivating prose. The author clearly prefers a rhetoric that is pungent. He refers to university presidents with million-dollar salaries as, simply, “criminals.” (159) Governing boards and administrations that eviscerate faculty rights are “jackbooted university managers.” (127) Ivy-league presidents are referred to with the somewhat insensitive term of “Mafiosi.” (156)

The social sciences and humanities, where critical thinking begins and quite possibly ends, have been under siege from the Right at least since the 1950s McCarthy Era. They are the finger in the dike, a key barrier preventing American culture from hardening into “fascist stone.” (103) Yet the author also peppers his own house with bursts of friendly fire: A.A.U.P. is transmogrified into a “factory” ignorant how its “sausage” is made. (197) He describes the association’s capacity to pursue its mission and organizational priorities as “wanton incompetence” (211) and its resistance to transparency as a “cult of secrecy” (260-261) Its recalcitrant, staff-driven, turf-protecting national office is like “ a terrorist cell within a kindergarten.” (199) Words may wound but a change agent that can move from such rhetorical flourishes to clear prescriptive analysis is no mere ideologue but a leader with a vision.

The author examines two paths. One is the path of organizing collective bargaining units at public universities and colleges as an antidote to persecutorial treatment by governing boards, state legislatures and intolerant senior faculty. This is the growth strategy A.A.U.P. pursued, with 75% of members in collective bargaining units. The other path is the classic individualized approach of advocacy chapters that dominate private institutions. These institutions cannot be a growth industry since they are barred from collective bargaining due to NLRB v. Yeshiva University (1980). This obtuse Supreme Court decision categorized faculty at private universities as “management” and, therefore, not subject to NLRB protection. While the collective bargaining component of A.A.U.P. grows, its core purpose remains the protection of members fired for their views, suspended for questioning administrative authority, silenced for extramural utterances that defy conventional wisdom or seeking radical change.

Nelson chafes at A.A.U.P.s secretiveness and staff-centered universe. A.A.U.P. is taken to task for being too plodding in its approach to injustice. It discourages its leaders from protecting the innocent academic  because doing so supposedly is a possible preemption of a position prior to investigation. A.A.U.P. would not, prior to Nelson, allow its elected president to write a regular column on Academe. Its pusillanimity in protecting controversial faculty, dating at least from the McCarthy era, has continued: witness Ward Churchill and Norman Finkelstein. A.A.U.P. walked away from the Churchill case as it always does after a faculty committee renders judgment, even if one manifestly at variance with A.A.U.P. policies and a transgression of a professor’s rights. Process is treasured but the content is ignored whenever the faculty committee engages in discriminatory treatment.

Nelson is critical of A.A.U.P.s lack of staying power in such cases. Faculty committees should not be given the benefit of the doubt in determining facts of an aggrieved colleague because faculty are frequently the problem, not the solution. A.A.U.P. needs to intervene directly when its core values and mission are violated on any campus.  In the case of Norman Finkelstein, the  A.A.U.P. closed shop once the popular political science professor settled with DePaul University in 2007. John Wilson and others argued that a settlement should not preclude a Committee A investigation. It is silly to suggest that a settlement amounts to justice when tenure is denied, health care terminated, pension plans eliminated and occupational uncertainty afflict the individual. Money, although important,  is not the measure of resolution when so much else is lost. Though Finkelstein was denied tenure for a ‘tonality’ deemed less than collegial, he clearly was fired for his anti-Zionist criticism of Palestinian suffering under the occupation of Israel. His call for the end of oppression of Palestinians, and the intervention of Alan Dershowitz, is why he is no longer employed at DePaul. A.A.U.P. abandoned interest in the case after a settlement was reached.

Nelson asks how we can induce the staff-bureaucracy to embrace change and elevate the role of the president to something other than a figurehead. Ironically there is an academic parallel here to the civil service. Staffers, in classic bureaucratic mode, see themselves as outlasting a president who must seek reelection. Nelson demands more energy in protecting the workers’ rights of contingent faculty. He wishes to smash the labyrinthine maze of Committee A deliberations. He wants A.A.U.P. to become more activist when injustice requires a swift response such as the Katrina-related tenure dismissals.

The aggrieved president sees academia in crisis whereas the A.A.U.P does not. Hence, the clash of wills. With a more than 50% decline in membership between 1970 (100,000)  and now (44,000), Nelson has statistical wind at his back and an emerging mandate to alter the typically staid approach to challenges to tenure, academic freedom and shared governance in higher education. Dr. King’s work, Why We Can’t Wait is apropos here as the civil rights leader demanded change in Birmingham “now” and not in the never-arriving future.

Yet Nelson believes too many academicians compare “unfavorably” the measured, quasi-judicial character of A.A.U.P. with the vigorous activism of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (F.I.R.E.). Such comparison, however,  is apt. In my suspension case of 2002, it was F.I.R.E.s founder, University of Pennsylvania Professor Alan Charles Kors, who contacted me by phone and e-mail; it was F.I.R.E. that took to the airwaves on board member’s Milt Rosenberg’s WGN radio program to defend me; it was F.I.R.E. that wrote a letter to university president, Richard Yanikoski, explicitly threatening legal action if sanctions escalated toward dismissal or if a risible post-tenure review were used to assess my fitness for tenure. At the time I was president of the St. Xavier University A.A.U.P. chapter. While the national office was somewhat helpful in counseling me in negotiating some aspects, it refused to investigate.

F.I.R.E., known for its conservative advocacy, was there for me, protected me, cared for me and saved me. Even the conservative National Association of Scholars Stephen H. Balch, who gets considerable coverage in No University for his Horowitzian advocacy of value-free “balanced” pedagogy, spoke to me by phone and published a letter in the Wall Street Journal denouncing their editorial fulminations against my right to teach in academia. Hence, it is not the ideology of organizations that most impresses me but their actions. The moderately liberal A.A.U.P. is sometimes laggard in comparison to conservative organizations in defending its own principles; so what matters is praxis, not ideology.

Nelson lauds A.A.U.P.s careful case studies of individual persecutions. Yet academic freedom and the protection of tenure require more than a half dozen or so Committee A reports and quasi-judicial case law that appear in Academe and the A.A.U.P. Policy Documents and Reports. A.A.U.P. needs to broaden the scope of its concerns and its approach to those concerns: above all, to promote a public advocacy that shares the stage with the slower judicial investigations of cases of academic transgressions.

Contingent non-tenure faculty verge on proletarian misery in twenty-first century America and must be protected. Faculty are fired who dare oppose the Israel lobby. The assault on the academy – whether from Stanley Fish or David Horowitz or American Council of Trustees and Alumni or Students for Academic Freedom – cannot be repelled merely via polite reports but rather through challenges by first responders with press releases, press conferences, public legal advocacy and websites with attitude. Overreliance on dispassionate style generates too little substance within our culture of decorum, deliberative sophistication and Ivy-esque calm. Such a culture should not be abandoned for reckless analysis but needs to be modified to suit the occasion.

The volume contains a few minor spelling errors. The index is too limited with its exclusion of newspapers and Supreme Court cases that are rendered spacious treatment in the text —although a few appear in the bibliography. I would also prefer extensive footnoting that should be de rigueur in a university-press publication.

From its passionate defense of academic freedom to its call for contingent faculty liberation; from its recognition that great injustices were wrought on the academy in the Finkelstein inquisition to its defense of faculty denied tenure or dismissed without cause; from its sense of urgency that academic freedom and the tenure system that buttresses it are in peril, No University Is An Island is a brilliant analysis from a gifted writer. The book is perhaps the best single work in the field of academic-freedom advocacy. While others may be more judicious and “scholarly,” they do not match this work’s wisdom, sweep of experience and demands for change during a time of great pressure to abandon critical thinking.

Nelson urges a Gandhian civil disobedience campaign against nefarious administrators, one which encompasses sit-ins, blocking cars, preventing access to buildings and even picketing homes. Nelson proclaims: “You have nothing to lose but your colleagues’ chains.” Since the author assesses academia with an internationalist perspective that transcends America, I would add: “They have a world to win.”

Peter N. Kirstein, Ph.D. is vice president of the American Association of University Professors, Illinois Conference and chair of its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He is professor of history at St. Xavier University in Chicago.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1