Response to the American Academy of Religion’s Statement on Academic Freedom: Index

AARFBpostIn response to the AAR’s invitation for comments on its recently
posted draft statement on academic freedom, over the coming days
some of the members of Culture on the Edge will offer
a brief series of comments.

Steven Ramey
Merinda Simmons
Craig Martin
Russell McCutcheon
Monica Miller

2 Replies to “Response to the American Academy of Religion’s Statement on Academic Freedom: Index”

  1. The Academic Relations Committee of the AAR has made the following response to the AAR’s draft statement on academic freedom. Our statement addresses some of the concerns of Culture on the Edge writers, and I think that the more you share directly with AAR members, the more likely we are to get a better final statement. Thanks for your work on this issue.

    AAR Academic Relations Committee

    Suggested Revisions to the Academic Freedom Draft

    August 10, 2015

    We are deeply appreciative of the service of the members who wrote the Academic Freedom policy draft. In this document we outline potential areas for improvement and suggest revisions. We do so in hopes that the final draft will more forcefully advocate for our collective professional interests, which is one of the two main purposes of the AAR.

    1. Preamble: Why We Need a More Robust Academic Freedom Statement

    Echoing the language of modern liberalism, leading scholarly organizations have advocated for decades for the basic rights of their members to free speech in the classroom, in their publications, and in their university and public service. The reaffirmation these principles on academic freedom is appropriately indicated in the current preamble to the draft statement.[1] But there is no indication of why it is important for the AAR to issue a new statement on academic freedom at this time.

    As documented by the AAUP, current threats to the academic freedom of AAR members, which will be explored in a special topics session of the ARC at this year’s annual meeting, include the dramatic rise in contingent labor and a lack of protection for their free speech; outright violation of university procedures and due process of law in hiring, promotion, and tenure processes; organized efforts by various interest groups to deny public or private funding for the academic study of religion; and organized campaigns to smear or discredit individual scholars based on false accusations of undue bias, dishonesty, and/or disloyalty to the state.[2] Our own experiences as chairs and leaders in the field also point to problems with non-citizen employees whose immigration status can endanger their academic freedom.

    The use of contingent labor is especially important to note since it affects academic freedom in two ways: one, contingent laborers’ academic freedom is often more curtailed than that of non-contingent laborers, and two, the rise in the use of contingent labor threatens the institution of tenure, which is the bedrock of academic freedom.

    Other academic societies acknowledge the seriousness of this problem. Compare, for example, the policy of the Modern Language Association on academic freedom to the language of the AAR academic freedom draft. It models how the AAR might forthrightly identify the challenges of academic freedom in our current historical moment and how it can reaffirm its basic commitment to academic freedom:

    Despite a long history of the defense of academic freedom, each generation of scholars faces new challenges to its protection. The increasing number of contingent faculty members without the protection of tenure; political pressure on curriculum, faculty appointments, and policy; intrusive processes of standardization and accreditation; erosion of traditional faculty governance structures; the impact of economic challenges on our institutions; and legislative efforts to restrict faculty members from taking positions on issues in the public sphere are among the new concerns that threaten academic freedom.

    The central statement of academic freedom is the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” created by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. This statement has been revisited and reaffirmed over the years. Between 1941 and 2006 more than two hundred organizations in higher education signed the 1940 statement. The Modern Language Association endorsed it in 1962 and has a long activist record of supporting the principles of the 1940 statement. The MLA reaffirms its 1962 signature of this document.

    When academic freedom is curtailed, higher education is compromised. The MLA works with the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers, and other professional organizations to ensure academic freedom of adjunct, temporary, part-time, non-tenure-track, probationary, and tenured faculty members. The MLA encourages accrediting bodies to guarantee academic freedom at their reporting institutions and to reinforce its importance. The MLA also calls on college and university administrators and faculty members to support a culture of academic freedom for all teachers, regardless of rank and status.

    The MLA’s statement is effective because its argument is based on specific claims. The AAR draft is instead vague about its purpose:

    The AAR has long been committed to the fundamental principles of academic freedom articulated by the American Association of University Professors in its “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure.”1 Our mission statement affirms that “within a context of free inquiry and critical examination, the Academy welcomes all disciplined reflection on religion–both from within and outside of communities of belief and practice.”

    We strive to foster excellence in study of religion because, “there is a critical need for ongoing reflection upon and understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values.” This work demands that we safeguard the conditions that allow for the free exchange of ideas, and it entails responsibilities as well as rights. Both are governed by the canons of academic freedom.

    Thus, we recommend stating exactly why the AAR is compelled to issue a more robust academic freedom statement at this time.

    2. Rights versus Responsibilities

    Just as important in the current AAR academic freedom draft statement is its inappropriate emphasis on the responsibility of the AAR member to be judicious and even sensitive when exercising his or her academic freedom. Though all employees clearly have obligations to their employers as outlined in employment contacts, the language of responsibilities could be read as shifting blame to AAR members in case of academic freedom disputes; critics of religious studies scholars might claim that the academic freedom of an individual is contingent on his or her judicious and prudent exercise of that freedom.

    It should be made clear, instead, that it is the obligation of employers to uphold the canons of academic freedom, promoting a workplace in which all community members are able to express their reasoned opinions in their research, teaching, and service without fear of reprisal. If the academic freedom statement is attempting to use “best practices” language, the focus in this document should be on establishing responsible practices in institutions that guarantee academic freedom for educators.

    3. The Role of Confessional Schools

    The document does not make clear the specific circumstances in which religious schools can legally restrict the academic freedom of AAR members. In the 1940 AAUP statement, accommodation was made for such schools. Because the AAR is the largest scholarly organizations dealing with religion, and because many of its members teach in confessional schools, it is incumbent for the organization to address the professional interests of such members. Following on the 2012 case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, it is important that the AAR make explicit criteria for when a faculty member of such a school should be considered a “minister” since the court declined to do so. We may also need to acknowledge the problematic practice of some schools requiring faculty to sign statements of faith, and address how this practices has an impact on academic freedom.

    4. Where do Members Turn for Help?

    The AAR Board has already determined how it will respond to members’ requests for assistance when they feel their academic freedom has been violated. In the current draft, the AAR only encourages members to take “appropriate action.” We fear that no one will know what that means. Why not simply state the step-by-step and well-conceived AAR policy on this matter?

    We urge the Board to reiterate that policy as part of the Academic Freedom statement.

    5. The ARC’s Pledge to the Board

    In fulfilling its mission to promote attention to and develop resources for members’ professional development, the ARC will continue to shine light on contemporary challenges to academic freedom and generate resources for program chairs and other leaders who seek to protect and expand the academic freedom of AAR members.

    6. A Revised Draft

    We have several more specific suggestions, which we offer in the following second draft of the AAR academic freedom statement.

    The AAR has long been committed to the fundamental principles of academic freedom articulated by the American Association of University Professors in its “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure.”[3] Because one of the AAR’s two primary purposes is to promote the professional interests of members, the changing nature of higher education in the twenty-first century requires the AAR to restate its commitment to the academic freedom of its members.

    Current threats to the academic freedom of AAR members include the dramatic rise in contingent labor without the protections of tenure; outright violation of university procedures and due process of law in hiring, promotion, and tenure processes; organized efforts by various interest groups to deny or restrict public or private funding for the academic study of religion; organized campaigns to discredit individual scholars based on accusations of undue bias, dishonesty, and/or disloyalty to the state; and political efforts to restrict the speech of scholars on matters of public concern.

    The use of contingent labor is especially important to acknowledge since it affects academic freedom in two ways: one, contingent laborers may not themselves be able to exercise their rights of free inquiry, and two, the rise in the use of contingent labor threatens the institution of tenure, which is the bedrock of academic freedom.

    Our professional and scholarly duties are often organized around three activities: teaching and research, as well as service to our home institutions and the larger publics we serve. In turn, this statement is organized around these “three pillars” of academic life.

    TEACHING

    The AAR affirms the AAUP “Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” policy that “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.” [Here we suggest that AAR consult legal counsel for assistance in articulating how employment at a religious school may affect the academic freedom of AAR members.]

    Further, the AAR understands this academic freedom to apply as much to adjunct, temporary, part-time, and non-tenure-track faculty as its does to tenure-line faculty, and calls on university leaders to create a culture of academic freedom for all teachers, regardless of rank.

    Responsible instruction, in any educational context, involves critical inquiry: questioning assumptions, some of them long taken for granted; attending to multiple points of view, some of them disturbing; and engaging with the methods and findings of other scholars, some of them drastically different than our own.

    Teaching and learning of this sort sometimes proves unsettling to students, especially those who may be unaccustomed to reflection on their own religious practices and beliefs or unfamiliar with critical analysis of their own traditions and communities.

    Teaching and learning of this sort sometimes proves unsettling to students, especially those who may be unaccustomed to reflection on their own religious practices and beliefs or unfamiliar with critical analysis of their own traditions and communities. In the classroom, AAR members should model and encourage free inquiry, critical analysis, and the respectful consideration of diverse points of view, including the moral, spiritual, ethical, or religious commitments of students. From the teacher’s perspective, this demands patience, humility, candor, and generosity.

    RESEARCH

    The AAR affirms its commitment to the “full freedom” of research and publication for its members. This freedom includes the right to conduct research on sensitive political or religious questions. Our shared commitment to free inquiry means that scholars must be free from intimidation and free to form conclusions on the basis of shared scholarly norms, as understood by qualified peers. The same rights of non-interference and the same standards of assessment apply to peer-reviewed digital scholarship that an institution is willing to count as evidence of qualification for hiring, promotion, and tenure.

    Whatever the medium used to circulate the results of scholarship, AAR members should be cautious in condemning unwanted speech or writing on the grounds that it violates standards of “civility,” since sometimes that argument might allow unfair treatment and endanger free inquiry. When those views are communicated in social media that an institution would not recognize as relevant for hiring and promotion, those statements are “extramural” expressions of personal views that should be protected by academic freedom.[4]

    SERVICE

    Many AAR members provide service to their institutions in the form of committee work, recruitment and admissions, public engagement, and other activities. The canons of academic freedom apply to such service. As in the classroom and the convention center, scholars of religion must be able to express their views openly and without coercion as they provide service to their institutions and the wider community. As the AAUP makes clear, academic freedom in service to the profession includes the right of AAR members to organize and engage in collective bargaining.

    While it is appropriate to note a scholar’s unwillingness to perform the usual modes of institutional service, that service cannot be demeaned or disqualified when the scholar expresses unpopular views in the performance of those duties. As the AAUP has proposed, appeals to “collegiality” as a standard for faculty evaluation are inappropriate, although refusal to participate in faculty governance or institutional service, or a pattern of disrespectful communication that fails to safeguard the conditions of free exchange, might also be unacceptable.[5]

    AAR ADVOCACY

    The AAR is committed to the many virtues of academic freedom and will advocate for our members whose academic freedom may have been violated.

    Because allegations of breaches of academic freedom often pose emergency situations, in which a scholar’s employment or reputation might be at stake, the AAR will act with particular dispatch to address these situations. When either the President or the Executive Director receives a request to address an alleged breach of academic freedom, he or she will immediately forward the request to the AAR Executive Committee, which will serve as the Academy’s ad hoc Academic Freedom Committee. (The Executive Committee is made up of AAR member-elected Officers: The President, President-Elect, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer.) Within twenty-one working days of receiving such a request, the Executive Committee will review the 1940 Statement of Principles and the AAR Statement on Academic Freedom, may interview the aggrieved member, make other relevant inquiries, and come to a judgment about a course of action. Such actions may take several forms.

    The Committee may elect to take no action; a letter of concern about a member’s complaint may be sent to his or her institution; a public statement about the case may be issued; or further inquiry may be undertaken. Any public statements will conform to our Policy on Public Statements, noted above. Under normal circumstances, the Executive Committee, working within the twenty-one-day deadline, will seek Board approval of its decision. Given the urgency of the matter, the Executive Committee may elect to act for the Board, as outlined in Article VII, Part I, Section 1 of our Bylaws. If the Board or Executive Committee takes action on an academic freedom matter, such action will be announced on the AAR website within two business days.

    [1] AAUP, “1940 Statement of Principles,” http://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure

    [2] The AAUP provides an annual update on the legal cases that document such abuses. See further AAUP, “2014 Legal Update,” http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/SI%202014%20Legal%20Update%20-%20FINAL%20-%20.7.16.14%20TOC.pdf

    [3] AAUP, “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” available at http://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure.

    [4] On extramural speech and academic freedom, see AAUP, “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications,” revised and expanded text adopted in 2013, available at http://www.aaup.org/report/academic-freedom-and-electronic-communications-2014.

    [5] AAUP, “On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation,” approved 1999, available athttp://www.aaup.org/report/collegiality-criterion-faculty-evaluation. See also Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, “From the President: Civility,” available at http://www.aaup.org/article/president-civility#.VZWQ-IsfyA0.

  2. This is necessary and persuasive critique, Professor Curtis! Your thoughtful commentary reminds us to be alert to the seductiveness of aligning oneself with power, and the ongoing lessons of those most vulnerable to charges of incivility.

    Sincerely,
    Gabeba Baderoon

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