AAUP and the Idea of a University: A look Backward and Forward

Alvin G. Burstein, Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee

As evidenced by the elaborate costumes of most commencement ceremonies, the century-long history of the American Association of University Professors is part of a much longer story, one that extends back to medieval times.

The earliest universities, those in Bologna, Paris and Oxford, were embodiments of the guild movement, self-governing bodies that controlled and monitored the activities of their members, eschewing external government. In the Latin lingua franca of the time, the term universitas magistrorum et scholarium referred, not to a campus or buildings, but to a guild, a body of individual people, teachers and students, with a specific professional competence, who had secured the right to govern themselves.

There was no mention of contemporary concerns about tenure or academic freedom, as these issues are understood today. There was, however consensus about the basic elements of higher education, the trivium, grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Professional training in medicine, law or theology was deferred. Centuries would pass, and the impact of the exploration of the planet, the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment broadened the notion of higher education. Academic journals were emerging and intellectual domains were redefined.

It fell to Cardinal John Henry Newman as part of his argument for the establishment of a new university in Ireland, to deliver a series of lectures defining the purpose of a modern university. The lectures, later published as The Idea of a University, he argued that the purpose of higher education was cultivation of the intellect for its own sake. He argued that the student’s living in a community that included the full range of intellectual endeavors, being privy to the discourse, in and out of the lecture hall,  of those professing the full range of knowledge, would stimulate a perspective of tolerance and judgement—a liberal education in the most freeing sense.

Newman acknowledged that the university also played a useful role in more specialized studies and vocations, but he insisted that its central mission was not to make students more moral or more proficient in their field of endeavor, it was cultivation of the intellect for its own sake, best achieved by immersion in the whole community of scholars.

The tension between the university’s role in vocational training and liberal education played itself out in American schools. It was manifested most clearly in a pragmatic questioning of the values of “classical studies” as opposed to specialized state supported schools committed to agriculture and mechanical skills that the new industrial age seemed to demand.

That real and important tension, however, was not what led to the birth of AAUP a century ago. The first part of the nineteenth century was characterized by sectarian disputes in American colleges with largely clerical foci. In the early 1800’s Thomas Jefferson was forced to abandon efforts to recruit his favored candidate for a professorship at the University of Virginia, Thomas Cooper, because of objections by his Presbyterian constituents to Cooper’s Deistic and materialistic views. Cooper did go on to the presidency of South Carolina College, but there, too, his provocative views stir up controversy that led to his resignation. It is worthy of note that one of the contentious issues was his support of state’s rights—a political, not philosophical issue.

In the 1850’s advocating for the abolition of slavery could also lead to the termination of academic appointments, as demonstrated by the examples of Loring at Harvard and Hedrick at the University of North Carolina. 

These early examples reflect a concern about extra-mural political issues rather than constraints upon research and/or scholarly publication, presaging contemporary cases like that of Professor Salaita and the University of Illinois.

A central development in 1900 was Edward A. Ross’s departure from Stanford as a result of a recommendation for his termination by one of its trustees who objected to the professor’s racist views. A general concern was growing about the role of trustees and administrators in the management of the university, now firmly defined as geographically located. Thorstein Veblen and James McKeen Cattell were among those who were most critical of the growing prevalence of business practices in the management of the universities.

Things came to a head in 1913 when Willard Fisher was dismissed from Wesleyan college for voicing criticism of church attendance, and when John Mecklin was forced to resign from Lafayette College, in large part because of his incorporation of Darwinian theory into his teaching.

Mecklin appealed to the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. The two organizations established a joint committee to investigate the situation and a report ensued describing the situation at Lafayette as unacceptable and asserting its right to investigate issues of academic freedom.

That investigation reflected a growing consensus that there was a need for an organization to supplement existing professional associations, one that represented the professoriate as a whole.

In 1914, an interinstitutional and interdisciplinary committee formulated a purpose statement for such an organization: it should bring about “more effective cooperation amongst the members of the profession in the discharge of their special responsibilities as custodians of the interests of higher education and research in America…and maintain and advance the ideals and standards of the profession.”

The new association, which became the AAUP, quickly formed a Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (Committee A) incorporating as the committee’s members the joint committee which had looked into Mecklin’s dismissal from Lafayette.

In April, 1915, as Committee A was in the process of being formed, seventeen members of the faculty of the University of Utah resigned to protest President Kingsbury’s dismissal of several of their colleagues. Arthur Lovejoy, representing Committee A, wrote Kingsbury asking for the president’s cooperation in an AAUP investigation. Setting a template for later investigations, Lovejoy spent four days interviewing faculty, staff and students, composing an exhaustive eighty page report concluding that the dismissal of faculty members for engaging in private speech or to squelch their criticism of the administration was intolerable.

The emphasis on seeking collaboration with the administration in a detailed exploration of the facts of the situation remained a common feature of subsequent AAUP investigations. Over time, the consequences of investigations changed from a statement of findings, to a possible sanction of the campus involved, which involved banning those on campus from membership, to the current practice of censuring the administration of an offending campus, while continuing to seek members there.

A second enduring feature of AAUP investigations is emphasis on seeking positive organizational change on the campus involved, as opposed to seeking redress for aggrieved faculty members.

This difference highlights a factor differentiating AAUP’s stance from that of other organizations which seek to support academic freedom, such as the American Federation of Teachers and the American Civil Liberties Union. Both of the latter organizations tend be critical of AAUP’s slow and fact based search for organizational change as opposed to individual redress.  ACLU, in particular, has also taken an interest in freedom of speech for students and been less concerned with the special features of academic freedom as a sine qua non of intellectual exploration.

Consciously so intended or not, the 1914 declaration of a profession-wide professorial commitment to “special responsibilities as custodians…of higher education” and responsibility “for maintaining ideals and standards” is an evocation of guild-like status for the professoriate and an assertion of the guild powers of the original universitas celebrated in commencement costumes. The same can be said for faculty peer responsibility for determining professorial standing at the level of recruitment, advancement and/or termination for cause.

Several factors militate against the assertion of guild status for the professoriate in contemporary America.  Elitist claims run counter to a democratic ethos and the consolidation of the professoriate runs counter to the current trend of professional specialization. In addition, the elaboration of the setting of higher education to include ancillary activities such as ownership of a physical plant, residential and dining facilities, and research technology has led to a competing managerial cadre—the administration. Further, the evolution of education as a state supported enterprise has led to pressure for accountability to stakeholders beyond those directly involved in the educational enterprise—researchers, teachers and students.

Guild control is thus diluted into what is called “shared governance,” raising the issue of precisely which areas of higher education should be subject to professorial guild control.  A strong case can be made for professorial control over issues of faculty recruitment and faculty evaluation, including issues of promotion and termination. Currently, it is too often the case that faculty opinion in these matters has been reduced to the status of recommendations to the administration, where guild status would take the peer view to be authoritative.

The events which led to the emergence of the AAUP led to a focus on academic freedom. But, as indicated above, in those early days the concerns often were not so much about the freedom to pursue or publish research findings or to present one’s findings in the classroom. Rather the concern was either criticism of the administration or what might be regarded as personal, non-professional speech, as is currently the case with Professor Salaita, whose offer to join the University of Illinois faculty was withdrawn, largely on the basis of his comments on social media.

In the Salaita case, as in earlier ones, the administration raised concerns about collegiality. For such concerns to be valid, it would seem essential for them to be raised by colleagues, guild peers, rather than by administrators or trustees, and for a clear line to be drawn between what is said as a matter of professional expertise and what is said as a matter of personal conviction, whether that be religious or political.  The freedom to express personal convictions, including criticisms of the administration, should be as broad as possible but neither specially protected, nor confined to guild members.

There is a paradoxical element in the AAUP’s concerns about the guild prerogatives reflected in academic freedom and shared governance while it pays less attention to curricular issues. The medieval universitas magistrorum et scholarium strictly defined the trivium and quadrivium, Cardinal Newman’s treatise argued forcefully for the importance of a university education that was comprehensive in content and that involved students in a wide ranging community of scholars.  Such a setting and such a curriculum is needed to serve the end of cultivating the intellect for its own sake. In present day terms, these conditions are best met by undergraduate programs emphasizing general education and a residential faculty and student body. 

The notion of the faculty as a community of scholars shaping its curriculum is being eroded. Fiscal pressures persuade some that universities require more business-like management, attention to monetizing the value of higher education and cost control. Cost considerations drive a shift from a faculty in residence to a part time temporary teaching staff. Teaching is warped to fit massive online courses while collective faculty consideration of the ends of higher education and how to shape the curriculum becomes increasingly rare.

The very notion of a general education, a liberal education in Newman’s terms, is under assault, eroded from above by graduate specialties, and from below by vocational/technical programs.

One can but wonder whether preserving guild powers without attention to a general education that cultivates the intellect for its own sake will leave us with a universitas without a soul.


I have drawn heavily on three texts: John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, Yale University, 1996; Eliot A. Krause, The Death of the Guilds, Yale, 1996; Timothy R. Cain, Establishing Academic Freedom, Macmillan, 2012. All three merit study.