At a panel Friday morning entitled “The Faculty, the Press, and the Public,” the AAUP unveiled a working paper entitled “American’ Views of Political Bias In the Academy and Academic Freedom.” Based on a survey of 1000 Americans, the report attempts “to assess the extent to which conservative critiques of the professoriate inform American public opinion, as well as to understand how Americans feel about academic freedom and tenure.”
Noting that only 8.2% of people surveyed believe that “political bias” is the biggest problem in higher education, the AAUP claims that proves the American public’s broad confidence in higher education. But close examination of the survey results reveals that this claim amounts to sheer spin. In fact, the AAUP’s report suffers from the same sort of “echo chamber” insularity and self-absorption that has become characteristic of the modern academy. The survey results, combined with the unwarranted optimism of the report, amount to a remarkable indictment of the academy. Together, they prove that the studies of curricular disarray and pervasive classroom politics done by ACTA and other organizations are truly making their way into the public consciousness. They also prove how resistant the AAUP is to this realization.
Let me highlight just a few of the poll’s more disturbing findings.
–58.4% of the American public has only some or no confidence in American colleges and universities (12.8% of this number is composed of liberals and moderates).
–23.4% says quality of teaching and learning is the biggest problem facing higher education, second only to concerns about cost (within this group, 10.2% say the greatest problem in higher education is low educational standards, 8.2% say it is political bias, and 5% say it is incompetent professors).
–45.7% says political bias is either a very serious problem or the biggest problem facing higher ed (26.9% of this group identifies as Democrat).
–60.2% believes higher ed is suffering from low educational standards.
–61.8% says professors are distracted by disputes over such issues as sexual harassment or the politics of ethnic groups.
–82% wants to modify or eliminate tenure altogether.
Rather than grapple with this disturbing information, the AAUP concentrates on the question of whether critics of political bias in academe are merely stirring up “a tempest in a teapot.” Observing that confidence in higher education is high among everyone but the elderly, the uneducated, conservatives, and Republicans (all groups whose opinions, it is implied, matter less than those of everyone else), the AAUP concludes that there is neither a serious problem with higher education’s public image nor that this problem may have something to do with real problems in the higher education system.
AAUP General Secretary Roger Bowen deepened the demographically dismissive quality of the survey in an op-ed published Friday in Inside Higher Ed. Glossing over the troubling numbers cited above, Bowen used the poll’s breakdown of opinion by age, education, and political affiliation to declare that all is well in higher education, and that only the geriatrically, intellectually, and ideologically challenged will be persuaded by studies such as ACTA’s “How Many Ward Churchills?”: “ACTA’s message, according to our survey results, will appeal primarily to the elderly, those with low levels of educational attainment, conservatives, and Republicans,” he writes; “‘Churchill,’ as metaphor, resonates, then, with unreconstructed Cold Warriors, with conservatives, Republicans, and people who have not attended college or university.” Bowen concludes that “the public generally likes the professoriate as it is” and that the work of organizations such as ACTA will not resonate with it. But Bowen can only make such claims by ignoring what the AAUP poll actually shows.
Spinning and whitewashing and defining issues away, the AAUP is missing a point that ACTA has been making for a decade: It is not the public’s job to intuit the special worth of colleges and universities. The AAUP poll shows that, far from affirming higher education, the American people are saying “Enough.” Unless our colleges and universities take immediate steps to become publicly accountable, and unless they renew their commitment to rigorous academic standards and academic freedom for all, they risk losing the public support and special protections that they now take as a given.
The academy can’t afford to keep overlooking those basic truths. And the AAUP can’t afford to keep encouraging the academy to overlook them.