Nebraska Politics

I do not think this word means what you think it means, Senator Erdman

State Senator Erdman’s latest attack on UNL in his “Straight Talk” column demonstrates once again that the Senator should not be spending his time attacking the state’s teachers but instead needs to be sent back to school.  Much of his criticism seems to be based upon his confusion over two words—censor and censure—that the Senator will hopefully come to learn in his further study do not mean the same thing.  He repeatedly charges that UNL will be “censored” or subject to “censorship” by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).  This does indeed sound like a radical threat to academic freedom at the University since the verb “censor” connotes suppressing speech deemed objectionable.  But the AAUP is doing nothing of the kind.  As every other press release and story about the AAUP’s impending vote has accurately noted, the AAUP is poised to censure the UNL administration, not censor it.   To censure someone is to make a judgment that they have acted unethically or profoundly against the norms of their community.  In this case, the President and upper administration—in the Senator’s words—“caved into political pressure placed upon them by politicians like [him]” and failed to follow the bylaws of the university in how they handled the matter.  That the Senator seems unconcerned about this or even celebrates it is extremely troubling, given that he is charged with representing the interests of Nebraskans, including the future of our economy and educational institutions, which are now darker due to his actions.

The Senator’s apparent confusion over the meaning of “censor” and “censure” conveniently serves his larger political purpose of attacking public education in the state.  It is just the latest in a series of statements he has made designed to portray the University and its faculty as hostile to free speech when the truth is quite the opposite.  It must be sincerely hoped that his mistake is merely innocent ignorance rather than a willful attempt to mislead his constituents.   Both the University and the AAUP in their purpose, in their structure, and their daily practice seek to promote and protect free expression.  If the AAUP were on the verge of censoring the UNL administration somehow (although I’m not certain how they could conceivably do that) then the Senator’s outrage would be entirely justified, and I would hope that Nebraska citizens would join both of us in expressing our opposition to such actions.  President Bounds and every other member of the university community have every right to express their opinions in public as citizens.  They should not be censored, and the AAUP, contrary to the misleading statements of the Senator, both specifically opposes censorship and has as one of its principal missions the defense of academic freedom, which is a type of freedom of speech.

The subject of the mission and character of the AAUP raises a second even more serious failing with the Senator’s effort.  He would like to paint it as an organization with a “radical agenda” bent on “propagandizing” and “indoctrinating.”  He tries to do this by lifting a short quote from the AAUP mission statement which says it includes “. . . promoting the economic security of those who teach and research in higher education . . . .”  Leaving aside that this isn’t exactly the Stalinist agitprop that he would like to claim it is, it is also a partial and distorted picture of the mission and history of the AAUP.   As the full mission statement from AAUP makes clear, the AAUP was founded in 1915 primarily to help “shape American higher education by developing the standards and procedures that maintain quality in education and academic freedom in this country’s colleges and universities.”  Part of maintaining quality in education is ensuring that it can attract our country’s best and brightest to be teachers, and as we all know, part of that involves offering those people a decent wage.  (So yes, Senator, the AAUP seeks to promote the economic security of those who teach and research at the university.  What are you promoting?  Slave labor?)  But it also involves a promise: that the university will protect the right of its researchers “to search for truth, to support a position the searcher believes is the truth, and to disagree with others whose intellect reaches a different conclusion,” as the University of Nebraska Board of Regents bylaws put it.  It equally protects the right of those researchers to turn around and teach all of these things to students.  This is what we call academic freedom.  As the Regents’ bylaws go on to note, this is “the fiber of America’s greatness. It is, likewise, the strength of a great University, and its preservation is vital.”

Why is academic freedom so vital?  This question is probably best answered by thinking about cases where this promise is broken.  In some places, university researchers are expected to produce research that supports the view of the ruler or ruling party (or suffer the consequences).  Political pressure is placed on those who are not toeing the party line.  There are also more subtle threats to academic freedom: what if a big donor promises lots of money to a state institution whose budget keeps getting slashed, but only if their researchers investigate certain questions and topics and make sure to leave others alone?  Or a donor who threatens to withdraw his support should a certain article or book get published?  Or a member of a legislature who threatens to vote against funding the university if one or more of its faculty publishes or teaches things he personally doesn’t like?  Or perhaps just says something he doesn’t like in a public protest? In all of these cases, the truth is abandoned or warped by money or political pressure.  As the saying goes, it is the truth that sets—and keeps—us free, and every time academic freedom is compromised in the face of pressure from the powerful politicians and moneyed interests in our society, we all become a little less free.

We all know, however, that it’s hard to stick to your principles when you’re being pressured by people with power or money.  In the case of university administrators charged with the well-being of the university, the threat of a budget cut can seem more important to a university’s future than upholding these principles.  It’s for tough situations like that that our collectively-agreed-upon laws at the university are made.  It’s easy to follow those rules when there’s no pressure to break them.  It’s harder to do the right thing when that pressure is immense.  That’s where the AAUP comes in.

The AAUP is a non-partisan watchdog organization that reminds those in charge—especially when the going gets tough—that there are larger principles at stake.  It reminds administrators of the importance of following the rules and protecting the academic freedom of faculty and students.  In our case, the AAUP has been sending such letters to NU administrators since September 13 of last year, trying to encourage them to remember and to uphold these principles.  They have also offered assistance and advice in doing so.  In other words, they sought to support and encourage a constructive dialogue about how to handle this challenging situation.

Unfortunately, as the AAUP’s investigative report clearly shows, the NU administration ultimately decided to bar one of its teachers from teaching solely because of outside political pressure and without following any of the procedures put in place to handle such situations. The details surrounding this action, while important to work through, do not change these basic facts.  It is for these actions that the AAUP is poised to issue a very public national censure.  As an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education put it:

Senator Erdman had some “nonnegotiable” requests, according to an account provided by Bounds and Green to a board member. He told them to fire Courtney Lawton from her teaching contract and expel her from her graduate program. . .  [When the Chancellor subsequently met with Lawton] Chancellor Green leveled with her: The decision wasn’t about her skills as a thinker or teacher, he said. It was just politics. 

“If we put you back in the classroom, we’re going to continue to suffer damage,” said Green.

Senator Erdman and a handful of other legislators bear direct responsibility for weakening academic freedom at UNL, and consequently for causing substantial damage to the university’s reputation nationally.  The AAUP’s impending censure vote is a public recognition of that fact.  That the Senator remains unapologetic and even proud of these actions brings into question his understanding of how good education really works—in the words of NU’s Board of Regents, “the fiber of America’s greatness”—and thus his fitness to speak on Nebraskans’ behalf regarding what is best for their state’s universities.  I recommend that Senator Erdman’s constituents consider carefully who they want speaking for them in the future.  Should they choose someone with more knowledge of how to promote our state’s best interests, I have no doubt Steve Erdman will call it censorship and the results of a “radical” agenda.  But once again, he’d just be flat out wrong.  It’s what we call democracy.