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Based on recent statements by University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld as well as various members and representatives of the Iowa Board of Regents it would seem that there is some misunderstanding (or deliberate misrepresentation) of the nature, history, and significance of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). I would like to use this space to clarify what the AAUP is and does, and why their report on the selection of Harreld is far more serious than these statements imply.

The AAUP was formed more than a century ago by a handful of university professors from a variety of disciplines and universities who were concerned to protect academic freedom. In 1940, the AAUP clarified and codified what it meant by academic freedom, specifying that: “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of their results…Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject [and] teachers are citizens, members of learned professions, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Over the last half century, this statement has been endorsed by societies and associations representing every subject taught in the modern university, as well as the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Association for Higher Education and Accreditation. 

But the AAUP doesn’t only work to defend academic freedom, it also researches and recommends best practices and policies—regarding such topics as academic due process, professional ethics, and discrimination—which have been honored, on the whole, by universities and governing boards for the entire history of modern American higher education. Including, it turns out, the policies and practices of selecting a university president. In 1966, the AAUP, along with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the American Council on Education, agreed on a statement, which specified that, “Joint effort of a most critical kind must be taken when an institution chooses a new president. The selection of a chief administrative officer should follow upon a cooperative search by the governing board and faculty.” Using this statement as their guideline, the AAUP concludes in their report on Harreld’s hire that, “the search was structured and engineered by the regents’ leadership from the outset to identify a figure from the business world congenial to its image of ‘transformative leadership.’ Once such a person was identified, the rest of what followed was only an illusion of an open, honest search.” Ultimately, the report concludes that the “board acted throughout in bad faith, and not toward the faculty alone. The board allowed prominent administrators from major institutions of higher education to believe they were participating as candidates in an honest, open search when the process in actuality was being manipulated to reach a foreordained conclusion. It is difficult to see how anyone of intelligence and probity would permit himself or herself to be considered for a future presidency in Iowa.”

Relatively few American universities and colleges are sanctioned or censured by the AAUP, and it is particularly rare for a state’s flagship public university to suffer such a public rebuke by an association that represents the interests of everyone who pursues scholarship and teaches there. Why would the Iowa Board of Regents risk such censure? The AAUP report has an answer. It concludes the problem is “headstrong, thoughtless action by politically appointed regents who lack any respect for the faculties of the institutions over which they preside.” It doesn't mention, but I will, that all these boards are appointed by Republican governors.

The AAUP has no enforcement powers. Its reports are only to inform the teachers it represents and the public they serve of what’s happening in American higher education and to urge adherence to best policies and practices. However, it does conclude that any remedy “must be found in an informed public opinion, in the expression of the public’s sense that such actions by members of a governing board not only undermine the ideals and purposes of a university but also affront the citizenry the board ostensibly serves.”

As for President Harreld, the AAUP recommends that we give him the benefit of the doubt. But the fact that he doesn’t appear to know what the AAUP is makes one doubt the benefit of his selection.

Glass is a professor of English at University of Iowa. 

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