American Association of University Professors on the Political Correctness Controversy - July 24, 1991

By American Association of University Professors
September 1991; page 5; Volume 3, No. 1
Polemicist

In recent months critics have accused American higher education of submitting to the alleged domination of exponents of "political correctness." Their assault has involved name-calling, the irresponsible use of anecdotes, and not infrequently the assertion that "political correctness" is the new McCarthyism that is chilling the climate of debate on campus and subjecting political dissenters to the threat of reprisal. For all its self-righteous verve, this attack has frequently been less than candid about its actual origin, which appears to lie in an only partly concealed animosity toward equal opportunity and its first effects of modestly increasing the participation of women and racial cultural minorities on campus.

The AAUP finds no contradiction between its founding principles of academic freedom and its longstanding policy in support of affirmative action and equal opportunity. We do, of course, acknowledge that there are legitimate divergences of opinion regarding the best means for securing access to higher education for students of diverse backgrounds and increasing the representation of heretofore underrepresented classes in the ranks of college and university faculties.

Charges of "political correctness" however, have a way of taking on their own coercive tone. Likewise, charges that certain persons are being damaged by a new version of McCarthyism ignore the very real differences between the aggressions against individual rights systematically carried out by an arm of Congress and the haphazard, sometimes heated, and not infrequently cantankerous disagreements that inevitably attend the exchange of opinions on campus. While alert to the possibility that one party may be made to feel uncomfortable for views regarded as "politically correct," the Assocation would also point out that others have suffered gender- or racially-based forms of insensitivity. Especially irresponsible are suggestions by some commentators that feminist and minority groups are themselves chiefly responsible for the attacks directed against them.

Throughout its history the AAUP has formulated and defended the ground rules that insure [sic] free debate in the academy. In adjudicating or investigating specific complaints by faculty members, it proceeds not anecdotally but through the collection of as many relevant facts as possible and the separation of documentably serious infringements on academic freedom from other episodes that may cause transitory discomfort. It does not believe the ends of reasoned debate are secured by premature recourse to headline-grabbing or the attempt to construct on the basis of disconnected anecdotes, a case that a monolithic-form of thought control is now sweeping American campuses.

We remind all parties that some discomfort is an inevitable consequence of a climate of give-and-take on campus, especially when the subjects of disagreement are sensitive issues of race, gender or ethnicity. But demonstrable personal harm or abridgement of academic due process may occur as a result of the inflammation of the campus climate by allegations of either political correctness or incorrectness. In all such cases, the AAUP stands ready to defend the integrity of university personnel processes and the role of appropriately composed faculty bodies in academic decision-making and review.