Statement of the AAUP-Penn Executive Committee on Marc Rowan’s Questions to Penn Trustees
December 12, 2023
Today, unelected trustees with no academic expertise are evidently attempting a hostile takeover of the core academic functions of the University of Pennsylvania—functions related to curriculum, research, and the hiring and evaluation of faculty. A letter circulated to trustees asks, “Should any of the existing academic departments be closed?” It seems to propose unilateral changes by trustees to “instruction of students,” changes in “criteria for qualification and admission for membership in the Faculty,” and a “Code of Conduct” to constrain campus speech. And it raises the possibility that the university might discipline faculty for “promoting a particular viewpoint.”
The questions being considered by the trustees represent an assault on the principle of academic freedom, which was first articulated a century ago to safeguard the educational mission of universities. Academic freedom ensures that professionally qualified researchers and educators, not donors or politicians, make decisions about curriculum and scholarship. It also ensures that the hiring, promotion, and discipline of faculty members are based on their fitness to do the work of research and teaching, and that fitness is determined by members of the academic profession. These norms are necessary to ensure that the university can serve its fundamental purpose: to foster free and open inquiry that can produce knowledge for the public good in a democratic society. They prevent institutions of higher education from being turned into instruments that serve private and political interests. Over the course of a century, these principles have been endorsed by over 250 scholarly and educational organizations and written into the faculty handbooks of universities nationwide, including Penn’s.
Unelected billionaires without scholarly qualifications are now seeking to control academic decisions that must remain within the purview of faculty in order for research and teaching to have legitimacy and autonomy from private and partisan interests. Any attempts on the part of Penn’s trustees to close academic departments, constrain hiring, discipline faculty members for political reasons and without due process, censor faculty’s intramural or extramural speech, or impose new McCarthyite speech codes on faculty and students would constitute the most flagrant violations imaginable of the core principles of academic freedom and faculty governance. Those principles are not negotiable.
The transparent purposes of the questions being considered by the trustees are to restrict legitimate, long-established areas of study, to silence and punish speech with which trustees disagree, and to turn back the clock on gains in diversity and equity.
The AAUP-Penn Executive Committee first sounded the alarm on such threats to academic freedom in October. We issued the following recommendations, and we stand by them today.
- It is likely that donors and administrators will attempt to respond to the present crisis by creating new academic programming—whether new hiring, curricular offerings, or research initiatives. Faculty must design and control any such effort rather than allow donors to set the terms.
- When interacting with the university and its members, Penn’s trustees, alumni, and donors must be held to the same university policies that govern the rest of us, particularly policies prohibiting threats, coercion, retaliation, and intimidation. The statutes of the Board of Trustees and all university policies should be revised to reflect that expectation.
- Those trustees and members of advisory boards who have made coercive threats against members of the university and academic programs within Penn have already violated the Guidelines on Open Expression, to which they are expressly bound. We recommend that they be removed from all university advisory and governance boards.
Trustees who neither understand nor respect the purpose of the university and who threaten its educational and research mission should not govern these institutions.