As a committed member of the American Association of University Professors, the editor of its Illinois Academe newspaper, and a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Graduate and Professional Students, I have deep concerns about the future of the organization. When a very small proportion of the AAUP membership gathers today for the start of the AAUP annual meeting, we have an opportunity to demand a new direction for the AAUP. Unfortunately, I am pessimistic about whether AAUP members understand why the AAUP is fading in importance, or are willing to break from the AAUP’s calcified traditions in order to save the organization.
To survive and grow at a critical moment for higher education, the AAUP needs to become more of an activist organization, decentralize its top-heavy structure, and join the scholarly world.
Some critics claim that the AAUP’s problems are due to its decision in the early 1970s to add collective bargaining units to its role. This is all wrong. About half of the AAUP members are part of unionized chapters, and they’ve been the only thing keeping the AAUP alive financially. The AAUP needs to expand its union efforts, and the plans to restructure the AAUP by dividing the organization into its unionized and advocacy halves are little more than rearranging deck chairs. The unionized and advocacy parts of the AAUP share common goals of defending academic freedom, fighting the corporatization of higher education, and expanding the organization. We don’t need to create two AAUPs; we need to make the one we have better.
Nor is poor leadership the fundamental problem at the AAUP, although in the recent past, mismanagement has been a serious barrier to improving the AAUP. However, there’s every indication that President Cary Nelson and Executive Director Ernie Benjamin have stabilized the AAUP, although much depends on the selection of the next general secretary.
Before 9/11, there were 275,000 American Civil Liberties Union members; today, in response to the attacks on civil liberties in America, the ACLU has more than 500,000 members. There has been a similar attack on academic freedom since 2001, and yet the AAUP’s membership has remained virtually unchanged at around 40,000.
The AAUP’s policy of addressing only a small portion of academic freedom cases, and then only after a lengthy investigation, was always flawed. But today, its public inactivity on academic freedom violations threatens the future of the organization. Usually, only obscure colleges run by intransigent or idiotic administrators ever get censured, and many of the worst violations of academic freedom are never condemned by the AAUP; despite a devastating 2004 AAUP report about the attack on academic freedom by Medaille College, Committee A refused to recommend censure in vain hope of negotiating a settlement.
Administrators have learned that the AAUP probably will never do anything, and a simple payout usually solves the problem quietly. When the University of Southern Mississippi then-president Shelby Thames fired two tenured AAUP leaders in 2004 for investigating an administrator’s credentials, the AAUP never took any formal action because the university simply paid off the faculty.
Today, administrators are much more fearful of condemnation by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) than the AAUP. FIRE, unlike the AAUP, acts quickly rather than glacially. FIRE, unlike the AAUP, acts publicly rather than quietly. The AAUP is still the unparalleled leader at developing policy statements on academic freedom. But unless those policies are backed by an activist group, they may not matter much.
I often find myself, when dealing with an incident of academic freedom, in the uncomfortable position of advising the victim to contact the AAUP, but telling them to understand that the AAUP will not act until all appeals are finished, and even then censure is rare and takes a long time. If they really want to get something done, I tell them, they should contact FIRE. I wish the AAUP would be the leading defender of academic freedom in America, but wishing it won’t help someone get their job back.
FIRE is a relatively obscure organization with a small staff, less than a decade old, funded by conservative foundations, with no membership that it represents. Yet it has managed by its example to embarrass the AAUP at every turn, simply by virtue of speaking out loudly and forcefully against violations of academic freedom. The AAUP should have learned how to be more effective without needing this competition, but at least FIRE has proven once and for all that an activist group defending academic freedom can be far more effective than an academic organization.
I believe that the AAUP, with its resources and its nationwide membership and its strong reputation, can address individual cases of academic freedom far better than FIRE does. This will require expanding the AAUP’s focus beyond faculty members, to make it an organization that works for the rights of staff and students as well as professors because the rights of all of us are threatened by the censorship of anyone on campus.
Activism in Defense of Academic Freedom
Activism is the fundamental change necessary to save the AAUP and help protect academic freedom. In 1930, the AAUP recognized that its system of investigations was inadequate to protect academic freedom, and so the association leaders developed the censure list. In more than 75 years since then, the AAUP’s approach to academic freedom has remained frozen in time, oblivious to the radical shifts in higher education. Astonishingly, despite rapid transportation and internet communication, the AAUP today often takes far longer to investigate and censure an institution than it did in the 1930s.
There may be some who imagine that the AAUP preserves its credibility and neutrality by this current slow-motion system of silence; nothing could be further from the truth. When the AAUP fails to speak publicly about violations of academic freedom (in order to preserve its objectivity for a future investigation that rarely happens), the AAUP invites accusations of bias and irrelevance. When the AAUP fails to be the leading voice for academic freedom, its silence is interpreted as incompetence, not scholarly detachment.
An activist stance in no way will impede the AAUP’s current process of investigating and censuring institutions that violate academic freedom. If anything, the activist approach will improve the current censure system by providing institutions with greater warning earlier in the process that their actions endanger academic freedom. Instead of a slap on the hand long after a violation has occurred, the AAUP can deliver a slap in the face before a final decision is made.
The national office of the AAUP has sometimes been in disarray. Expanding the work of the AAUP will require changes in how the AAUP operates. The AAUP is far too centralized and hierarchical. Nearly everything the AAUP does goes through the national office for permission, a bureaucracy that makes rapid responses rare. The primary underutilized resource of the AAUP is the army of volunteers available through its state and campus chapters.
Instead of merely passing on cases to the national office and getting permission before commenting or working on them, state AAUP divisions should be the leaders in initiating activism for each state, and speaking out about potential violations of academic freedom. In addition, AAUP committees should be encouraged to speak out on cases relevant to their missions, instead of making Committee A the sole (and usually silent) voice of the AAUP. The danger of decentralization is that state or campus chapters might take positions contrary to the national office; but an institution devoted to academic freedom should not be afraid of internal dissent.
The Scholarship of Higher Education and Academic Freedom
One key reason why the AAUP has faded in influence among faculty (especially at research universities) is that the AAUP is disconnected from the scholarly world. The AAUP can greatly increase its credibility in academia by providing leadership for the interdisciplinary study of higher education in general, and academic freedom in particular. By adding a scholarly conference to its annual meeting, the AAUP can bring in more members and contribute to the scholarly study of academic freedom. The AAUP should also develop a scholarly online journal about academic freedom, and a scholarly book series on academic freedom and higher education.
The AAUP must restructure its ridiculously high membership fees (which range from $39 to $188), by bringing the fee levels for non-union members down to what most scholarly associations charge, with graduated fees based on income, no state fees, and a discounted rate for new members.
The AAUP also needs to bring its message to scholarly conferences. The AAUP should target all of the leading academic conferences, and seek to have issues of academic freedom and other topics of concern to the AAUP made a part of these conferences (as it is doing at this year’s Modern Language Association conference). By working with its members who are part of these scholarly associations, the AAUP can raise its profile among faculty and make professional issues a greater part of disciplinary conferences.
The AAUP will not disappear or cease doing its good work, despite its current troubles. The main question is, why can’t the AAUP do more, and do it better? Fundamentally, it is not money nor resources standing in our way. It is not the bias against unions nor the flaws of past management that prevent the AAUP from rising to its past prominence. It is our failure to imagine a better, bigger AAUP, and to act to make this change happen. The AAUP can greatly expand its membership, its credibility, and its influence, if only it is willing to give up this fear of change and become a decentralized, activist organization with a new devotion to scholarship.Download file "An AAUP Manifesto"