Interview with Rudy Fichtenbaum

Rudy Fichtenbaum, a professor at Wright State University, was elected the next president of the AAUP last month. John K. Wilson interviewed Fichtenbaum via email about his goals for the AAUP.

John K. Wilson: A headline about your election on asked, “Is the AAUP about to change course?” Is it? In what direction?

Rudy Fichtenbaum: It’s not a matter of will it change course, but of what course it will take, because we are no longer able to maintain the status quo. Advocacy membership is declining, and until recently, we have not been active in pursuing organizing opportunities. The old model for collective bargaining, which is no longer sustainable, was to wait for a group of faculty to come to us and tell us that they want to organize. We have had a similar approach to building advocacy chapters as well. If we don’t find ways to intensify our efforts to organize new chapters, whether collective bargaining units or advocacy chapters– and if we don’t reach out to create alliances with other faculty, student, and labor groups, we will soon lose our significance as an organization. I know that puts it starkly, but that is the harsh reality. In recent years, AAUP has taken important strides in the direction in which we need to go, but we cannot afford to relax; indeed, we need to intensify our activity.

Recently we have demonstrated that it is possible to organize faculty on research campuses with our victories at Bowling Green State University, the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the University of Oregon. Unfortunately, outside of Ohio and possibly Michigan, where we have a number of collective bargaining chapters and strong state conferences, we do not have the resources to organize large research campuses independently. Right now, we can organize these types of campuses only as part of a joint effort with the AFT. Joint organizing has many advantages, but we also need to develop the capability of doing some independent organizing.

Like it or not, our profession has changed dramatically. The majority of faculty today are either full time non-tenure track faculty or part-time faculty. AAUP was slow in reacting to this change. We have developed good policy statements on the growing use of full time non-tenure track and part-time faculty, but we have been slow in bringing those faculty into our ranks and in addressing their unique problems. Building upon these policy statements, AAUP can offer all faculty a membership that respects them as professionals and affirms the value of each colleague within the larger academic community. AAUP can also focus on the future by continuing to work with graduate students and recognize their vital role in the future of higher education.

We must work collaboratively with organizations like the New Faculty Majority and the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education to address issues facing this group of faculty. Part-time faculty can be organized, but it is very expensive and again we do not have the resources to do this type of organizing on our own. Nevertheless, we must figure out a way to solve this problem. We also need to be more welcoming to academic professionals, particularly those who are directly involved in working with students, and we need to recognize that not all faculty teach at four- year institutions. We often forget that many of our colleagues at our community colleges work under conditions that faculty at four-year institutions would regard as simply unsustainable.

Many of our chapters and state conferences are also dissatisfied with the level of service they receive from the national AAUP. We cannot organize chapters and then just forget about them. We need to stay in touch with our chapters and provide services and training that will help them to succeed whether they are collective bargaining chapters or advocacy chapters. We need to make better use of our website and social media to provide support for our chapters. We also need to strengthen our state conferences so that they become vehicles for organizing faculty. I understand that not all faculty can be organized into collective bargaining chapters. But all faculty can be organized and can be active collectively in fighting for academic freedom, shared governance, and improvements in the economic security of our profession.

We need to do a better job in educating our members and the profession as a whole about the important work that we do through our Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and our Committee on College and University Governance. The investigations done by these Committees and the policies they develop are extremely important. At times, however, we focus too much on process and not enough on outcomes.

In addition, AAUP has done a poor job explaining the role of these Committees to our members. Many see them as providing a means of settling grievances. We need to ensure that the purposes and principles that guide our investigations remain transparent. On occasion, the work of these Committees does result in helping an individual faculty member, but that is not the primary purpose of this work. The primary purpose of this type of work is to establish standards and codes of conduct for the profession. At the same time, those who develop these policies, establish such standards, and perform these investigations need to take a more active role in helping organize members of the profession to make use of the policies and standards that they have established.

I also believe that the elected leadership of the organization needs to play a more active role in setting priorities for the work of the Association. The National Council needs to be more involved in real decision-making, and we need all Council members to play an active role in the Association.

The biggest threat to our organization is the plain and simple fact that we are too small. We are too small to do the traditional work of the Association and too small to organize and do the collective bargaining work. That is the main challenge we face. If we don’t grow, we will not be able to hold onto the CB chapters that we have and if we lose the CB chapters, then there will be no money for the traditional work of the AAUP.

Wilson: What do you think were outgoing president Cary Nelson’s biggest accomplishments and worst mistakes, and what do you plan to do differently?

Fichtenbaum: Cary and I have different styles and personalities, but the issues that have divided AAUP and the daunting challenges we face are not now and never have been about personalities. And on those issues and challenges, Cary and I mostly agree, although occasionally we have differed about how best to achieve our common goals. Cary has led AAUP through one of the most difficult periods in our history. He has been an eloquent spokesman and tireless worker for academic freedom, shared governance, and our profession, and he has supported both collective bargaining efforts and the traditional activities of the Association. His willingness, on short notice, to spend two weeks in Eugene walking the halls during the final stages of our recent successful campaign to organize a collective bargaining unit at the University of Oregon is just one example of his dedication and effort. I look forward to his support and counsel, which he has graciously pledged. As for his mistakes, we all make them and I would prefer not to dwell on that topic, as I hope some day my successor will also avoid discussing the mistakes that I will inevitably make.

Wilson: Cary Nelson began a practice of speaking out on a few high-profile academic freedom cases without waiting years for the report-and-censure process to be completed. Do you plan to continue (or expand) that approach to speaking publicly about violations of academic freedom, or do you think some kind of rapid-response committee should be created, or do you think that the AAUP should be limited to the traditional Committee A approach?

Fichtenbaum: I think Cary had the right approach on this issue. One can certainly respond in egregious cases by focusing on the principle rather then the particular facts. So when appropriate I will speak out on certain high profile cases.

Wilson: The AAUP’s recent problems with finding a long-term General Secretary seems to be connected to the question of what the role of this complicated job is: office manager, spokesperson, organizer, activist, etc. What do you think the job of the General Secretary should be, how should the President and General Secretary function together, and what kind of General Secretary will you be looking for?

Fichtenbaum: This is a difficult question to answer. In the real world there will be no perfect candidate for this job. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and so to some degree the role of the General Secretary will depend on the particular person who takes the job. It may turn out that the person we hire will have strong credentials in fundraising, government relations, or organizing. However, whatever strengths and weaknesses a candidate may have, our first requirement will be that the new General Secretary be wholeheartedly dedicated to the principle that the AAUP office and staff serve the members. We also expect the new General Secretary to impress upon the staff the need to work together collaboratively to carry out the work of the Association. The new General Secretary must organize the staff to implement the policies and priorities set by the Council and the Executive Committee of Council, including leading by example.

Wilson: In many states, and at most private colleges, the right of faculty to choose a union is effectively banned in America. What should the AAUP do to increase its membership and add chapters at colleges without a collective bargaining unit?

Fichtenbaum: It is ironic that the U.S. government frequently criticizes other government for their mistreatment of workers. For years the U.S. government has decried prohibitions against workers forming independent unions. Yet right here in the U.S. we have a significant portion of the members of our profession who are denied these very rights. The Yeshiva decision has made it all but impossible for our colleagues at private institutions to organize. We still have some chapters who engage in collective bargaining at private institutions, but by and large the reality is that collective bargaining is not an option for them. We also have many colleagues employed in public institutions located in states without enabling legislation.

The absence of collective bargaining does not have to mean the absence of collective action. Bargaining, whether it takes place under the sanction of certain legal protections or otherwise, is all about power. Anyone who has studied American labor law knows that it is stacked against workers. Merely having a union does not mean that an administration will bargain. The power of unions comes from the collective action and the support of members.

There was no enabling legislation for the civil rights movement. There was no enabling legislation for the women’s or gay rights movements, nor has there been enabling legislation to create the Occupy movement. Yet each of these movements has involved collective action on the part of masses of people, and no one can deny that they have power.

We need to organize faculty to engage in collective action in defense of academic freedom, shared governance, and improvements in the economic security of our profession. These are not simply goals that we have as some special interest. The goals of our profession promote the common good. Higher education is a public good; it is a human right. Unless we stand up together as a profession to protect higher education as a public good, we will continue to see the erosion of faculty rights and the transformation of higher education into a system to serve corporate interests and not the public interest.

The very fact that AAUP is built around a structure of chapters suggests that we can organize faculty to engage in collective action. One of the problems of keeping members who join as individuals is that they do not necessarily feel that they are a part of anything. Therefore, when it comes time to renew their memberships, we too often lose them because there are lots of other organizations and causes that are competing for everyone’s support. I believe that the only way that we can sustain membership among advocacy members is if they are part of a vibrant organization comprised of all faculty: tenure track, full time non-tenure track and part-time, as well as graduate students, working together on their campuses and with their state conferences to help save higher education.

Wilson: One commenter on a story about your election wrote about faculty unionization, “please, you guys are not coal miners.” In a country where almost all of the millionaire athletes are union members, why do you think it’s difficult to convince people (and professors) that labor unions are appropriate for faculty?

Fichtenbaum: This is a complicated question. The fact of the matter is that most American workers are not members of unions. However, opinion polls consistently show that most Americans would like to be represented by a union. So if we live in a democracy and most people want to be represented by unions, why are there so few union members? The fundamental problem is that corporate interests have so stacked labor law against workers and have such vast resources that they have made it very difficult for workers to organize unions.

The same is true for faculty. Beyond the Yeshiva decision, in many states there is no enabling legislation. How many faculty at private institutions would be organized were it not for the Yeshiva decision? The fact that the Far Right has launched a coordinated attack on public employee unions including, for example, the introduction of Yeshiva-type language in Ohio Senate Bill 5, is an indication that faculty are willing to organize. Why else would anyone effectively prohibit them from organizing? Why else would the Far Right be interested in passing right-to-work legislation in Indiana, where it has already passed, and in Ohio and Michigan, where there are active efforts to enact right-to-work laws?

In states in which there is enabling legislation, many faculty are organized. I am not sure of the exact numbers, but I suspect that in many states, a higher percentage of faculty at public institutions are organized than workers in the private sector in those same states.

So for the most part I believe faculty, if given a chance, will organize. Remember that today the majority of faculty in the U.S. are not tenured or tenure-track faculty.

However, that is not to say that there are not issues that are unique to faculty. Historically, tenured and tenure track faculty, particularly at more elite institutions, have not been interested in organizing. The work of faculty by its very nature helps to promote a certain amount of individualism. However, this group of faculty is getting smaller and smaller, and with the defunding of public higher education along with the misplaced priorities of administrators, conditions for faculty even at major public research institutions are deteriorating.

One thought on “Interview with Rudy Fichtenbaum

  1. Dr. Fichtenbaum comes to his elected post out of a strong set of convictions. My personal hope for the association is that the elected leadership and the AAUP staff will coalesce around the idea of growing the membership. This necessarily means finding ways to transform faculty into activists who are prepared to discover their common interests – and I believe he knows this is no mean feat. The forces opposing our principles of academic freedom, shared governance and due process are great. No less a threat is our profession’s inattention to its own defense.

    My colleagues and I became a cadre of activist scholars when we began our campaign to bring collective bargaining to our campus. All any of our group ever wanted to do was teach, perform our research, and provide service to our respective institutions and disciplines. Gradually we began to understand the critical importance of learning to defend our professional rights. Rudy was ready to help us learn the ropes.

    Ten years and two labor contracts later, we simply never stopped our activism because we see the value of supporting the unique work that AAUP does for all faculty – tenure track or not, organized or not, chapter members or not. We support the national association because it is the only such entity that has continually worked for the good of higher education (faculty, students and administrations). To get this message across, just to our campus community, requires constant dedication to the task – and we have a union!

    Now, I know some faculty out in the southwest who are every bit as deserving of support as the fortunate faculty here in Ohio with brothers and sisters close at hand. If AAUP principles are indeed universal, the association, at every level, needs to figure out how to apply them more uniformly. If President Fichtenbaum can move the association closer to that ideal, then his time in office will truly be for the greater good.

    Dave Witt

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