Family Matters

The following is a guest post by Donna Potts, chair of the AAUP’s Assembly of State Conferences. She is also a contributor to the newest issue of Academe. In this post, she expands on the issues in her Academe article. 

Watching the movie Taken, in which Liam Neeson’s daughter is abducted into the sex trade and heroically rescued by her father just in time, my mother exclaimed, “imagine if that were your daughter.” Imagine that.

In “Service, Sex Work, and the Profession,” I wrote about Kristy Childs, founder of Veronica’s Voice, an organization that offers support to prostituted women. She works hard to get people to understand that women, as well as the children who have more often been the focus of media and public policy attention, have been coerced into sex trafficking, and they’re all somebody’s daughters. Childs recently asked me to organize a letter writing campaign in hopes of finding a celebrity spokesperson for the cause. Neeson was first on my list, with actresses like Dolly Parton (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) and Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman) trailing somewhere behind, because whereas his film suggests the horrors of prostitution and recognizes the degree to which it is coerced, many others romanticize it to the extent that women who have survived prostitution can’t even bear to watch them.

Meanwhile, my work for Pandora’s Project, founded for survivors of sexual abuse and assault, continues apace—with British members struggling to come to terms with allegations of decades of sexual abuse by the BBC’s Jimmy Saville (who bragged that he was still a wrestler “feared in every girls’ school in Britain”—but nobody paid attention to the girls who dared to complain about his behavior). Members from around the world responded to posts about a man whom, before the scandal broke, they’d never even heard of. It continues to astonish me how freely the members provide anonymous support to strangers just as readily as they would to close family members and friends, simply because of their shared experience.

As the chair of the Assembly of State Conferences for the AAUP, I can’t help but think how many outcomes could be changed in higher education if we were as prepared to stand in solidarity for our beleaguered colleagues as the members of Pandora’s Project are for their members. I witnessed that level of solidarity among members of the AAUP’s Committee on Women in the Academic Profession when our sexual assault statement was distributed to our members, and revised just in time to send to Chancellor Biddy Martin, who arrived at Amherst shortly before a wave of sexual assault allegations hit campus. Earlier, when Martin was the chancellor at U-W Madison, the AAUP applauded Martin’s defense of academic freedom in the case of Professor William Cronon, whose email correspondence was requested by Republican Party officials.

When Tim Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri, announced the shutdown of the University of Missouri Press on May 24, the show of solidarity was tremendous: immediately, a Facebook site, “Save the University of Missouri Press,” was launched, and when Joerg Tiede and I showed up for an AAUP chapter meeting in July, 75 concerned press supporters—undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, staff, authors, and alumni—developed a plan of action that they immediately implemented. The AAUP responded at the localstate, and national levels.  Sustained pressure eventually led Wolfe to reverse the decision, as reported in the New York Times on Oct. 5.

At our ASC workshop in St. Louis on Nov. 10, a sizeable contingent of SLU faculty members attended, shortly after their no confidence vote on their president, and I was grateful to see our executive committee members from across the country join with faculty members from across Missouri to offer as much support as they could. Among them were faculty members from Missouri Southern State University, who voted no confidence on their president three years ago. Rather than bemoaning their own seemingly hopeless predicaments, they recognized the importance of reaching out to others who faced the same battle. We were all committed to finding broad-based support for broad-based and complex issues in higher education, and to considering all the ways in which we might support the growing ranks of contingent faculty, strengthen our policies, make more effective cases for the value of academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure—not for our own private good, but for the sake of the whole community, as the AAUP had intended them to be since its founding in 1915.

That day on the campus of Washington University, in the room where Howard Nemerov once taught poetry, faculty members from Harris-Stowe, Fontbonne, Truman State, the University of Missouri, Washington University, St. Louis University, and many other campuses—set aside their private wish lists and worked together as family on behalf of higher education. Seeking excellence in higher education is simply a matter of social justice, and we left the workshop with a stronger commitment to achieving it.  We also felt much less alone. Nemerov’s poem, “The Loon’s Cry,” seemed apt:

For sometimes, when the world is not our home
Nor have we any home elsewhere, but all
Things look to leave us naked, hungry, cold
We suddenly may seem in paradise
Again, in ignorance and emptiness
Blessed beyond what we thought to know.

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