The AAUP and the NEIU Case: A Response

By Hank Reichman, First Vice-President and Chair, Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, AAUP

This blog is not usually a forum for discussion of internal AAUP organizational matters, but Peter Kirstein’s thoughtful posting on the Boyle case at NEIU merits engagement by someone from AAUP’s elected leadership, as does the lengthy comment on that posting by “professor at large.” For fear that such a response might be lost among other comments on Peter’s contribution, I am posting this separately.

To start, let me thank Peter for his gracious acknowledgement of my modest role in facilitating better communication between the Illinois Conference Committee A and the national AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance (DAFTG). Peter is also correct to highlight the fine work of the investigating committee and of our staff, especially Jordan Kurland. His concern about the system of appeal is also well-founded. However, it is not so much a matter of that system being either outdated or broken as that the process itself is really beside the point; indeed, to my knowledge, it has almost never even been used. The appeals process can surely be modified, but what we really need to do is make such appeals unnecessary by improving the relationship between state conferences, chapters, and the national office and leadership and by better coordinating the work of committees like Peter’s with the work of DAFTG.

As things presently stand, DAFTG regularly receives inquiries and information about dozens of potential violations of academic freedom each month. While the dedicated staff in that department work hard to address these, our resources are simply inadequate to properly engage every issue. Moreover, much time is wasted in the office dealing with problems that do not rise to the level of national concern and could be more efficiently — and effectively — addressed locally. But historically national AAUP has often been skeptical of and even resisted such local and state efforts. The not illegitimate fear has been that local chapters may take positions that go beyond or contradict AAUP policies and potentially embarrass the organization. And there have indeed been a few instances where this has occurred. Other organizations with a similar structure combining a strong national center with quasi-independent state affiliates, such as the ACLU, have faced similar problems.

Nevertheless, at the same time, national AAUP has at times definitely dropped the ball, so to speak, on important cases that state and local members have correctly identified as critical. Peter mentions the Finkelstein case in Illinois; I might add the Ward Churchill case in Colorado. Indeed, one of the initial impetuses for state conferences and local chapters to form their own Committee A-type structures came during the post-WWII Red Scare when, despite the wholesale dismissal of faculty members across the country for their political views, AAUP from 1949 to 1954 conducted not a single investigation! In response, conferences and chapters sought, rightfully, to pick up the ball.

So, as far as I am concerned the real issue is not should AAUP devolve some of the work now done in DAFTG to conferences and chapters. The real issue is how to do so effectively and efficiently. And, frankly, that’s not such an easy matter. Improved communication, of course, is the essential starting point and hopefully the cooperation we saw in the NEIU case will be replicated more frequently. But that is not enough. Our state conferences and chapters are uneven. Some have created strong, well-informed Committee A groups — and where these exist AAUP national leaders should be using them as potential sources for future national Committee A appointments. But many, perhaps most, conferences and chapters do not have such committees, or where they exist they are barely functional. Moreover, both AAUP nationally and our conferences and chapters need to determine how much emphasis we can place on helping faculty members who are not members of AAUP and how much we can do to assist our own members.

In this regard it is my hope that we can soon develop a strong training program for those in conferences and chapters who wish to take up this work. But to do that DAFTG staff and national Committee A members will need the time and resources (including travel funds) to work with state and local activists. A promising vehicle for doing this may be the development of a set of webinars offered to interested member-activists. Our national staff has already piloted three such webinars and they hope to develop additional ones covering important issues in academic freedom and shared governance.

This brings me to “professor at large’s” comment. Despite its “storm the manor house” tone, I find much to agree with in its arguments. First of all, the comment is absolutely correct that the current system, mandated by our by-laws, of populating our committees by unilateral presidential appointment is undemocratic. To make matters worse, in the past presidents have often deferred entirely to staff recommendations on such appointments, and frequently the result has been that the same people stay on the same committees for years, even decades. In fact, although the AAUP Council some time ago enacted term limits for committee service as a way of dealing with this, a practice of continuing to appoint termed-out members as non-voting “consultants” has undermined the effectiveness of this measure.

A formal change in the presidential power of appointment will need to go through the appropriate constitutional channels. However, in the meantime President Rudy Fichtenbaum and the current Executive Committee have attempted to address the issue in several ways. First, we have ended the practice of reappointing termed-out members as “consultants.” No matter how valuable these individuals have been in the past, none of them are indispensable; committees need new blood to thrive. Second, before he makes annual appointments Rudy has canvassed all elected members of the AAUP Council and many conference and chapter leaders seeking nominations. Unfortunately, however, it must be stated that the responses have not been as numerous as we would like. Then, third, all appointments are submitted to the Executive Committee for a confirmation vote. This system, while hardly perfect, still marks a significant step forward toward greater grass roots involvement.

I must also agree with the spirit of the comment’s concerns about our elections. However, it is incorrect to claim that an expansion of terms for Council members has been “rammed through” so that current leaders can retain power. What has been adopted is a system of holding elections every other year instead of annually. Such annual elections, which the Department of Labor has compelled us to conduct by snail mail paper ballot, drain our finances and staff time. Moreover, despite the best efforts of our nominating committee we still often have a difficult time recruiting candidates. And two years ago the elections for national officers were hotly contested by candidates offering dramatically different views of AAUP’s future direction. Yet the turnout was not much more than 10%. I believe that if we hold elections less frequently, we may be able to recruit more candidates and get a higher turnout. But the key to AAUP’s future lies not mainly in contested democratic elections, although this is clearly a necessity. The key lies in organizing and involving our members in the daily work of the Association and in recruiting and retaining new members in both our collective bargaining and advocacy chapters.

Lastly, the comment’s concern with the “graying” of the Association’s membership is hardly unfounded. Especially among at-large advocacy members, increasing numbers each year reach retirement or even pass away. And while the average age is lower and the representation from more diverse groups more extensive among members of our CB chapters, unfortunately many CB members do not participate in our elections and have not been well represented on the Association’s standing committees. But at the same time the past few years have seen a significant revitalization of our activist core. A look around the table at the November meeting of our Council, for example, would reveal the presence of a significant number of new and younger faces, among them more faculty on contingent (non-tenure-track) appointments, at least one non-faculty academic professional, at least one graduate student, and several faculty members from minority groups rarely represented in the past. We also need to insure that AAUP is seen on campus as an organization of activists, both where we have CB chapters as well as where we have advocacy chapters. We can attract new members who are younger and more diverse but only if we show them that we are an activist organization. This is changing but we can do even more.

Encouraging greater participation in voting and getting newer members from both our advocacy and CB chapters to run for office and serve on our committees will send a clear message that we remain the preeminent organization representing all faculty (everyone who teaches and does research) as well as academic professionals. But the point is that the kind of “grass roots democracy” and member involvement that “professor at large” desires is also a goal of the Council. And we are moving in that direction, albeit inevitably with fits and starts and setbacks. I would invite all faculty concerned about the future of our profession and of higher education in America to join us.

12 thoughts on “The AAUP and the NEIU Case: A Response

  1. I appreciate Hank Reichman’s comments and largely agree. The AAUP needs more grassroots democracy, but that doesn’t mean electoral democracy. Having state elections by mail-in ballot is a terrible idea that will waste vast sums of money and probably make things worse, because the leaders will be picked based on popularity and may not be effective at doing any work. What the national AAUP (and state conferences) need to do is to actively encourage its members to get more involved in every part of the AAUP. While that includes committees, there’s a lot of important work (such as this blog) which has no connection to committees.

    • Thank you, John. I agree, both about the elections and especially the importance of work on this blog, which is a major contribution to AAUP’s efforts to organize and mobilize faculty.

      • It is quite rewarding to witness such thoughtful and careful efforts at self-examination and suggestions for strengthening the Association. The stronger and more effective AAUP is, its capacity to protect and defend the most vulnerable in the academy is enhanced.

  2. I am heartened by the AAUP Vice President’s posting and his essential agreement with many of the points raised either by Prof. Kirstein or myself.

    However, a significant portion of my comment earlier concerned the role of the Assembly of State Conferences, yet the response above does not discuss that body at all. Indeed, the solutions being contemplated as outlined above appear to be more of the “top-down” variety where national takes the reins, where national crafts the plan, etc., rather than a mission for and of and by the people of the Assembly of State Conferences. Indeed, the analogy with the ACLU is very interesting and revelatory: its branches are composed of attorneys who may be equally competent and knowledgeable but indeed might take a position which is not politically pleasing to the national ACLU office. And why should the goals of an organization be not to embarrass or upset the national office? Is it not the case that the Vice President has shown that the national office so embarrassed the membership that the conferences developed the shadow Committee A, etc. structure?

    Further, the example of the committee appointments vetted through the Executive Committee would appear a step in the right direction but is it not the Council which is more representative of the membership, as the Vice President himself has indicated? Might it not be profitable to discuss in Council a possible amending of the AAUP Constitution to have the Council advise and consent on committee appointments, at least or perhaps especially in the case of their chairs — similar to the role of the U.S. Senate in the appointment of Presidential Cabinet heads? Especially in the current situation of AAUP national officers, most of whom ran for office as a slate, it is not really a major advance in democracy to say that the team slate agreed with the president, much as the Soviet Politburo agreed with the Premier (smiley face).

    As for national elections, yes, paper balloting is not cheap, but the truth of the matter is — from one who has read many of the detailed financial reports of the AAUP at the DOL Website (http://kcerds.dol-esa.gov/query/getOrgQry.do) — that the high cost of those elections was from the multiple tens of thousands of dollars spent for the retention of lawyers and law firms to resist the reforms imposed by the DOL. Hopefully the those expenditures are now behind us as process reforms have at last taken place. Thus, the biennial election system presented as a cost-saving measure “requiring” an expansion to three year terms seems pre-textual at best.

    As for conference elections and mail balloting, the LMRDA provides for indirect elections of officers in intermediate bodies where all members in the chapters would vote for the delegates to the annual meeting for elections. Instead, several conferences were running election meetings without even ensuring that a delegate system was firmly in place. What my posting sought to highlight was that the national and the conferences have become “closed societies” through the progressive disenchantment of the membership with these processes which did not and do not, in their past and even in some current incarnations, meet member needs. Thus, the opening up of conference elections to a clear enfranchisement of each member through direct election is not, to this member’s view, a disadvantage. However, it has occurred only in a few conferences, if memory serves correctly — so we are long way away from saying that the conferences or the ASC are truly democratic, and thus, as well, from saying that the AAUP is itself truly democratic.

    I invite the Vice President and other commenters to continue the dialogue.

    • At the state conference level, the problem is a lack of funds and a lack of people really interested in getting involved (or even attending annual meetings). Having ballots or a system of delegates is just a cumbersome bureaucracy that’s going to drive people away. Who wants to be the volunteer president of a state conference if you have to do all this NLRB compliance crap rather than the actual work of the AAUP? The state conferences are already open to any member to run for office, attend the annual meeting, vote, etc. We have formal democracy already, the problem is getting more people involved.

      As for the ASC, the truth is that the AAUP has limited funds and the ASC even more so, and it’s not easy to change that. I don’t think the solution is to try to to amend the Constitution to give the ASC more formal power over the AAUP by vetoing committee appointments. What would that accomplish? I would argue for something more radical. I think the ASC should create its own committees to do what the AAUP needs but lacks the resources (or the will) to do. So, I think the ASC should take the lead in, for example, an AAUP speakers bureau, or helping with the annual conference, or assisting in creating new advocacy chapters and conferences, or a rapid-response committee that writes letters to campuses (and the media) on immediate controversies, contacts faculty in trouble to offer assistance, and does some of the groundwork to help Committee A in future investigations. But that all depends on the willingness of the ASC leaders to take a new approach (and perhaps the national AAUP to encourage more help). These are all things that no AAUP committee exists to do, that national AAUP staff are too overwhelmed to really deal with, and that are appropriate activities for the ASC to do without threatening anyone’s turf.

      So, if you want to help the AAUP, encourage more faculty to get involved, run for office and try to get support for your ideas, and persuade people with ideas (and please, let’s not believe that asking for government intrusion in AAUP affairs does anything to help, because it obviously hasn’t and never will).

      • No one asks for government intrusion into the AAUP or any other labor organization unless they cannot get responses from within the organization. In the end, the government “intrusion,” as Prof. Wilson calls it, appears to have improved many of the processes for elections and made them more democratic. Insofar as many conferences are or have been undemocratic, the lessons of the LMRDA remain instructive and help to reform the entire organization.

        As for the conferences, they find their dues generally absorbed in large part by national — and the ASC has the right in its constitution to levy dues but doesn’t. Pretty strange stuff, eh? The resources game is indeed at the center of all of this — and national calls the tune and eats the largest portion of the “pie” as the individual conferences are powerless to even receive their full complement of conference dues and the ASC operates from an arbitrary fixed sum of minimal proportion (somewhere in the neighborhood of $200K annually, if I recall correctly).

        In short, the role Prof. Wilson advocates for the conferences and the ASC is in fact already envisioned and empowered by the ASC constitution and the AAUP constitution. However, the resource allocation within AAUP needs to be re-thought because it is currently structured to centralize power to national.

        This commenter is not advocating for the ASC to have an aggressive role in the affirmation of national committee appointments but rather for Council to assume that responsibility because Council, unlike the ASC, represents the entire membership. The ASC only represents the membership who happen to be in states with organized conferences. As a companion piece to the Collective Bargaining Congress, the ASC is the place where advocacy chapters can thrive and flourish alongside their organized chapters in the conferences, benefiting from each other’s advocacy efforts. In other words, the AAUP leadership has lamented the drop in advocacy chapter membership, even as the resources allocated to ASC and the conferences remain paltry. The relationship should be obvious.

        We should not kid ourselves: National keeps a tight rein on the conferences, threatens them with decertification unless they give back to national more of their dues, etc. What is happening behind the scenes is not pretty — in some instances some conferences reps have attended the annual meeting not knowing until the last minute whether they will be seated as delegates in the ASC because of National’s interference.

        The ASC should police itself — all of this top-down control from National is what discourages members from becoming more active in the first place. Thus, I renew my invitation to the Vice President to address these matters which were missing in his posting above.

  3. Maybe it is the product of my past, when concealed identities by the thousands attempted to remove me from the august world of academia, but I wonder why “professor-at-large” wishes to conceal her or his identity? I think those who judge, should be willing to be judged by on the record attribution. I realise it is the internet culture, except for letters-to-the-editor or op-eds, to allow pseudonyms to appear. Yet if “professor-at-large” seeks colloquy with a specific individual, why not allow the desired exchange to take place between two unconcealed identities?

    • I’m glad you raised that issue, Prof. Kirstein.

      You see, for _you_ I am anonymous but for the AAUP monitor of the Website, I am not, because I used my university email address for the log in. In fact, my identity may even be the reason that an AAUP official responded to my earlier comment with this post on the Academe blog — a venue which, if I’m not mistaken, does not usually enjoy protracted dialogue in the comment session.

      So, let’s deal with the issues and the arguments openly on their face, shall we? Without resorting to ad hominem attacks. After all, isn’t this a rare opportunity to do so?

      As for “colloquy with a specific individual,” please be reminded that the AAUP Vice President is the author of the post and therefore it is natural for a commenter to seek the response of the person who authored the posting. No ad hominem there, at all, at all….

      • I did not state I did not know who you were, ma’am. I merely asked why you chose to use a pseudonym to conceal your identity? I think especially public colloquies particularly on an academic website should be conducted in an open manner with unconcealed identities. That is my opinion and I believe it is a matter of honour and full disclosure. You obviously have a different viewpoint. Such is freedom.

  4. Those of us who have experienced retaliation from AAUP officials for the exercise of freedom of speech within the Association know the nature of the beast with whom we dialogue here.

    The state conference officer’s admission — as was, of course suspected — that he was and is “in the know” as to the identity of this commenter only demonstrates that the motives of such AAUP blog interlocutors are first and foremost self-serving and authoritarian. Unfortunately, a primary preoccupation of many if not most AAUP leaders has been, as here shown, the willed evasion of full engagement with inconvenient truths and relevant history necessary to ensure democratic processes within the Association. The founders of AAUP had, on the contrary, hoped that the priorities of the Association would be the open quest for the preservation of the university as we knew and came to love it as an institution in American society.

    In short, this commenter dared to “speak truth to power” within AAUP on this blog — and struck too close to too many raw truths. Thus, the readers have witnessed an intentional diversionary tactic by an AAUP leader away from the issues under discussion and toward ad hominem argument. We note, more than in passing, the silence of the AAUP Vice President even as the conference officer appears to have revealed more than he clearly intended.

    Quod erat demonstrandum. The AAUP is dead. Long live the AAUP!

    • My “silence” should be taken only as reflecting the fact that I choose to spend my time actually doing what I was elected to do. In a week that saw enormously significant challenges to academic freedom in Colorado and Kansas and the unfortunate vote of the American Studies Association to endorse an academic boycott, I was striving to ensure that AAUP is indeed very much alive. Those readers who wish to see a bit of what AAUP actually DOES, may be interested to read our statements on the events in Kansas and Colorado, which are here (http://aaup.org/news/social-media-policy-violates-academic-freedom) and here (http://aaup.org/news/academic-freedom-violated-university-colorado). Professor at large has every right, of course, whatever “real identity” stands behind that title, to comment on any posting to this blog. But no one has an obligation to respond to those comments. They speak for themselves.

      • It is, of course, disingenuous of the Vice President to pretend that somehow he, unlike the conference leader above, does not have access to the email addresses used to log in to the comment section of this Academe Blog.

        Further, indeed, all of the comments on this blog speak for themselves, his last one included, which directly contradicts in tone and substance the “welcoming” stance of his initial blog posting which this commenter was foolish enough to believe represented an openness for further dialogue. Not so, apparently.

        The reader who is interested in the substantive issues raised concerning how AAUP members should be governing themselves in the Assembly of State Conferences, etc. — issues which the Vice President and the state conference leader obviously seek to avoid probing further — might consult the largely-abandoned Assembly of State Conferences Constitution at http://www.aaup.org/about/elected-leaders/ASC/constitution which sustains the arguments made by this commenter in favor of “grass roots” democracy in AAUP.

        “The rest is silence.”

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