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 However, it is not so much a matter of that system being either outdated or broken as that the process itself is really beside the point; indeed, to my knowledge, it has almost never even been used.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.