Public Intellectuals and the AAUP

This is a guest post by Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history emerita at Yeshiva University. She also is a former editor of Academe and served on the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Her article, “One Historian’s Perspective on Academic Freedom and the AAUP,” is in the January-February issue of Academe.

Since I no longer edit Academe, I don’t get to see its articles until they are published. The recent issue, with its focus on public intellectuals (however one wants to define them), could not be both more and less timely. If nothing else, it shows us how quickly the world of higher education changes.

So quickly, in fact, that even within the few months it takes to produce an issue of Academe, the ground has shifted. When, for example, I began writing about the AAUP and academic freedom last fall, MOOCs with their implicit threat to further deprofessionalize the faculty were all the rageat least among pundits and the entrepreneurial elite. Now, only a few months later, second thoughts are surfacing.  Or take Richard McCarty’s thoughtful article about the conflict between academic freedom and religious doctrine within Catholic colleges and universities. Who could have predicted that the advent of a new pope would make McCarty’s trepidation seem so dated? But no sooner do the forces of freedom and rationality manage to whack one mole than another rises up to undermine the democratic promise of higher education. It’s enough to keep an entire cohort of public intellectuals busy at their blogs. [Richard McCarty has addressed some of these changes in his own blog post published earlier this week –ed]

Even so, some things do not change. As just about every article (including my own) in the January-February Academe emphasizes, the bifurcation of the academic profession along with the rest of society continues apace. After all, with 75% of all college teaching in the hands of part-time and temporary instructors (the so-called tenuous-track faculty in Chris Nagel’s all-too-apt neologism), it is hard to imagine that there are any reasonably well-informed college and university teachers who don’t understand how the casualization of the faculty is destroying higher education as we know it.

The problem, of course, is how to disseminate that knowledge beyond the campus. As the author of one of the most ambitious, unread, and largely unreviewed recent books on higher education, I can attest to the difficulty of breaking into the mainstream conversation. I had a non-academic publisher, a professional publicist, and thought I wrote for a broader audience, but the book disappeared into a black hole.

So, I’m not sanguine that exhortations to become public intellectuals will suddenly enable thousands of thoughtful and literate academics to change the current discourse about the academy and convince the American people that the reason why higher education has become ever more inaccessible and unaffordable is not the greed of tenured radicals but the refusal of politicians to provide adequate funding. In fact, it’s unclear what strategy might produce that shift, though millions of dollars would certainly help.

The AAUP could be part of the answer. Whatever its flaws, it’s the only organization that represents faculty members as faculty members. But, as I argued in my article, it must speak for the whole professionfrom adjuncts at community colleges to the holders of name chairs at the Ivies. Elitism has no place in this struggle to preserve the quality of higher education. But neither does anti-elitism, by which I mean a refusal to value the contributions that well-known intellectuals can make to that struggle. Besides organizing faculty members in collective bargaining units at those schools where it is possible to unionize, the AAUP must devote some of its resources to restarting advocacy chapters at the nation’s elite institutions, many of whose professors already have access to the media and share our concerns about academic freedom and the future of higher education. As the AAUP nears its 100-year mark, it helps to remember that its original founders were among the most prominent professors of their day. They understood the importance of solidarity then. It is no less important today.

One thought on “Public Intellectuals and the AAUP

  1. Indeed, as the friend of a professor at Yale who sought the Association’s assistance in a tenure case in the nineties, only to be told that AAUP doesn’t really take cases at such elite institutions, it has become obvious that AAUP even today spends most of its time formally censuring “lower-ranked” colleges and universities and generally leaves the Ivies and other elite higher education alone. For example, the lack of a true tenure-track at many of the nation’s top private universities like Harvard, Yale, etc. is common knowledge in academia, yet AAUP has not censured such institutions, leaving them unassailable in their non-remorseful violations of AAUP standards, thus demoralizing faculty — for nearly a century.

    So why should faculty members at such elite institutions try to organize an AAUP chapter at all? Yale faculty, for example, have recently been told by their university President Salovey that his hand-picked committee will determine the nature, composition, and rules for any faculty senate (cf. Can Yale faculty expect formal AAUP statements about the inappropriateness of such a move? Is AAUP prepared to censure Yale for governance violations even as it has silently accepted Yale’s institutionalized violations of the 1940 Statement for decades? Most of us are not holding our breath.

    AAUP is a long way from having another Arthur Lovejoy criss-crossing the nation. Instead, the current AAUP leadership appears more outraged by how a board of trustees treated its employee president (UVA) than by the plight of most aggrieved faculty. And as for public institutions, many of us will never forget that then AAUP General Secretary Rhoades put in writing to a SUNY member that AAUP requires the endorsement of an affiliated union’s president before it would investigate violations of the academic freedom of an adjunct (cf. AAUP thus accepts blood money from its affiliated unions at the price of the academic freedom of their members.

    In short, the approaching centennial is indeed an occasion for thought, as the AAUP leadership continues to disappoint the nation’s faculty by, inter alia, its subservience to union bosses, capriciousness in the choice of investigations, etc. — and thus sadly betrays the vision of the founders.

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