The Salaita Case and the Case for Faculty Unionization

In early August, I came across an op-ed on the Salaita case on the Huffington Post Politics blog, and now that just about everything else has been said about that case on this blog, I think that it may be time to consider the argument made in that op-ed. Written by Lennard Davis, a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the op-ed makes the case that the Salaita case demonstrates the continuing erosion of shared governance and that unionization of faculty is one of the few remaining mechanisms for safeguarding long-accepted faculty prerogatives. Here is an excerpt containing those points:

“These are obvious issues [with the Salaita case], but I think the less obvious but very important one is the continuing fall out from the corporatization of the American university. In the past, when search committees and departments chose a candidate, the approval of the upper tier of the administration was basically a rubber stamp, as is the case still in 99 percent of appointments. But with a shift from professorial control of academic issues to one in which management makes crucial decisions about qualifications, we are seeing more and more cases in which Deans, Provosts, Chancellors, Presidents and Boards of Trustees are overturning the decisions of faculty in the realm of hiring and tenuring.

“The decision with Salaita, who was approved by a search committee and by his department and presumably his college, is a prime example of the erosion of faculty power. Interestingly, while the University of Illinois at Chicago has won a faculty union for tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty in the past year, its sister school at Urbana has steadily resisted so far a union for tenure-track faculty. Is it merely coincidental that the administration at Urbana was emboldened to tamper with a departmental appointment because it knew it would not face organized faculty opposition? Would a union have made a difference? . . .

“For the administration to overturn the faculty decision, and in such a ham-handed and 11th-hour manner, shows us that Urbana’s faculty needs to step up to the plate and exercise their power as professors, teachers, and citizens of the university. The only really effective way they can do this is through a faculty union, as it is clear that the faculty senate will have little or no authority in this case. While a union may not have direct jurisdiction, its opinion, organization, and legal strength would go a long way to preserving the erosion of faculty power.”

The non-tenure-eligible full-time faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have, in fact, voted to unionize since this op-ed was published.

The full text of Lennard Davis’ op-ed is available at:


16 thoughts on “The Salaita Case and the Case for Faculty Unionization

  1. The posting above presupposes that faculty unions always represent the interests of the rank-and-file membership rather than of the union bosses and their interests. Unfortunately, this is not always the case as, for example, even AAUP leaders, in exchange for a dues-paying “relationship” with UUP, looked the other way on the Grabowski case (cf. UUP is the nation’s largest higher education union yet adjuncts cannot count on it — or AAUP — to defend their access to the contract’s academic freedom rights.

    In earlier years, UUP leaders had accepted contracting out, even of “tenured” faculty, into their Agreement with New York State — again with AAUP’s written blessing in a letter to the UUP President. UUP ‘s betrayal of the value of continuing appointment was apparently in no small part due to the fact that the state had threatened that the union’s Benefit Trust Fund would be deprived of their money-making contracts for the members’ dental and vision benefits in addition to the prescription drug benefits which the state already took back as a show of its power — and to gain economies of scale for state employees. Indeed, the dental and vision benefits for the other state unions’ employees were significantly better than those for the UUP bargaining unit. Most SUNY faculty still have no idea that their counterparts in the blue collar union on campus get two pairs of glasses, one for computer use, while they do not. UUP maintained the management of dental and vision contracts at a high price.

    Further, the usually unspoken facts of the situation in Wisconsin are that the unions had a stranglehold on benefits management in that state and one of the ways the governor sought to reduce state costs was to untie that link with the teachers’ unions-controlled benefits company by undermining the right to collective bargaining in the first place. But UUP had no such fears in New York State: the Triborough Amendment legislation guarantees that the union may not be forced into a new contract, even by the state legislature; in the event of impasse, the former contract remains safely in place.

    Corporate and donor money may have influenced UIUC to untie the knot with Prof. Salaita — but it is by no means a guarantee that if UIUC were unionized, that the union bosses might not have also let him fly in wind. It would seem from past history that “thirty pieces of silver” from the state and/or their own union affiliate bosses might purchase almost any teachers’ union’s silence on any or all faculty rights in this nation.

    As the Jesuits say, “What man has done, man can do.”

    • You’ve raised some good points re: unionization. I think that organizations such as the Council of UC Faculty Associations are easier to create and avoid some of the problems of unionization in states where there are “right to work” laws. They are dues-paying memberships, they hire their own lobbyist, and they seem a good counter-weight to the uselessness of Faculty Senates, except on mundane matters of where to put the comma in a sentence-sorry, at least that’s what goes on in my Faculty Senate-i.e. a lot of wasted energy and time arguing over things that are a complete distraction from the major issues of faculty governance going on, which is of great advantage to the administration.

      Nonetheless, there needs to be some counter-organization to what is currently going on-something with weight, teeth, and membership capable of acting on behalf of the faculty. It’s not the AAUP due to its limited mandate, although frankly I think the national office could do much more than it does. It’s tied up in cumbersome bureaucracy that seems more a product of an earlier time in academia, one in which privatization was not the dominant institutional paradigm; it assumes too much good faith on the part of administrations that doesn’t align with the current moment. In many ways, the AAUP belongs to a time when the public paid for public higher education and there were accompanying assumptions about how universities were supposed to operate. Those have gone out the window, and it’s going to be difficult if even possible to get back.

      Historically, in the US unions were the counter-weight to management. It makes sense that people would want to refurbish that type of organizational model for the current moment. But you are right-unfortunately, unions can also throw people under the bus, depending on the political winds. The Salaita case is one that could have fallen into that category, except that I believe a union could protect extra-mural speech, even if internally people disagreed over Salaita’s particular speech. One thing is for certain-we need some kind of organizational counter-weight for faculty in the current scenario of higher ed today.

      • Also, I should say, that even though I think the AAUP emerged from a different moment, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be “updated” to function within the current environment in more effective and powerful ways.

      • In right-to-work states and other states that restrict collective-bargaining rights for public employees and/or faculty, I think that strong advocacy chapters can have some of the same impact as faculty unions. But the cohesion of (and membership in) such chapters is much more difficult to maintain, especially when issues between administrators and faculty become very contentious. The obvious value of a national association such as the AAUP is that it can sometimes effectively reinforce local efforts. One of the few unintended advantages to faculty from the increased corporatization of our institutions is that administrative careers have become increasingly peripatetic and the footprints on one’s Google trail appear to last forever.

    • This is in reply to professoratlarge. Your repeated characterization of AAUP leaders as “union bosses” is such an unfair stereotype as to be offensive.

      First, regardless of what you think of decisions that our leaders have made, they are all volunteers: that is, they do not draw salaries, and the work that they do for the association and for the profession as a whole is extensive. And just to be clear, I am not talking about just the current leadership–but I am certainly not excluding them either. We have been extremely fortunate to have leaders who have been willing to expend so much of their time, energies, and considerable skills on our behalf. There simply aren’t very many of us who are so willing to devote so much of themselves to the cause.

      Second, there is no organization on the face of the earth whose leaders have not made some dubious and self-serving decisions. Although we need to recognize that reality and make efforts to avoid it, continually focusing on those instances in which our leadership has made arguably dubious decisions does nothing but reinforce the negative stereotypes of unions that are typically intended to undermine, rather than to improve, them. And given the current decline in union membership and the current decline in middle-class income and worker’s rights–in academia as elsewhere–I truly don’t see what point that serves. No one would ever argue that union leaders–and the leaders of our association–have not made some serious mistakes, but it is also unarguable, I think, that unions have generally benefited workers by providing a counter to the same sort of very dubious and very self-serving decisions made by corporate leaders, typically at the expense of workers. And the corporatization of higher education is making that all the more true in academia as elsewhere.

      • “Dubious and self-serving” is one thing; clearly anti-democratic and/or fraudulent activity, repeated over and over again, is quite another.

        For example, the pro-union US DOL is extremely hesitant to over-throw union elections — but had to do so with respect to AAUP not once but five times: three at the national and two at the NYS Conference level. National AAUP has “run through” how many Senior Counsels and General Counsels within the past five or six years? What do they know that makes them all leave?

        See the longer reply to this comment below. [The mechanics of this site thrusts embedded replies into the right-hand column making them illegible in many instances.]

  2. NTT faculty at the University of Illinois not only voted to form a union, but were certified by the State in July as Local 6546 AFT/IFT/AAUP.. This determination, fought in the courts by the University, was affirmed recently by Illinois Appellate Courts. We are a local of the American/Illinois Federation of Teachers and have begun negotiations for our first contract. We are also working toward strengthening faculty governance at the U of I because we believe that a strong union will always be embedded in a well-functioning system of faculty governance. Unionized faculty can show the way, and they can have a transformative effect for their unions as well as for their non-unionized colleagues.

    • Just what is the role of AAUP in your current negotiations? I note that you stressed the American/Illinois Federation of Teachers affiliation above all. What portion of dues goes to each entity, for example? Where do the field staff come from?

      • We receive staff support from both the AFT and the IFT. AAUP provides support on questions of contract bargaining and they lend a hand in organizing when needed. We will be paying membership dues as a IFT/AFT local once we have a contract. While the institutional culture of these three organizations is different, their cooperation has been smooth in the past year, because leadership was committed to our campaign. Ultimately, it is the community that will make a union strong and I am very optimistic on that score.

      • Apparently there is an agreement between AFT/IFT Illinois to pay AAUP for its part in the resultant union. If you do not yet know what that payment consists of, how it is calculated, etc., may I request that you attempt to inform yourself and then us here at the blog.

        As an example: UUP in SUNY charges 1% of salary in a closed shop; the resultant $20 milliion or so is divided up with over $8 million to the AFT state affiliate (NYSUT) and over $4 million to AFT. In the case of the UIUC union, there are four players, so it may be that your dues will be even higher than 1%.

        Further, as this commenter expected, the role of AAUP in the contractual negotiations appears minimal — which is why such AAUP-afiliated unions are referred to in my postings as subservient to other national unions for “thirty pieces of silver.”

    • A glimpse at Prof. Dorothee Schneider’s profile shows just how dire the situation of academic freedom is at UIUC:

      How many tenure-track and even tenured faculty in her department at UIUC have a less-distinguished publication record than hers? Yet UIUC reserves the right to dismiss faculty such as Prof. Schneider who have committed twenty years to the institution — by denying them the protections of the tenure-track and tenure.

      The treatment of Prof. Salaita is thus revealed to be just part of the fabric of that institution — one more case of administrative fiat ueber alles.

      Good luck to the NTT faculty at UIUC: in this climate and with AFT’s and AAUP’s history of betraying contingent faculty for the almighty dollar, they are going to need it.

    • Thank you for the clarifications. I didn’t mean at all to minimize your progress.

      By simply providing the detail, I was trying to suggest, probably much too subtly, that the tenured and tenure-eligible faculty should consider the benefits of following your CB unit’s example.

      Your last two sentences are a very succinct statement of the benefits of faculty unions.

    • Thanks for this info. Do you think that your union would have protected Steve Salaita’s hire and if so how? I’m not asking to be provocative, just genuinely curious, because I’d like to believe it would be the case. Also, what about contingent faculty-what place do they have in the union. Thanks again.

  3. Given the Pickering-Waters-Garcetti trifecta of Supreme Court rulings on the limitations of public employee speech that may be imposed by the state, only those public unions (like UUP, ironically) that actually have contractual protection of extra-mural utterances are likely to survive challenges like those of the Salaita case.

    This is why the AAUP-UUP joint betrayal of the professoriate — in the matter of academic freedom in perhaps the one public university union where the academic freedom article is so strong — was so reprehensible. In fact, UUP also abandoned — even after the arbitration was scheduled — a faculty grievance protecting academic freedom in faculty grading. In SUNY institutions, administrators change student grades on a regular basis and faculty never even learn of it because they are changed on a different “page” of an apparently system-wide software program from the input site used by the faculty members.

    We are indeed a long way from the consensus of what a university is and should be — and that distance has ironically been increased by union bosses in AAUP, UUP, AFT, NEA, SEIU. Which is not to say that having a union is a bad thing — on the contrary, for many terms and conditions of employment unions are equalizers and time-based seniority rights enforcers.

    But that’s also the point: the university is both a democratizing force and a meritocracy, is it not? Not all minds, not all academic performances, etc. are created equal at the starting gate but the goal is always the pursuit of excellence and the search for the truth — and the evaluation of that search when performed by faculty and students alike.

    There will thus likely be an essential tension between the ethos of the idea of the university and the ethos of unionism. Shared governance, often all but abandoned in the corporate university and the collective bargaining context, had the potential (even though it may rarely have been realized) for more flexibility in its collective and individual faculty reflection, assessment and action, grounded in the commitment to the pursuit of excellence and the search for truth. Alas.

    “The university is dead. Long live the university!”

  4. In response to Prof. Martin Kich’s comment above that AAUP leaders are not “union bosses”:

    If you want an AFT-AAUP union, well, welcome to “bossism” and here’s how it works, according to Prof. Leland C. Marsh who served as AAUP chapter president at his SUNY college and later became President of the SUNY AAUP Council, one of the original contenders for representing the SUNY-wide bargaining unit. He went on to become a founder of United University Professions and served as the first Chief Negotiator of the contract, author of the academic freedom language which is still in the contract today.

    While most of his examples in his 2010 statement below are drawn from UUP, the analogies with the actions of past and current AAUP leaders are manifold:

    The AAUP National Council recently increased the number of years in a term of office to ensure the advantages of incumbency and reduce the rate of influx of new leadership in the organization. Conferences like that in New York State have often required physical presence for voting in their elections, forcing members to spend hundreds of dollars to travel to major cities (where most of the incumbents happen to reside) just to vote. Because of formal challenges, the US DOL re-ran that conference’s elections to eliminate that practice and thereby established that such union boss tactics violate LMRDA. The most recent national elections rerun by DOL were in 2012 — and the AAUP union bosses intend to suppress further election challenges by now requiring that complaints be filed with certified mail served on every person on the ballot, so that an election challenge formerly made via email might now cost a member several hundred dollars in postage costs.

    When a few years back a member dared to post on the former AAUP-General listserv the link to the US DOL’s financial reporting site (, the AAUP leadership removed the member from the list because the filings proved that the annual meeting financial report was intentionally flawed. The recent gutting of the ASC budget by the current national AAUP leadership was so anti-democratic that the Chair of the ASC resigned in protest. Etc., etc., and so forth.

    Because the history of national AAUP leaders over at least the past twenty years to the present is replete with such disturbing facts, in effect “corporatising” the Association, with no sign of abatement, this commenter will not retract the term unless and until it no longer applies.

    But now to Prof. Marsh’s statement:


    Let me begin by stating that “politburo members” of the bossism class are prone to getting their way because by virtue of their undemocratic conspiracies they have “tenured” status in labor organizations such as UUP, AFT, NYSUT and AAUP, all of which smack of “old boy” unities.

    Take any example of these lifetime elected and you have the quintessential example of “bossism” run amok for he serves for decades while innocent unprotected members of the union come and go.

    The elementary scheme for self-perpetuation is to join a band of power brokers, best exemplified in UUP in SUNY as the United Caucus. They have chiseled in stone their corrupt activities in the form of Caucus bylaws.

    John Dewey would roll over in his grave to learn what “united” means to these folks as seen in the 1993 bylaw edition: Article II: Purposes, one of the purposes was “development of a cohesive union…” and “to provide a democratic structure…” The embodiment of this so-called “democratic structure” was chiseled in stone in Article III, Section 6. Obligations of Membership “to observe caucus discipline… and to act, speak and vote in the Delegate Assembly of UUP or other appropriate bodies in accordance with decisions reached in the Caucus”. (Emphasis supplied)

    On its face, such language is not only undemocratic, citizens rights guaranteed by the contract I negotiated have been abridged, in that it seeks to squelch both acts and speech unless such acts and speech has been approved by the politburo! Further, such constraints on democracy were carried over into other appropriate bodies (such as NYSUT and AFT). It is through such machinations that discipline is imposed on independent thinkers in UUP, NYSUT and AFT and the perpetuation of politburo members is assured for life. (For all of those who believe that the prestigious entity, AAUP, operates differently, examine the record of complaints before the Department of Labor alleging the contrary, for the “old boy” club has been operant in this manner for decades.)

    Let the record also show that Article II of the Constitution of UUP states one of its purposes “is to advance… democracy in education; and to promote the principle of unity…” I ask you, how is this possible if a rogue sub-unit of UUP mentioned above squelch these principles at every turn?

    As an historical footnote, I chaired the very first meeting of UUP where by Robert’s Rules we debated and acted to form a preliminary constitution. Upon its conclusion, I relinquished the chair and from the back of the room disgustingly observed at the union’s very first meeting prearranged block voting. In disgust, upon seeing this I withdrew from any formal association with UUP.

    Lee Marsh

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.