Organizing, Organization, and the AAUP


“If there’s an organized outrage machine, we need an organized response.”  Those words from Tressie McMillan Cottom, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, author of the excellent Lower Ed, prolific blogger, and frequent (and often witty) presence on Twitter, headline a story in this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education on the growing epidemic of online (and also direct) harassment of left-leaning, very often minority, faculty members to which the AAUP has been calling attention for some time (see also our successful fight to defend the academic freedom of Trinity College professor Johnny Williams).  The Chronicle report summarizes a useful essay Cottom posted to her blog that provides concrete advice for dealing with “orchestrated outrage and social media attacks on academic legitimacy.”  As Drexel professor George Cicciarello-Maher, a target of such harassment earlier this year, told the Chronicle, “Some faculty think this is about a handful of individuals when in reality, it’s about all of us.”

Cottom and others quoted in the Chronicle piece are, of course, absolutely correct that academics need to rally around our colleagues — even when we disagree with their statements — and that we need a more organized and disciplined response.  Her suggestions are quite helpful, indeed highly recommended, and it’s good also to learn that, for example, a New Jersey professor “has started a reading list of best practices for professors and administrators” that includes materials on academic freedom from the AAUP and the Modern Language Association.  But do such essential efforts to “educate people in power” constitute “organizing?”

Unfortunately, what is far too often lacking in calls to “organize” is any reference to actual organizations.  To be clear, Cottom is not guilty of this.  Her blog essay acknowledges that disciplinary groups in her field are taking the issue seriously and calls on the AAUP to take leadership.  But even this is not fully adequate, for it treats these organizations as somehow entities standing apart from their members and potential members. Cottom does not ask her readers to join or otherwise support organizations that could fight for their interests.  Her advice is offered to them as individuals who need to educate and prepare themselves.

I don’t know how many calls to “organize” I have encountered over the years that remain totally silent about what real, practical organizing might look like, much less that actually promote specific organizations.  There are reasons for this.  For one thing, ever since the 1960s, if not earlier, there has been a tendency on the left to be suspicious of formal organization — in response, in some quarters, to the “top-down” approach of the so-called “Old Left” — privileging instead more amorphous and ad hoc “movements.”  Those who claim to be “nonfactional” or “independent” organizers often have been valorized over those associated with specific groups, even though many times to be “nonfactional” is in effect to be simply a “faction” of one.  This attitude may be especially appealing in academia, where our professional ethos and mode of work can be highly individualized.  Indeed, the core value of academic freedom itself presumes that the right of individual instructors or researchers to go their own way is paramount.

New technologies and social media also play a role.  Digital tools offer new and exciting methods for mobilizing and “organizing” support.  The rapid circulation of information afforded by social media — from simple email to Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp — greatly facilitate the gathering of signatures on a petition or the mobilizing of physical protests.  As the Turkish-born activist and scholar Zeynep Tufekci points out in her informative new book Twitter and Tear Gas,

The ability to organize without organizations, indeed, speeds things up and allows for great scale in rapid time frames.  There is no need to spend six months putting together a single rally when a hashtag could be used to summon protesters into the streets; no need to deal with the complexities of logistics when crowdfunding and online spreadsheets can do just as well.

“The ability to use digital tools to rapidly amass large numbers of protesters with a common goal empowers movements,” Tufekci writes.

Once this large group is formed, however, it struggles because it has sidestepped some of the traditional tasks of organizing.  Besides taking care of tasks, the drudgery of traditional organizing helps create collective decision-making capabilities, sometimes through formal and informal leadership structures, and builds collective capacities among movement participants through shared experience and tribulation.  The expressive, often humorous style of networked protests attracts many participants and thrives both online and offline, but movements falter in the long term unless they create the capacity to navigate the inevitable challenges.

Tufekci calls the new style of organizing without organization “adhocracy.”  She writes:

the desire to organize on the fly through “adhocracy”—tasks being taken care of without formal structures, often with few people using digital tools and on the basis of whomever shows up—originates in part from the participatory nature and the “leaderless” sensibility of these movements, which is not a mere accident of the affordances of digital technologies.  This method has also become a common way for movements to raise and mobilize for resources.  Adhocracy allows for the organization, for example, of big protests or major online campaigns with minimal effort and advance-work, but this empowerment can come along with a seemingly paradoxical weakness.  I find that many such movements lose out on network internalities or the gains in resilience and collective decision-making and acting capacity that emerge from the long-term work of negotiation and interaction required to maintain the networks as functioning and durable social and political structures.

We need to ask, then, what does it mean to “organize?”   On the simplest level organizing involves education, enlightenment and persuasion, in contemporary lingo making people “woke.”  But organizing also involves getting people to take some action — sign a petition, attend a meeting, donate money, write or call a legislator, join a picket line, etc.  But organizing cannot be limited to specific actions, inevitably bound by time and place.  To be both successful and sustained organizing must involve getting people to join and then participate in some structure, some, well, organization.  And that involves devoting resources, both money and time; developing leadership; hiring and supporting paid staff; and perhaps most important establishing formalized decision-making structures and procedures that are efficient but also representative and meaningfully democratic.

A few years ago I was at a disciplinary meeting in my field and encountered a much-respected colleague I’ve known for some time who teaches at a major research university.  He made a point of applauding and thanking me for my work with the AAUP.  I was grateful, of course, but also pointed out that he should join.  “I’m not much of a joiner,” he replied.  But more “joiners” are exactly what we need today!  These days my colleague’s campus is the site of several serious assaults on academic freedom, but the faculty’s ability to resist these has been hampered by the fact that while the AAUP has a small (but, I believe, growing) number of members there, no visible organizational vehicle (like an AAUP chapter) exists to mobilize and sustain opposition.

Which brings me, of course, to the AAUP.  When I read the headline on today’s Chronicle story, my first response — even before I got past the opening sentence — was to think, “but there is an organization responding to this.”  (Yes, as an historian of Russia I will readily acknowledge that my allusion to Lenin’s famous cry of “there is such a party” is conscious.)  And my second thought was “and that organization is the AAUP and it desperately needs more people to join and support us, more resources to take on the fight.”  I’m thrilled that a popular and thoughtful activist like Cottom has called on the AAUP to lead, but I hope that she and many others will take the next step and join us (it’s possible, of course, that she has already done so; I don’t have access to a national membership list).  To be honest, we need more members and more activists, not just more supporters or admirers.  And, yes, we need people’s dues, not for our own aggrandizement (all officers and Council and committee members of the AAUP are unpaid volunteers) but to support the kind of full-time, dedicated staff necessary to stand up to the daunting challenges faced by our profession today.  And we need those who are capable of doing so to donate as well to our AAUP Foundation, which provides essential support both to the AAUP itself and to individual faculty members who may find themselves in the crosshairs.

Now I know what many will say: the AAUP is far from perfect.  It screwed up during World War I and again during the McCarthy era and there are instances — everybody has their own pet examples — where it screwed up more recently.  I have my own beefs.  When Rudy Fichtenbaum, Michele Ganon, and I first ran for AAUP office more than five years ago we were an insurgent slate of sorts, tapping into the discontent of many members.  Have we become a new crusty “establishment?”  I don’t think so, although we too have made mistakes.  But the AAUP today is not the AAUP of yore; it is a growing and vibrant organization — the only organization that represents ALL those who teach and conduct research in higher education, be they tenured, contingent, or graduate student employees; full-time or part-time; at two-year or four-year, public or private, institutions; all regardless of discipline and regardless of personal identity.

Not everyone will agree with all of the AAUP’s positions and actions (or inactions).  The AAUP defends the rights of scholars regardless of their politics.  We welcome in our ranks those on the Right as well as the Left, provided they support our fundamental mission: “to advance academic freedom and shared governance; to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education; to promote the economic security of faculty, academic professionals, graduate students, post‐doctoral fellows, and all those engaged in teaching and research in higher education; to help the higher education community organize to make our goals a reality; and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good.”  In any event, it’s hard to imagine 40 faculty members agreeing on everything, much less over 40,000.  But that’s what organizing and organization are about — working through differences to achieve larger shared goals over the long haul.

In the Fall of 2015, following a meeting of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, former president of the Modern Language Association, and a valued member of Committee A, posted a piece on Facebook, later reposted to this blog under the title “Join the AAUP, People!”  He wrote:

Over the years I have heard four varieties of complaint from people trying to justify their refusal to join AAUP.

One: it is an antiquated, elitist association devoted solely to defending the rights of a small handful of tenured professors, ignoring three-quarters of the professoriate– the new faculty majority of contingent labor.

This is just totally and completely untrue, as this handy compilation of AAUP resources on contingent appointments will show.

Two: the dues are too damn high.

For many years this was totally and completely true.  Dues were flat fees around $180, and some states and chapters charged fees on top of that.  $180 is just way too high for contingent faculty, graduate students (yes, graduate students can join!), junior faculty, and most underpaid faculty generally.

But now the AAUP has a progressive dues structure.

Dues start at $58, and nobody making under $50,000 pays more than $8.08 per month. $8.08. [These have since increased slightly to account for inflation.]  That’s a lunch from a food truck, once a month. And not even the most awesome food truck will defend your academic freedom.

Three: in the past, most notably in the McCarthy era, the AAUP has dropped the ball, failing to do precisely the thing it was founded to do– defend the academic freedom of controversial faculty members.

Also true, as openly acknowledged and discussed in this powerful report from 2011.

But the McCarthy era was quite a while ago.  Here in the present, the AAUP position on politically controversial professors was critical for our defense of Steven Salaita and our censure of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

And unlike the “resolutions” debated so hotly by disciplinary associations, AAUP censure actually matters.  When I led the investigation of layoffs and program closures at the University of Northern Iowa in 2012, the threat of censure was what brought the administration back to the bargaining table with the faculty union.  Read that last bit again: unionization did not protect the UNI faculty from layoffs and closures. The same was true at the University of Southern Maine, where I led an investigation in early 2015.

Four: OK, OK, the AAUP has great policies on the due process rights of contingent faculty members, the dues are reasonable, and the McCarthy era was quite a while ago.  But the AAUP still doesn’t do enough. There are all kinds of injustices and outrages to which it does not respond.

Let me go back to the absolutely stunned, stupefied, and gobsmacked part of this post. There are 1.5 million faculty members in the United States. There are just over 40,000 members of the AAUP, and if you subtract the number of members in collective bargaining units, you get fewer than 10,000 “advocacy” members.

The organization is ridiculously, scandalously small, and it has only the number of staff it can afford. That number, too, is ridiculously, scandalously small. The faculty members on AAUP committees, and the faculty members who conduct AAUP investigations, do all their work pro bono.  We are operating on a shoestring.

And yet we don’t ask whether people are members, or whether a campus has a chapter, before we take cases or do investigations.  We try to represent and defend the entire profession.  Merciful Moloch, I honestly don’t know how the AAUP gets as much done as it does.

So if you are complaining that the AAUP doesn’t do more, you can help fix that.  Join.  Form a campus chapter.  This organization should be ten times the size it is now– and even then, it would consist of less than one-third of the professoriate.  It will cost you a few bucks a month, but you will be able to face John Dewey in the afterlife.

What Michael wrote then applies many times over today, as we face the kind of online harassment that prompted this morning’s Chronicle story as well as additional assaults on academic freedom, shared governance and the common good sure to come in the Trump era.  So, if you agree with Professor Cottom that “if there’s an organized outrage machine, we need an organized response,” then you need to join the AAUP now.  You can do it here.

And if you’re already an AAUP member, consider an additional contribution to the AAUP Foundation.  You can do that here.

The old adage attributed to labor poet Joe Hill still holds: “Don’t mourn, organize!”

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