BY LESLIE BARY
Guest blogger Leslie Bary is District V Representative to the National Council of the AAUP and Secretary, Louisiana Conference. She teaches Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Louisiana.
During the recent meeting of National Council of the AAUP I thought about quitting. The national leadership is obviously not interested in me or in the region I represent, and does not care about organizing that happens at home any more than the DNC does about winning elections here. If it picks up a few memberships, that is fine, but as leadership keeps saying the collective bargaining chapters are the ones that really matter, because they are the ones that bring in the dues that keep the organization going. I was reminded of the moment in García Márquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude where the Colonel Aureliano Buendía realizes his party is no longer fighting for a cause, but only for power. I am not quitting, though, because the AAUP is for everyone.
When I was new faculty I did not think of joining the AAUP. I did not realize how important its role in academic freedom, tenure and shared governance had been historically and was, and my local chapter made no effort to publicize such things. They were the people cranky people complained to when they had cranky problems. If there were a serious problem, the AAUP would unleash its “nuclear weapon” which was censure. I did not think AAUP censure would faze the university in the least. I also did not realize that had I joined I would have found answers to many of the professional questions I had then, as well as a valuable community. It is faculty like my younger self I am trying to organize now.
The most common reasons people give me for not joining are: (a) AAUP works on labor issues in chosen individual cases for reasons having to do with self-promotion, and does not provide services or consciousness-raising for the broader university public; (b) AAUP “is a union” and is therefore not meaningful in “right-to-work” states, nor appropriate for faculty not wishing to join a union; (c) AAUP leadership is interested in preserving tenure for senior faculty, and little else; and (d) AAUP supports tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance, which is all well and good, but it ignores and is irrelevant to the “real issues” facing academia today, including defunding and corporatization.
I disagree with all of these assertions for reasons informed AAUP members will understand, but at the same time I understand the perceptions from which they spring. It is true that the AAUP tends to think first in terms of the investigation of specific instances of wrongdoing, not about dissemination and promotion of general principles. It is true that self-presentation as union and not as professional association discourages many who would in fact use the AAUP’s substantial resources to their own advantage and the Association’s, and who would be in a position to “act like a union without being one,” as one of our hardest-working members of National Council likes to say. I have met a number of veteran chapter leaders who are primarily interested in the rights of the tenured, in an era when most of the professoriat is not even tenure-track. And tenure, academic freedom and shared governance are intimately related to issues such as defunding and corporatization; and the AAUP has made numerous well-worded statements on these matters, but not every state conference and local chapter is good at disseminating these or, importantly, at translating AAUP positions to local circumstance and use.
The AAUP needs to organize, not just around unionization but around the rights of all faculty and students, and the preservation of academic values generally. We need, for instance, to disseminate the statement on the current Congressional plan to tax graduate tuition waivers (and decimate many other aspects of higher education) through all our chapters, to all universities, and to mobilize our members to lobby our representatives on this issue. We need letters to the editor in all our local papers, leafleting on every campus, informational pickets. We need to provide service and uplift to all, not just palliative care to the dying; this is especially important in a time when most people teaching and conducting research at colleges and universities are not on the tenure track and will not be.
I am writing this on the plane, on the way back from the National Council meeting. I represent District V, which is comprised of many “right-to-work” states. AAUP leadership makes it clear that it looks down upon us for this reason. I find it ironic that attendance at National Council reminds me as much as it does of attendance at Town Hall meetings of my own rather authoritarian university. In both cases, the leadership has a plan of action it divulges for ratification; praise of the leaders is desired and questions about the plan, and especially questions about details leadership would rather not discuss, are treated as naïve or impertinent. It is a losing strategy. I would like the AAUP to live on, open to everyone, when we are all gone. I am particularly concerned because it appears that major work towards reorganization is taking place in the Executive Committee, that is being kept confidential and will be presented to the Council and the membership as a fait accompli, when it is too late for discussion. This is the authoritarian behavior the anti-union types cite to explain their views; we cannot afford to engage in it.
Just as I would like to be treated as a colleague at my university, I would like to be treated as one by AAUP leadership. I am no interloper, nor am I a person who has never seen trouble; and I can organize. I would like to be able to discuss organizing strategies at National Council meetings, not just ratify what the Executive Committee has done. The AAUP needs to be visible for all the good work it does, and it needs to respect its constituents and members as something more than “prospects” and “duespayers.” Can we please talk about promoting all the work we do, not just certain investigations undertaken? Can organizing mean organizing to reclaim the academy for all – can it mean something more than garnering dues from new members ready to fall into line with whatever the current Executive Committee decides, behind closed doors, for the future of the organization (and perhaps of the profession)?