AAUP national elections: why I am voting to re-elect the “Organizing for Change” slate

National elections for the American Association of University Professors are now underway. An incumbent slate called Organizing for Change is being challenged by the Unity slate which is led by AAUP figures who used to be in power. I am voting to re-elect the Organizing for Change slate and I think if you are an AAUP member in good standing you should do the same.

The reason I support OFC is straightforward. The challenges facing faculty across all sectors of higher education are dramatic and are taking on a momentum that we have probably never experienced in this country. We need a national advocacy group that wants to respond to those challenges aggressively and with creativity. Most importantly we need the AAUP to have real meaning and impact on the ground where it really counts. I think that is the basic goal of OFC and it represents an important and relevant shift in the orientation of the organization. I think for the first time in many years (I have been an AAUP member since I joined my faculty as a junior professor in 1999) the AAUP feels like a real presence not just in Washington but on our campuses where it counts.

Part of what OFC is trying to do is strengthen the collective bargaining arm of the organization. That likely creates some tension in the AAUP because it means a shift in culture and even resources. There is a suggestion by some that this means giving less attention to academic freedom, the issue for which AAUP is best known historically. In reality these two efforts are two sides of the same coin.

This does not mean that collective bargaining is always the right approach or even necessary but it must be a viable part of what we do if we take academic freedom seriously. Why? Because the greatest challenge we face in academia today, whether at the junior college level, or at Berkeley and Harvard, is the change in organizational structure of the university.

A permanent new administrative, if not bureaucratic, caste is taking hold of managerial authority in the universities. Instead of an experienced faculty member spending a few years as a dean or even provost or president and then returning to the teaching faculty, today individuals who take on  those positions have almost uniformly left teaching and research behind forever.

Inevitably, these individuals develop a skill set and outlook that matches that of the corporate executives who now control most university boards of trustees. In turn the trustees and administration increasingly treat faculty not as partners in the governance of an academic institution but as employees of a giant corporation. And indeed as government funding for higher education has receded corporate and foundation spending has ramped up making it appear as if we do work for corporations. Corporate executives, of course, feel more comfortable with deans, provosts and presidents who can talk their language and that often means reassuring the trustees that they can get their faculty “under control.” That has led to a wide range of conflicts with faculty as well as to developments like the widespread use of contingent faculty and the waning of the tenure track.

This turn of events is not healthy for the fundamental purpose of our system of higher education: to generate knowledge in order to help solve social problems while preparing young people to join our society prepared to confront those same problems. Employees or, worse, automatons are not good at original thinking. Control and creativity rarely go well together.

In such a situation the AAUP needs to be a living, breathing organization that has a meaningful presence on campus. In my experience with the OFC leadership they have been successful at helping build that kind of presence. I teach at a relatively small and private institution. While collective bargaining might be helpful there it is not a likely outcome given the legal and political constraints we face. But there is a role for our chapter to raise that issue and even pursue it if our colleagues wish to do so. And a “union outlook” on issues is not a bad way to motivate fellow faculty and stir up discussion of important issues even shy of actual bargaining.

At a minimum AAUP chapters can play an advocacy role that makes issues clear and signals to the administration the limits of their ability to manage the institution without robust shared governance. Right now on our campus it is the only forum for just faculty members to assemble and discuss important issues independently of the administration. And the OFC leadership has been very helpful to me and my fellow AAUP chapter members in understanding how to play a constructive role in an ongoing governance crisis on the campus. They have been there when it counted several times in the last two years.

So, in sum, I think OFC has breathed new life into the AAUP. It does not have all the answers and I have a great deal of respect for the traditions of the organization. I hope that the Unity slate will continue to be an active force but for now I think OFC deserves more time to help  move us ahead as we confront the significant changes impacting higher education today.