AAUP fights to stay in the game in tough new world

The US faculty association's genteel methods are no longer fit for purpose. Jon Marcus reports

May 5, 2011

A contentious leadership battle inside America's principal faculty association has exposed a struggle to keep up with political events that even the group's president concedes have overtaken it. The issues at stake include threats to tenure and other rights once considered inviolable.

The executive committee of the American Association of University Professors has recommended that the contract of its highest-earning administrator, general secretary Gary Rhoades, not be renewed. Professor Rhoades is the fourth person in seven years to have held the job.

But the unusually public spat is more than a personnel matter. Critics and advocates alike say it is evidence of the conflicting demands on the almost 100-year-old organisation that have made it unable effectively to face new and fast-moving challenges to academic staff.

The perfect storm

The AAUP was established as a professional association rather than a labour union. Now, however, it fills both roles with limited resources at a time when both academic freedom and the right to collective bargaining are under attack.

"It feels like the perfect storm," said Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP. "We're just about overwhelmed by fundamental policy work at the moment, and policy work is being driven by events." These include a call in Florida to end tenure and efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and other states to strip collective-bargaining rights from public employees.

Meanwhile, Professor Nelson said, "polite agreements" that called on universities to find new jobs for staff displaced by campus and course closures - which have accelerated sharply since the economic downturn - are no longer enough to safeguard those affected.

"Our regulations assumed a degree of goodwill that does not seem to exist in American higher education at this point," Professor Nelson said.

The association is also busy fighting threats such as corporate research contracts that stifle the publication of results.

As the AAUP struggles to keep up with these developments, many academics are moving to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, two separate labour unions that traditionally organised primary- and secondary-school teachers.

Both unions have significantly increased their higher education memberships in the past few years. The AFT now has 200,000 members in higher education, and the NEA 150,000. That compares with the AAUP's membership of 45,000.

"There's certainly been a change in the way (university) administrations are behaving," said Lawrence Gold, director of higher education at the AFT. "This has, of course, led faculty members to want to codify their relationships rather than depend on a handshake."

The AAUP, too, has been working to organise academic staff, often in collaboration with the AFT; the two organisations have an agreement under which they cannot "raid" each other's chapters, and Professor Nelson said he was trying to negotiate a similar deal with the NEA.

But while some of the AAUP's 500 local chapters are unions, others are academic associations, and the organisation is legally a public charity rather than a labour union, which prevents it from endorsing politicians or establishing action committees that can contribute to political campaigns - an essential component of power in the American political system.

"It's felt like we've been in a war zone, and we have to consider entering the political arena more strongly than we have before," Professor Nelson said.

Yet the AAUP has only one employee responsible for government relations - not only at the federal level but for all 50 states.

War chest woes

Professor Nelson concedes that "some of the limited nature of our involvement, to be frank, has been budgetary".

Government records show that the AAUP has a relatively small annual budget of about $6 million (£3.62 million). It has applied for labour union status as part of a restructuring that would address its difficulties by dividing the organisation into an academic association, a labour union and a fundraising arm.

One of its largest affiliates, the Union of University Professors in New York State, voted only narrowly against a proposal by its executive board to secede.

"The AAUP is in a rough spot," said one veteran lobbyist on higher education, who did not want to be identified. "Its particular problem is that it is somewhere between a labour union and a scholarly association. It has always wanted to be a little bit above the fray of the brass-knuckle organising work that the NEA and the AFT do."

But staff today want agreements in writing, Mr Gold said. "What most faculty look for in a union is, first, the usual salary and benefits things, but also to codify in contractual form shared governance, academic freedom and professional development. I don't think there's anything impolite about wanting to get these things in writing."

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