Fallen union leader calls for coalition of the willing

AAUP must stop navel-gazing and form alliances to protect staff, Gary Rhoades tells Jon Marcus

June 16, 2011

Credit: AAUP
Divided we fall: The AAUP is not the 'centre of the universe' and must learn to work with other groups, Professor Rhoades argues

The principal faculty association in the US has been too inward-looking to confront the many challenges it faces, and needs to form new alliances to protect its members against unprecedented threats, according to its deposed leader.

Gary Rhoades, who resigned as general secretary of the American Association of University Professors after its executive committee voted not to renew his contract, said the AAUP had been preoccupied with an ongoing management restructure even as politicians strip collective- bargaining rights and chip away at academic freedom.

"That is an indication of an organisation that is more comfortable with an internal orientation," Professor Rhoades said in an interview with Times Higher Education. "Instead of looking outward, it has been looking inward."

Such navel-gazing comes despite the fact that labour organisation in the US, including on campus, is at a critical juncture, Professor Rhoades said.

"We've already passed the tipping point in terms of the proportion of academic staff who are contingent faculty or on short-term contracts. That is now not just the majority in the US: it is two-thirds to three-quarters of the workforce."

With collective bargaining also under pressure, he said, "the resources that are being expended just trying to protect the gains of the 20th century are enormous".

But he said that all these things also make this the perfect time to unionise, as recent successes in organising faculty attest.

"I would say there's more of an opportunity to organise at this moment than at any time in the history of American higher education," Professor Rhoades said.

That is largely due to academics' concerns about their jobs, but also because "universities in America have been following, for much longer than has been the case in the UK or Canada, a path of academic capitalism or commercialisation".

He added: "Faculty, graduate employees, postdocs - they are fighting not only for the right to bargain but also against the direction that universities have taken in moving resources away from the primary academic mission."

Professor Rhoades said that the lessons being learned in the US apply to higher education worldwide.

"There are governors (of US states) - and this replicates a pattern in Europe - who are so focused on cost that they don't understand investment and return on investment. To them, higher education is simply a cost, a private good."

Professor Rhoades, who will return in January to his job as a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, said scholars everywhere have done a poor job of making the case for their profession.

"The problem is that faculty have not effectively connected themselves with all constituents who don't necessarily care about us, but care about what we do. Parents should not be worried about faculty, but they should be worried about what the effect will be on their children's education when most faculty are contingent."

That is the idea behind the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, launched last month, a collaboration of faculty unions from 21 US states.

But the AAUP has only recently teamed up regularly with other organisations, including teachers' unions with which it has worked successfully on joint campaigns.

Professor Rhoades said: "The challenge is not to get so focused on the internal processes of restructuring and other things that (the AAUP) loses sight of the larger restructuring that's going on in higher education and our place within that. We're not the centre of the universe. We need to form coalitions with other groups. We can't do this on our own.

"It's hard for an organisation that has such a distinguished history to change that orientation, to see itself as a partner in a coalition of groups rather than being the sole organisation that speaks on (behalf of) higher education and faculty."

He added: "That's an important message for faculty unions around the world. It's not about you, it's about the quality of education your students are going to have and how you can get that message to the broader public."

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