When my colleagues and I in the Virginia conference of the AAUP began holding an annual “Advocacy Day” at the state legislature in 2003, what we heard most often from our elected representatives was their surprise to learn that faculty members have a voice separate from that of university presidents. Accustomed as we are to arguing with our presidents, we were surprised that this fact was surprising to our legislators. The lesson learned was that we needed to do more to make ourselves heard.
Higher education is shaped by a larger sociopolitical environment that is populated by a diverse set of institutions. We are the professionals with experience and expertise, but too often our expertise is ignored—or, more likely, we do not even offer it to external decision makers who influence our work. We know the “ivory tower” is a myth, but the professional and campus-wide demands on our time often lead us to act as if the myth were true and to believe that we can somehow live divorced from the politics that take place off campus.
The essays in this issue of Academe, which I had the pleasure of guest-editing, consider how faculty members can more actively engage with the various political institutions that shape higher education policy in the United States. We usually look first to the state legislature and the governor’s office when we think of political engagement, but advocates have to be heard in other institutions as well: in executive-branch state agencies like our coordinating boards; in independent federal agencies like the national Labor Relations Board; before pension managers; on boards of regents; and on our institutions’ governing boards, as discussed in the may–June 2013 issue of Academe.
The skills needed for political engagement may be specialized, as in Risa L. Lieberwitz’s legal work on behalf of the AAUP, which she discusses in her analysis of the national Labor Relations Board. Sometimes what is needed is political craft, as Sara Kilpatrick describes in her review of the Ohio faculty’s mobilization to defeat governor John Kasich’s efforts to gut public-sector unions, and as Jonathan Karpf details in his essay about organizing California faculty to resist insidious pension reforms. Michael K. McLendon and James C. Hearn’s study of performance-based funding illustrates why it is vital to conduct political analysis to understand the incentives and constraints faced by decision makers when they are considering higher education policies. And, as Nancy J. McKenney shows us, often what is needed is just to show up or, more to the point, to fight for the right to show up, as Kentucky faculty have done in earning a faculty-elected seat on the state’s higher education coordinating board.
Experts have learned to be cautious in addressing matters outside their realm of expertise. For this reason, faculty members may often be reluctant to become politically engaged self-advocates, because the political issues may seem too complex and distant from their own areas of research. These perceived obstacles should not deter us from taking action. Knowledge of the policy issues is important, but as the essays collected here show, sharing our lived experiences as members of the professional body that is central to the mission of higher education is also important, and perhaps more compelling, to policy makers. These essays are a collective call to action for faculty to become even stronger advocates for the future of higher education.