Faculty Activism and AAUP Principles Shine at the 2009 Summer Institute

By Jenn Nichols

Despite the grim economic times academia faces, the mood was as sunny as the weather when two hundred faculty members, academic professionals, graduate students, and AAUP leaders descended upon Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, this July for the AAUP’s annual Summer Institute. Attendees from across the country spent four days together in workshops and seminars covering a range of topics, including strengthening faculty handbook language, administering grievances, analyzing institutional data, and building a better tenure process—all part of the Association’s mission to put the tools for effective shared governance into the hands of current and future faculty. “I was expecting a much smaller event,” admitted Jeffrey Berman, a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis and first-time attendee. “I was surprised by the number of people there and by how many are experiencing the same concerns on their campuses. The weekend gave me a much better sense of the AAUP as a valuable resource.”

Attendance was split evenly between collective bargaining and traditional advocacy chapters, and attendees represented institutions from thirty-six states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Howard Bunsis, professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University and chair of the AAUP’s Collective Bargaining Congress, was on hand to lead workshops on trends in benefits packages, institutional financial health measures, and tactics for strengthening faculty leadership. He noted that “in addition to a record number of first-time attendees, the energy, enthusiasm, insights, and solidarity demonstrated by the participants were inspiring.”

The opening day included sessions on the AAUP’s century-long history, the implications of recent legal cases for academic freedom, and higher education legislation, while the Minnesota AAUP state conference sponsored a special seminar on best practices for faculty participation in accreditation that led to calls for expanded accreditation workshops at next year’s institute. Following a packed welcome banquet that kept plates full and speeches light, the Ad Hoc, Post-Tenure, Under-Appreciated Band, a bluegrass trio of AAUP-Akron veterans Dave Witt, Steve Aby, and Joe LaRose, took the stage to entertain guests with songs like “Bored of Trustees,” “Disingenuous Blues,” and “Work to Rule.” (Check out the video.)

The work of the institute began in earnest the next morning, with two full days of hands-on workshops and seminars led by AAUP experts in academic policy making, finance, institutional research, media and communications, grassroots organizing, collective bargaining, government relations, and labor law. “At my institution, we’re revising our faculty handbook with the goal of strengthening faculty shared governance, which is what brought me to the institute,” said Berman. “The workshops were filled with very helpful specifics and exceeded my expectations.” Information access is a key part of faculty members’ ability to organize a collective response to what Bunsis termed the “media and administration onslaught of ‘sky is falling’ rhetoric” that is being used to abrogate governance and hiring commitments even though “many colleges and universities are in solid financial condition.” Accordingly, sessions offered both information resources and practical guidelines for successfully using those resources to strengthen faculty leadership on campus.

“The Summer Institute completely changed the way I look at my university during these troubled times,” said Jonathan Rees, an associate professor of history at Colorado State University–Pueblo and first-time attendee, in summing up the weekend. “I learned what questions to ask and how best to get answers.” Declaring the institute “fantastic and informative,” first-timer Lisa Niles, an assistant professor of English at Spelman College, echoed Rees’s sentiments: “I now have a tool kit that I can use to help move beyond the abstract ideals of what shared governance ‘should’ mean.”

Participants made even their leisure time productive, trading ideas and forging friendships between sessions and during meals, breaks, and evening excursions to the St. Croix River and downtown Minneapolis. As important as the information from the workshops are the camaraderie and network of supportive faculty members who are willing to share their expertise. “I feel completely reinvested both in my role as a faculty member and in my institution,” said Patricia McMullen-Mikles, a faculty member in art at Yavapai College.

The weekend closed with a breakfast and remarks by Peter Rachleff, a professor of labor history at Macalester College, who reminded those present that improving the standards of the academic profession depends on the ability to organize colleagues into an influential, collective voice. It seems that institute-goers heard that message loud and clear. “The success of the 2009 Summer Institute,” reported Bunsis, “is exemplified by the volume of requests I’ve received from attendees. Barely one day after the conference ended, several participants have requested data, invited me to their campuses, and shared a desire to further discuss the many substantive issues we examined at the meetings.”

Dates and location for the 2010 Summer Institute will be announced this fall. If you’d like to receive 2010 Summer Institute information by e-mail, please send a request to summerinstitute@aaup.org.

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