Faculty Activists Convene in San Diego for 2010 Summer Institute

By Jenn Nichols

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That famous Southern California sun wasn’t the only thing shining when three hundred professors, academic professionals, and graduate students converged on the campus of San Diego State University in late July for the AAUP’s thirty-ninth annual Summer Institute. This year’s program trained a bright light on the profession’s commitment to grassroots activism, which has been renewed and strengthened as faculty members have responded to the sharp disinvestment in higher education set off by the 2008 financial crisis. In workshops devoted to analyzing institutional finances, building coalitions among campus groups, strengthening faculty handbook language, and lobbying legislators, new and experienced faculty activists gained practical skills to use on campus and in statewide campaigns. With record-breaking overall and first-time attendance, the 2010 institute, as general secretary Gary Rhoades observed, set an agenda of organizing collectively “not only against the current assault on the academy, but also in support of a set of initiatives and policy narratives that advance the basic principles of the AAUP and that serve the broad public good.”

With an emphasis on interactive, hands-on learning, the institute offers participants training in the arts of faculty advocacy. Shelly Errington, chair of the U.C. Santa Cruz Faculty Association, attended a workshop led by seasoned AAUP activists Dave Witt and Steve Aby of the University of Akron: “Dave and Steve’s workshop on organizing had great hints and tips, very useful documents (conveniently provided on a CD), and was very participatory and good-spirited. I left with lots of ideas and the conviction that we can be effective and responsive without an impossible amount of effort.”

New this year was a three-part workshop, led by Howard Bunsis, chair of the Collective Bargaining Congress and a faculty member at Eastern Michigan University, and Rudy Fichtenbaum, the CBC’s treasurer and a faculty member at Wright State University. Bunsis and Fichtenbaum walked attendees through a custom analysis of their own institutions’ audited financial statements. Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa of the University of Hawaii at Manoa gave the workshop high marks:

“[Rudy and Howard’s] fiscal seminar was one of the best that I have ever attended! Even though I am a historian and not an accountant, I now have some great tools and questions to ask as we proceed in our mission to serve our students, preserve academic freedom, and to keep the University of Hawaii in excellent financial standing.”

Even those who lead workshops and attend year after year gain new skills at each institute. AAUP president Cary Nelson noted, “Even when you think you know a topic well, there’s much to learn from an expert. In my case it was hearing [the California Faculty Association’s] communications guru [Alice Sunshine] advise us to practice nine-second press sound bites before a mirror!”

First-time attendee Norma Pecora, president of the Ohio University AAUP chapter, thought the content of the workshops and the chance to meet other activists from across the country were equally valuable: “The experience at the Summer Institute was beyond my expectations—in each of the sessions I learned something. There is no question that this will benefit the OU-AAUP. I highly recommend the Summer Institute to anyone interested in being a faculty activist, not only for the opportunity to learn from very knowledgeable people who, in many cases, have been through a similar situation, but also for the opportunity to be around people of like interest and commitments.”

Donna Potts of Kansas State University, the newly elected chair of the AAUP’s Assembly of State Conferences and a first-time attendee, echoed that sentiment: “It was invaluable to be reminded in so many ways that I am not alone in my concerns about higher education. The after-dinner entertainment on opening night couldn’t have been more appropriate: the adaptations of bluegrass, blues, and folk songs designed to address the woes of the downtrodden allowed all of us to commiserate about our own economic woes, while laughing about it at the same time.”

While faculty members and academic professionals have myriad opportunities to attend conferences and workshops to improve their scholarship and teaching skills, formal training in exercising the faculty’s role in shared governance is scarce. There’s simply nothing else like the AAUP’s Summer Institute in American higher education. The dates and location for the 2011 Summer Institute will be announced this fall.

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