From The General Secretary: Going Public

By Gary Rhoades

In the academy, we spend far more time communicating within our fields than with the public. Many of our colleagues regard such “popular” communication with disdain. College and university administrators can be deeply uncomfortable with it. As a result, we are too little present in public discussions about us and too little able to counter popular myths about lazy professors with “guaranteed lifetime employment” who care more about their careers than their students.

Moreover, when we enter the public arena, we do not always do so effectively. We are much better at communicating with our professional peers and our students than with the public, the media, or policy makers. We emphasize nuance. “It’s more complex than that,” we often say. We are too long-winded. And we are often uncoordinated, particularly when speaking as advocacy chapters or bargaining units.

Yet, it is time for us, as professionals, to go public, individually and collectively. It is time to make our case for the principles we believe are essential to the academy’s quality. In the interests of the students and society we serve, we need to provide a counter-narrative about ourselves and about the academy’s future.

That is what the AAUP has been doing more aggressively in the last few years. We have been undertaking campaigns to change the conversation about higher education locally and nationally and to embed key principles and understandings more fully in institutional policies and collective bargaining agreements as well as in the minds of our members, policy makers, and members of the public. We are working even harder to change the public conversation because we are now in the midst of an unprecedented assault on the principles of the AAUP and the rights of faculty members, academic professionals, and graduate student employees.

In response to a legal assault on the faculty’s academic freedom in speech about institutional matters, we developed a “Speak Up, Speak Out” campaign. That campaign has led a number of universities to add to their handbooks or collective bargaining agreements language that protects this fundamental freedom. In response to the shifting of institutional expenditures away from educational programs and personnel and toward administration, we have been providing analyses of institutional finances to AAUP chapters. And now, in state conferences, as well as regionally and nationally, we are mobilizing in support of public employees’ collective bargaining rights, which are under assault in several states. Collective bargaining is a mechanism by which two-thirds of our members have negotiated provisions to give legal force to the principles of academic freedom and tenure, due process, and shared governance that are at the AAUP’s core.

Some members have expressed discomfort with our strong stance on public-sector collective bargaining. But if we are to participate in the public domain, we need to take stands, publicly and aggressively. That is who we are. That is what we do. An attack on our colleagues’ rights is an attack on us all. We are in clarifying times. Much is at stake. For there are groups seeking to eradicate what they see as our anachronistic professorial prerogatives.

We carry on from a generation of founders who were confronted with dismissals of “controversial” colleagues, in violation of their academic freedom and denial of due process. Rather than resigning themselves to the prevailing structures of managerial power, they engaged in a sustained public battle for rights and principles, as well as for professional responsibilities they believed were central to our higher education system. They became public advocates for what they believed in. We can do no less in these times, which are no less defining of our future.

In this issue, Cary Nelson writes about ways to leave higher education in better shape than it is now. I, too, urge you to take such action; to do so in conjunction with colleagues locally, regionally, and nationally; and to align those actions with the campaigns we are articulating.

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