From the General Secretary: What the AAUP Stands For

By Gary Rhoades

When the passenger next to me on a flight asks what I do for a living, I say I work for a nonprofit association. When he or she asks which one, I am tempted to answer, “The AARP.” One letter makes a big difference. Everyone knows what the AARP stands for. So what does the AAUP stand for?

The name is misleading. We work not just for professors but for the academic profession as a whole, including tenure-track and contingent professors, graduate student employees, postdoctoral scholars, and other academic professionals. We work for faculty not just in universities but in liberal arts and community colleges as well. We stand not just for the academy but for society, which is connected to and shaped by higher education.

In 1915, the AAUP was formed by fewer faculty members than would now be employed at a medium-sized university. Over several decades they embedded in college and university policy and practice nationwide the basic ideas and structures that define work in academe: academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance.

Much has changed since then. The professoriate has been transformed from a full-time, tenure-track labor force to one that is two-thirds contingent, and many now work community colleges that were virtually nonexistent in 1915.

Yet much remains the same. It still falls to the AAUP to defend and extend academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance. Many people now suggest these structures have become outdated obstacles to change. Thus, our cause now is to show their timelessness and to frame, adapt, and apply them so they speak to higher education’s twenty-first-century challenges and so we can frame academe’s future as we have its past.

What, then, of academic freedom, which some construe as giving faculty license to say whatever they wish? For the AAUP, academic freedom has always been the freedom to pursue ideas in teaching, research, governance, and extramural speech. We have defended that freedom across the ideological spectrum. One of the Association’s first investigations concerned the Wharton School’s Scott Nearing, a Progressive-era reformer who opposed child labor. One of its most recent statements supported the academic freedom of John Yoo, of the University of California, Berkeley, law school, who during the George W. Bush administration helped draft justifications of interrogation methods that many characterize as torture. In both situations, the value of academic freedom lies in the individual professor’s rights and in the collective responsibility of academics to participate in their communities. If we want faculty to step outside the  ivory tower, we must protect them from ideological attacks on their academic positions.

What of tenure, which some construe as a guarantee of lifetime employment  and irrelevant in the current flexible workplace? When twothirds of faculty members are off the tenure track, why does it matter? For the AAUP, tenure has always been about the fairness and security of due process and peer review, about workplace justice for professionals that protects academic freedom. This principle was at the heart of the Association’s successful construction of the tenure track. It now is the fulcrum of its efforts to extend such rights to contingent faculty, to end at-whim employment of professionals. And it applies to the extension of such rights to graduate student employees.

What of shared governance, which some construe as inefficient, ineffective posturing by professors? In a context in which academic managers seek increased flexibility, how can the messiness of meaningful academic involvement in decision making be justified? For the AAUP, shared governance has always been about the values of an independent faculty voice strengthened by academic freedom. We are now working to extend that freedom to speech about institutional matters. For good decision making depends on the input of academics, who understand, are engaged in, and are committed to the institution’s work. Faculty should be free to speak out about institutional practices they believe compromise the interests of students, institutions, and society.

The premise of the structures we are reclaiming, reframing, and advancing is quite simple: the interests of students, institutions, and society, as well as those of the academic profession, are well served by an independent faculty voice, grounded in academic freedom and in the peer review and due process of the tenure system. All this and more, by way of professional ethics and responsibilities, is what the AAUP stands for.

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