Academic Unionism Statement

In November 2005, the AAUP Council endorsed the adoption by the Collective Bargaining Congress of the following document as a statement of principles. (The AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress was a sister organization of the AAUP that operated from January 1, 2013 until December 31, 2019, after which its programs were folded into the AAUP.)

Over the past thirty years, faculty and other members of the academic community have increasingly turned to unions to protect their individual rights, their shared role in institu­tional governance, and the standards and practices that guar­antee the quality of American higher education. Unions have proven effective in struggles to defend tenure, protect academic freedom, and secure “a sufficient degree of eco­nomic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” 1 In this phrase from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) made clear the connection between the well-being of the nation’s faculty and the integrity of its educational system.

Because of our understanding of the importance of the faculty and other academic professionals in the maintenance of democratic ideals in American higher education, the AAUP has been the public voice of the academic profession since its founding in 1915. Consistent with our articulation and defense of professional standards, and after a decade and a half of engagement by local AAUP chapters in collective bargaining, the Association formed the Collective Bargaining Congress (CBC) in 1985 to help organize and strengthen the efforts of newly empowered AAUP collective bargaining chapters throughout the nation. Since then, col­lective bargaining chapters of the AAUP have developed a distinctive kind of unionism that responds to the missions of American colleges and universities.

This document describes the context and the character of AAUP academic unionism and articulates the aspirations that guide our activities. Although local AAUP union chapters vary from place to place, they all strive to develop a model of unionism that embodies the finest aspects of academic tradition.

Unions and the University

Over the centuries, academics have considered it an honor and a duty to defend the autonomy and integrity of their institutions against outside threats. Historically, academics continued to create new institutions—for example, medieval collegia and modern faculty senates—to protect the profession and to promote free inquiry against efforts to censor curricula, violate institutional autonomy, and intimidate individual scholars.

Academic unions are the most recent in a long line of col­legial structures forged to protect the rights and professional roles of academics. Increasingly, tenure-track and contingent faculty, academic professionals, and graduate assistants have formed unions to ensure their professional standing and pro­tect themselves from the threats and challenges presented by the corporatization of American colleges and universities.

Academic unions provide many benefits.

• Unions enable faculty and other members of the academic community, who would be powerless alone, to safeguard their teaching and working conditions by pooling their strengths.

• Unions make it possible for different sectors of the academic community to secure contractual, legally enforceable claims on college administrations, at a time when reliance on traditional advice and consent has proved inadequate.

• Unions provide members with critical institutional analyses—of budget figures, enrollment trends, and policy formulations—that would be unavailable without the resources provided by member dues and national experts.

• Unions increase the legislative influence and political impact of the academic community as a whole by maintain­ing regular relations with state and federal governments and collaborating with affiliated labor organizations.

• Unions reinforce the collegiality necessary to preserve the vitality of academic life under such threats as deprofessionalization and fractionalization of the faculty, privatization of public services, and the expanding claims of managerial primacy in governance.

Member-Based Unionism

 The AAUP is well suited to provide support in organizing and operating academic unions because our base is located exclusively in higher education. Having framed and promulgated the classic statement on academic freedom in the United States, the AAUP has remained the primary defender of this foundational principle ever since. The AAUP’s knowledge, experience, and influence come from our focus on colleges and universities. Since 1915, we have investigated violations of faculty rights and formulated policy based upon these investigations. Because of the Association’s insistence on individual responsibilities within academic communities, our chapters have developed expertise on professional principles and a model of member-based, democratic organizing whose emphasis on participation grows out of the academy’s bedrock commitment to collegial decision making. AAUP collective bargaining chapters believe, accordingly, that unions best serve their members by promoting local initiative and cultivating rank-and-file activism. While we of course advocate efficient management of collective bargaining chapters, we warn against the growth of bureaucracy that can dilute the role of the membership in shaping the direction of the chapter.

The Collective Bargaining Congress

 The Collective Bargaining Congress is the association of AAUP union chapters, and its officers are elected by members of these chapters. The CBC’s task, stated broadly, is to deliberate on professional issues affecting academic unionists with the aim of devising successful policies for colleagues in collective bargaining chapters. The CBC offers grants and loans to chapters that face specific challenges.

The AAUP’s annual Summer Institute draws hundreds of members from local chapters around the country for an intensive three-day education in all phases of chapter activi­ty. Participants analyze common problems and discuss solutions they have devised to those problems. The Summer Institute and supplemental training workshops address such topics as negotiations and membership recruitment as well as the “nitty gritty” interests of faculty and other academic professionals—evaluating medical benefits, maintaining rela­tionships with the press, addressing equity complaints, estab­lishing intellectual property rights, and so forth.

Characteristics of AAUP Unionism

Four main factors distinguish AAUP unionism: a commitment to academic freedom and shared governance, local autonomy, an emphasis on organizing, and dedication to organizational democracy.

Academic Freedom and Shared Governance

The emphasis of AAUP unions on the primacy of members and local autonomy grows out of our basic commitment to the freedom and creativity that collegial self-governance makes possible. AAUP unions are effective because their form of concerted activity has been successful in maintaining not only individual rights, but also the collective forms of power at the base of these rights. That is why local AAUP unions defend traditional forms of collective self-governance such as those embodied in faculty senates. Strong senates and strong union chapters can work together to preserve and protect academic freedom on campus. Together, they establish the institutional terrain and precedents on which individual rights are defined, defended, and sometimes adjudicated.

Indeed, in The Future of Academic Freedom, historian Thomas Haskell writes that “the heart and soul of academic freedom lie . . . in professional autonomy and collegial self-governance.” 2 Sociologist Stanley Aronowitz likewise sees the goal of academic activism as one of advancing “the right of the faculty as a collectivity to retain sovereignty over the educational process.” 3

This important point about academic freedom and governance has broad consequences. It means, for example, that members of the academic community have profound responsibilities to each other and to the larger mission of the institution that require them to participate in those collective forums. Thus, academics generally regard their pri­mary obligations to be to their professional communities, their students, and the larger public rather than to political edicts or ideologically biased mandates from above. “The protection of the academic freedom of faculty members in addressing issues of institutional governance,” an AAUP policy document states, “is a prerequisite for the practice of governance unhampered by fear of retribution.” 4 Collective bargaining agreements have proven to be effective in protecting the faculty’s independence in governance—for example, by incorporating senate regulations.

Collective institutions, paradoxically, provide the basic protections for our individual academic autonomy. The 1915 AAUP Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure explains the point with a distinction that still guides our thinking. We “are the appointees, but not in any proper sense the employees of the [trustees],” it notes. “Once appointed, the scholar has professional functions to perform in which the appointing authorities have neither competency nor moral right to intervene. The responsibility of the university teacher is primarily to the public itself and to the judgment of his own profession; . . . His duty is to the wider public to which the institution itself is morally amenable.” 5

Contract articles that provide for individual rights, enforceable grievance procedures, and transparent compensation packages are desirable and necessary on the modern campus. But basing our efforts on a commitment to academic freedom also means that local AAUP union chapters must also be attentive to preserving the roles of faculty in the academic governance of the institution. The union thus becomes an integral part of modern shared governance.

Local Autonomy

In union affairs, as in purely academic matters, the site for academic freedom is the local campus (and in some states, a system made up of local campuses). In the context of the American labor movement, the AAUP’s local collective bargaining chapters are unusual in their autonomy. Members of each AAUP chapter decide their priorities for themselves. They determine what is best under their particular circumstances. The AAUP strives to avoid a model of “service unionism,” where the union becomes essentially an outside grievance agent or a third-party provider hired to do things for the members.

The AAUP encourages an alternative model in which local union members do as much as possible for themselves. While the national AAUP staff provides training and support, most of the day-to-day work of our unions is performed by chapter employees or by members serving as volunteers or during release time won in the collective bargaining agreement. If there is a staff, it is hired directly by the chapter. The AAUP’s commitment to local autonomy is reflected in our dues structure and governs our allocation of resources. AAUP collective bargaining chapters enjoy the benefits of a local retention of dues. The lion’s share of members’ dollars stays on campus; a small portion supports the national Association’s work in extending academic freedom throughout the nation. The national Association’s reputation in this arena is a vital contribution to all local chapters.

Emphasis on Organizing

An AAUP union is not an off-campus organization. It is the profession, in an organized form. It is an amplified voice of the faculty and other academic professionals—a voice they use to achieve their needs. AAUP member-based unionism relies to an exceptional degree on empowerment of the rank and file so that local members can exercise local initiative. The AAUP’s history, our experience, and the literature on the subject show that nothing matches the creative force of union members when that force is channeled by organizing and informed by experience.

This emphasis on member-based unionism also means that a major part of local AAUP union activity is educational. Members of the academic community must learn to organize themselves, bargain and enforce contracts, and process grievances. In short, they must learn how to do the day-in, day-out work of running a union. These tasks are not easy. While hiring others to provide these services might be easier in the short term, it can lead to long-term weakness. Local AAUP unions remain strong when fully informed members are active citizens of the campus and of the larger professional world. The AAUP does not believe that faculty and other academics can contract out the acquisition of power.

A grassroots approach best expresses the latent power of faculty and other campus professionals. Those who teach, provide academic services, and conduct research do the real work of higher education. Without them, the educational enterprise is a shell. Paul Chadbourne, president of Williams College, acknowledged this truth in 1873, when he declared: “Professors are sometimes spoken of as working for the college; they are the college.” 6 Scholars, researchers, and other academic professionals hold the power on their campuses, although that fact is often masked by their own inexperience in exercising it.

Member-based unionism is committed to helping campus educators recognize their collective power. The energies and expertise it has unleashed in AAUP union chapters have won contracts that are strong on bread-and-butter issues and superior regarding matters of due process and shared governance. Active union chapters have provided fertile ground for new ideas and tactics in day-to-day campus affairs. And they have enabled a mobilized faculty to join in broader political actions beyond the campus to defend the rights of working people and participate in struggles for social justice.

Dedication to Organizational Democracy

A union of professionals committed to retaining power and autonomy in their work must be organized differently from other institutions in modern America. It must also be orga­nized differently from those unions that were pressured in the mid-twentieth century to cede workplace authority to management in return for the hollow promise of periodic wage increases. Faculty and academic professionals join unions not just to get higher wages, but also to maintain authority and a primary role in the university.

Preserving open debate in local chapters is vital. As labor historian Kim Moody writes, internal democracy “is, in fact, the only way to consistently mobilize and expand the activist layer of the unions” and to develop a coherent strategy that inspires union members. 7 AAUP union chapters require the full membership to elect officers and hold them accountable. This emphasis on total participation avoids hierarchy, impersonality, and bureaucracy. AAUP union chapters exemplify the autonomy and self-governance that faculty and other academic professionals strive for in their traditional gover­nance structures and provide an alternative to the competitive market forces increasingly at work on our campuses.

Members of AAUP union chapters can draw on the national AAUP’s expertise as needed. This expertise ranges from providing training on organizing colleagues to helping devise strategies on bargaining first contracts and enforcing contracts after they have been signed. The national office also provides on-site education and training tailored to local needs. Professional national staff and experienced leaders from other collective bargaining chapters devote substantial time and resources to educational activities on AAUP campuses, always with the goal of helping fellow union members become successful organizers and leaders on their own campuses.

Corporatization and the University

 American academics have confronted many obstacles in their long struggle to gain recognition for their professional standing and for the principles of academic freedom. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they battled the efforts of religious sects to preserve colleges as training grounds for their particular orthodoxies. Well into the Victorian Age, academics had to contend with the widespread view that the function of college instructors was to transmit the wisdom of tradition undisturbed by discoveries in science and advances in social justice. Historian Walter Metzger writes, “To criticize and augment as well as to disseminate the tradition at hand became an established function” of higher education only late in the nineteenth century. 8

By the end of the nineteenth century, boards of trustees had come to be dominated by businessmen. In the same period, faculty began to contend with the peculiar power of college presidents, who usually saw themselves as accountable only to the trustees. By the early twentieth century, the founders of the AAUP felt compelled to point out that the “conception of a university as an ordinary business venture and of academic teaching as a purely private matter manifested a radical failure to apprehend the nature of the social function discharged by the professional scholar.” 9 The incursions of business and commercial interests on American campuses continue to challenge faculty today.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, American colleges and universities are faced with new threats and chal­lenges. During the latter years of the twentieth century, market values increasingly encroached on campus decision making. Academic management, once cooperative and collegial, is increasingly modeled on corporate management. This frankly commercial stance confuses teaching and learning with the exchange of commodities and thus undermines student understanding of the nature and value of a genuine higher education. Meanwhile, colleagues across the nation have fallen victim to a range of cost-cutting schemes adopted from the world of private business, including downsizing, outsourcing, the creation of two-tier occupational structures, health-care cutbacks, and increased managerial supervision (for example, in the guise of simple “assessment” programs).

Taken to its conclusion, corporatization would transform the mission of the American university, resulting in the pri­vatization of a public resource, the commodification of knowledge, and the enclosure of the knowledge commons. Faculty and other academic professionals would be put under centralized management and deprived of the professional autonomy necessary for teaching and research. Through increased tuition, corporatization would deprive ordinary students of the resource that has been the basis for democracy in America and the gateway for opportunity.

Against such threats, the need for a new and participatory faculty unionism becomes more urgent than ever. The nation’s campuses have carved out vital public spheres in American society. They have been the training ground for its future citizens. By ensuring an open and challenging education for college students, conducted by trained and committed academics, a renewed academic union movement can be crucial in continuing the American experiment of making a high-quality liberal education available to all U.S. citizens.


Commentators sometimes mistake unions for special interest groups. But AAUP unions are public interest groups. The Collective Bargaining Congress believes that they provide the best way for tenured and tenure-track faculty, contingent faculty, academic professionals, and graduate assistants to work for their institutions and so fulfill that “duty . . . to the wider public” that the AAUP’s founders affirmed in 1915 in their first declaration of the faculty’s mission in American democracy.

1. 1940 Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure,” Policy Documents and Reports, 9th ed. (Washington, D.C.: AAUP, 2001), 3. Back to text

2. Thomas Haskell, “Justifying the Rights of Academic Freedom int he Era of Power/Knowledge,” in The Future of Academic Freedom, ed. Louis Menand (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 54. Back to text

3. Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 65. Back to text

4. “On the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom,” Policy Documents and Reports, 186. Back to text

5. “1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” Policy Documents and Reports, 295. Jasper Adams, chaplain and professor of geography, history, and ethics at West Point, described this complex relationship in nearly identical terms in 1837: “The relation of the faculty member to the trustees . . . is not that of a workman to his employer; it is rather like that of the lawyer to his client or the minister to his congregation—a relation in which the person retained has special skills, experiences[,] and qualities that put him in a position to advise and in a sense direct the man who retains him.” Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), 237. Back to text

6. Hofstadter and Metzger, 274. Back to text

7. Kim Moody, “Forum: Replies to Bronfenbrenner,” The Nation, 3 September 2001, 22. Back to text

8. Hofstadter and Metzger, 277. Concerning the pressures of religious fundamentalism, cf. 209, 298. Back to text

9. “1915 Declaration of Principles,” Policy Documents and Reports, 294. Back to text