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The AAUP in the Age of Trump

When the rules have changed, how should the AAUP react?
By Ellen Schrecker


The rules changed for American higher education on November 8, 2016. The academy lost its friends in Washington. A blatantly xenophobic and anti-intellectual administration took over the White House, reinforcing the views of an already unsympathetic Congress and potentially hostile judiciary. Equally unfriendly politicians control many state legislatures and governors’ mansions. This situation seriously threatens the core values of the American academy. It is a threat that the AAUP, having struggled for more than a century against those who would undermine academic freedom, has a continuing obligation to oppose.

We cannot dodge that responsibility. Even though the Association’s dedicated staff members and elected leaders are intensifying their efforts to meet the cur­rent threats, we must be realistic about the challenges that face the AAUP as an organization, not to mention the nation’s college and university teachers and, of course, higher education as a whole.

Much of the danger that the Republican domination of the federal and state governments represents is the culmination of a well-funded, decades-long right-wing campaign to delegitimize the American academy. That campaign began in the 1960s, when opportunistic politicians, businessmen, and other conservatives took advantage of the racist currents within American society as well as the public’s opposition to the turmoil on campus to move US political culture to the right. Recall, if you will, George Wallace, the former segregationist governor of Alabama, attacking “pointy-headed intellectuals,” or Richard Nixon’s ethically challenged vice president, Spiro Agnew, denouncing “an effete corps of impu­dent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” or Ronald Reagan, who rode California voters’ hostility to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement straight into the governor’s mansion and beyond.

Professors took much of that heat. According to Reagan and others, if they weren’t encouraging their students to destroy Western civilization by taking over the dean’s office, they were too lily-livered to kick the students out.

In a much-cited 1971 memorandum to the chair of the education committee of the US Chamber of Commerce, the future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell spelled out the scenario for the coming assault on the academy. After bemoan­ing the takeover of the university by radical critics of the free enterprise system and their “respectable” liberal allies, Powell recommended a program of “careful long-range planning and implementation . . . over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.” More specifically, the future justice called for the creation of a counteracademy consisting of think tanks, scholars, speakers, and writers that would supply probusiness expertise to policy makers and the media. The suc­cess of that campaign is all too obvious. By lavishly subsidizing publications, seminars, endowed chairs, and all the other paraphernalia of academe, conser­vative foundations and billionaires have boosted the intellectual respectability of previously marginalized right-wing ideas while raising questions about repu­table mainstream scholarship.

By the late 1980s, that campaign was also dis­seminating a caricature of “political correctness” that persuaded all too many Americans that the nation’s faculties were populated by elitist liberals, man-hating feminists, cry-baby minorities, and people of uncertain gender who indoctrinate their students, bad-mouth their country, write incomprehensible prose, and work only twelve hours a week. More recently, the right-wing attack on the university has not only created a furor over faculty members’ social media posts but also morphed into a strategy of bringing deliberately offensive outside speakers onto the campus to create havoc while posing as defenders of free speech and intellectual diversity victimized by the academy’s obei­sance to political correctness.

The dishonesty and unfairness of these tactics are indefensible, but so too are the heckling and occasional violence that have silenced a few of those provocateurs. Compounding the damage are the coun­terproductive actions of administrators and faculty members who sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by offering feckless responses to the racist, sexist, and ignorant language and behavior that Donald Trump’s example has liberated from the constraints of decency.

The university has become a political minefield. The formerly widespread support for the academic commu­nity has disappeared; most Republicans now no longer consider higher education to have a beneficial effect on the country. As a result, they are no longer willing to provide the generous state funding that once produced a system of high-quality and affordable public higher education. Instead, we have financially strapped public institutions forced into a vicious cycle in which the main measures they take to replace lost revenue—higher tuitions and increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty—undermine the quality of the education they offer, cause student debt to pile up, and increase higher education’s unpopularity with the public.

The advent of Donald Trump has added new tribulations. His immigration policies adversely affect thousands of undocumented students and their families, forcing colleges and universities to scramble for ways to offer them the support they need to stay in school. Moreover, by creating a hostile environment for foreign­ers, Trump and his backers may discourage potential applicants from abroad from enrolling at American institutions of higher education. Since most interna­tional students pay full tuition, their absence will further deplete the financial resources of colleges and universi­ties. Finally, the president’s proposed budget and tax cuts would wreak havoc on our students, our research, and much of American higher education as we know it.

The AAUP to the Rescue

So, what can the AAUP do to alleviate this situation? Certainly, it cannot shirk its special responsibility to confront the current crisis. After all, as the oldest orga­nization that has traditionally spoken for the nation’s faculties, it does own the franchise for academic free­dom. It is, however, unclear whether the Association in its present form can take on the most critical new tasks. It is already stretched thin by its work in assist­ing individual faculty members, investigating viola­tions of academic freedom, and organizing collective bargaining units as well as traditional AAUP chapters. Useful as these activities are, they may not be enough to counter the political tsunami that threatens Ameri­can higher education.

Along with the rest of the academic community, we must build a unified movement reaching beyond the campus and the courts to defend our beleaguered institutions.

Participating effectively in that defense, however, may require the AAUP to make some revisions in its core mission—and not only because of Donald Trump. For quite a while, it has been clear that the traditional version of academic freedom is out of date and must be altered to accommodate the structural changes that have transformed higher education. Now that more than 70 percent of the instruction in today’s colleges and universities is done by faculty members on contingent appointments, it is no longer possible to view academic freedom as primarily secured by tenure. The protection that tenure once conferred on the academic profes­sion the AAUP now seeks to provide in other ways: through unionization and an effort to ensure that all long-serving, full-time faculty members on contingent appointments receive the same due-process protections as their tenured and tenure-track colleagues.

The Republican ascendancy, however, directly threatens those activities as well. The likely prospect of a disastrous Supreme Court decision within the near future could make it impossible for public-sector unions to collect the so-called agency fees that non­members in collective bargaining units must pay for the services the union performs on their behalf. Aware of that eventuality, the AAUP has been intensifying its efforts to convert these fee-paying nonmembers into full members of the Association. When success­ful, as they have been on some campuses, such efforts will not only lessen the financial impact of the loss of agency fees but also strengthen the chapters involved.

If there ever was a Gramscian moment, this is it. We must summon our “pessimism of the intellect” and “optimism of the will” to undertake the “long march through the institutions” by reversing the trajectory Lewis Powell so presciently prescribed more than forty years ago. While we cannot and should not adopt his business-friendly model, we do need to mobilize our intellectual resources to rescue the nation’s political discourse from its current anti-intellectualism and denial of the common good. We need to counter the distorted perception of the academic community that has enabled its opponents to undermine public higher education, denigrate the life of the mind, and deprive our students of their futures. In a word, the nation’s college and university teachers must regain the trust of the American people and their leaders.

The AAUP may well provide a good institutional home for such a project.

Creating that home will require several steps. To begin with, we have to build up our own organiza­tion. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, before the Powell agenda bore fruit, the AAUP had about ninety thou­sand members. Now it has half that many. Whatever the reasons for that decline, the need to reverse it is urgent. At the moment, the bulk of the AAUP’s mem­bers belong to its collective bargaining units, which, as we know, are imperiled by Neil Gorsuch’s ascent to the Supreme Court and the prospect of ending agency fees. The rest of our members either belong to the advocacy chapters on their own campuses or join as individuals. If the AAUP is to survive, let alone grow, it will have to recruit many more of the latter types of members.

This will not be an easy task. I can attest to the difficulty of sustaining a strong chapter at an institu­tion without collective bargaining. The tiny and largely defunct chapter that existed when I joined the Yeshiva University faculty in 1987 met once a year and did noth­ing. A few years later, administrative screw-ups provoked a handful of colleagues to revive the chapter. It oper­ated for about five or six years—conducting research, negotiating with administrators, and attracting about two dozen serious members to several meetings a year. After squeezing a few crumbs from the administration, it lapsed back into inactivity. Its president retired; its small core of activists found other things to do. I don’t think more than five or six of us continued to pay dues.

Perhaps the experiences of people at other insti­tutions differ from mine. But I suspect that most professors, even if they are AAUP members, rarely participate in the activities of their local chapters, except at those moments when they must mobilize against some misguided action of their institution’s administrators and trustees. It would be no surprise, therefore, to find dozens of dormant chapters litter­ing the AAUP’s roster. After all, given the stress level among college teachers these days, how many have the motivation and energy, not to mention the time, required to keep a chapter alive? Even if a handful of activists still maintain the remnants of a chapter, they may be doing so only to preserve the personal ties they have formed, while saving the skeleton of an organiza­tion that could be fleshed out if a crisis occurred.

Again, my own experience reinforces that obser­vation. When I was elected to the AAUP’s national Council from New York City in the late 1990s, I took it upon myself to see if it would be possible to get pro­fessors at some of the big local institutions to form a chapter. I focused on Columbia University, which had more than forty individual members but no organized chapter, even though it had recently experienced a number of incidents that may have violated academic freedom. I canvassed quite a few faculty members who not only shared my concerns but also had, in fact, cir­culated an excellent petition protesting the situation. How much more effective would that protest have been, I asked, if they could have organized it under the auspices of their own AAUP chapter? None of them disagreed with the premise of my question. But, with­out fail, every person with whom I spoke would reply, “You’re right. Of course, we should have a chapter, but I’m much too overcommitted just now. Why don’t you talk with X?”

Finally, after having had enough coffee to float the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan, I found one professor willing to organize the chapter. But he was  about to go on sabbatical to England, and I never heard from him again. I cannot fault these people. They genuinely cared about the values the AAUP rep­resents; after all, many had maintained their individual memberships in the Association for years. But their priorities did not allow them to make the sacrifice of time and energy that organizing and sustaining a campus chapter would have required.

The Tasks Ahead

Perhaps these faculty members were inadvertently showing us the future of the AAUP. Perhaps we need to transcend the campus and think on a national scale. There is, after all, another model for an advocacy or­ganization. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, both Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union were inundated with thousands of new members and donors. Men and women, worried about the im­pact of the Trump administration on civil liberties and reproductive rights, went straight to their credit cards and checkbooks. Some were also eager to participate in new activities fostered by those groups; the rest, I suspect, were mainly willing to put their money where their hearts were. As a result, both organizations have been able to hire more staff, mount more legal chal­lenges, and increase the overall impact of their work.

We can do the same. Just as an administrative out­rage has so often provided the impetus for founding or resuscitating a local chapter, so now on a national level the advent of the Trump administration may well frighten the professoriate enough to attract new mem­bers and spur old ones into action.

To a certain extent, the AAUP has already been taking some important steps in that direction. Even before November 2016, it had been ramping up its efforts to raise money and expand its base. It hired new digitally savvy organizers and mounted an email and social media campaign to recruit members inde­pendent of campus chapters.

The pool of potential members is huge. Some­thing like one and a half million people, not counting retirees, teach and conduct research in institutions of higher learning. Obviously, they won’t all join. But it is possible that many may be looking for a way to assert their professional values and defend their imperiled careers and institutions. And, as the only organization that represents the academic profession as a whole, the AAUP can become the vehicle for its efforts to push back against the assault on the university and reassert the legitimacy of the academic enterprise.

But we can’t attract the new members we need if many academics (let alone the general public) don’t even know what the AAUP does. Ever since I became active in the Association in the 1990s, I have been pushing it to devote more resources to public relations. It is now beginning to do so. Let us hope that its efforts will so increase the AAUP’s presence in the media that when, for example, an incident involving campus speech occurs, reputable journalists will routinely seek out the Association’s officers and staff members. Naturally, gaining that kind of attention in today’s market-driven economy costs money. Still, it’s worth the expense.

Obviously, the AAUP lacks the financial resources of the business community that Powell addressed, but we do have the intellectual ones—and the speaking experience as well as the ability to reach out beyond the campus. We’re educators, after all. And the AAUP is the organization best placed to carry out the work of demystifying the academy by explaining how the withdrawal of public support from the nation’s col­leges and universities—not the political correctness of their professors—is ravaging higher education.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We already have considerable resources within our own household. We could, for example, draw on the expertise of those faculty members who specialize in organizing social movements. And, if we conceptualized the issue properly, the AAUP could follow the brilliant strategy it adopted to counter the Professor Watchlist. It could, for example, initiate individual lawsuits that would not only mobilize our own constituents but also—and more important—educate the public about how the adjunctification of the nation’s faculties and the political and financial assault on public higher education undermine quality.

Whatever strategy we adopt, we must recognize that success will depend on the energy and ideas of the many academics who—whether already active within our organization or not—are deeply worried about the impact of Donald Trump on American higher educa­tion and want to do something about it.

I recently attended a meeting sponsored by the AAUP and the Institute for Advanced Study that brought together a group of professors, administra­tors, and people from other institutions concerned about higher education to discuss the current crisis facing the academy. Though speaking from many dif­ferent perspectives, the participants all agreed that it was urgent to work together to defend the core values of the university. Together they hoped to mount a wide-ranging campaign to preserve academic freedom, maintain an inclusive democratic culture, and provide access to a high-quality education for all members of our ever more diverse society.

Although conducting that campaign may take the AAUP’s next hundred years, we cannot give up the fight.

A retired professor of history at Yeshiva University and former editor of Academe, Ellen Schrecker has written about academic issues and McCarthyism. Currently, she is working on a book about professors and politics in the 1960s and early 1970s.


Ellen Schrecker had performed another notable public service by writing this article. Without falling prey to hysteria, Professor Schrecker lays out problems logically and offers solutions that need to be pursued.

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