Faculty Forum: Cary Nelson: An Appreciation

By Michael Bérubé

I was elected to the national Council of the AAUP in 2005, just as Cary Nelson was running for the presidency. My first year on the Council was intensely dismaying. Academic freedom was under threat, the culture wars had been reheated in the aftermath of September 11, and David Horowitz was urging state legislatures to pass his “Academic Bill of Rights” to combat what he considered leftist indoctrination in the classroom. Tenure was being eroded by the overuse and exploitation of faculty hired off the tenure track. But the Council wasn’t talking about academic freedom or the mission of the AAUP more generally. It was arguing about redrawing its ten voting districts. It was about to start arguing about the restructuring of the Association as a whole. And it was totally unaware that the Association was on the brink of financial collapse after years of severe mismanagement.

Cary Nelson inherited a hell of a mess. No sooner did he take office than he found himself meeting with other elected officers and senior staff, desperately trying to find a way to keep the AAUP in business—and doing so amid a barrage of criticism, much of it coming from people who were ignorant of the gravity of the moment. It was a most vexing situation, more than enough to try the patience of the saintliest among us.

Now, I am under no illusions about Cary’s management style. He has never been mistaken for a saint; he is not known for his diplomatic skills, and he rarely fails to trumpet his disdain for the assortment of fools, knaves, and sociopaths who make academic politics so distinctly unpleasant. But make no mistake: during his presidency, Cary worked doggedly, tirelessly, selflessly, and brilliantly to save the AAUP from disaster.

Cary’s accomplishments are many. He modernized the Association’s communications, insisting that we could gather hundreds of thousands of faculty e-mail addresses and use them to inform both members and nonmembers of our doings; he oversaw our overdue restructuring; he worked together with new staff members in the finance and membership departments, as well as with his fellow officers, to bring the Association back to financial health; he founded the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom; he transformed the annual meeting from a meandering snoozefest into an exciting conference with real intellectual substance; he proposed and oversaw the restructuring of the AAUP’s byzantine dues system and successfully urged the Council to approve a new, progressive dues structure; and he somehow managed to stump for an expansion of non-collective-bargaining “advocacy” chapters while leading the fight for collective bargaining rights for all faculty members and graduate students.

It was amazing to be a part of Cary’s six-year presidency, even though the role I played in it was very small. I have never seen anyone run any organization with a greater sense of mission, or seen anyone hold to that mission despite such strenuous opposition.

What Cary accomplished as AAUP president is extraordinary—and unprecedented. (One hopes that no president will ever have to rack up similar accomplishments again; saving the Association from collapse really should be a onetime affair.) And along the way, to my astonishment, I even saw Cary practice diplomacy—as when he deftly handled my innocent question about the cancellation of a controversial conference while sitting at the same table as the person who had made the conference controversial in the first place. He was precisely the right guy in the right place at the right time, and I can only hope that the Association will always be led by people who know enough to be grateful for Cary’s work.

Michael Bérubé is professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University and president of the Modern Language Association. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to academe@aaup.org for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.

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