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From the General Secretary: “Naaational”

By Gary Rhoads

As general secretary, I have come to learn a particular connotation of the word national, one that is conveyed when the term is used as a noun and unhappily pronounced with a nasal emphasis on the “a.” This usage often occurs in the phrase, “What does naaational do for us?”—as if the AAUP’s national office is “other,” the equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service to local chapters and members.

Having recently come to Washington, D.C., from the Sonoran Desert, and having come to know the recent financial woes of the AAUP, I get it—sort of. But as sociologist Loya Metzger chronicled in her 1979 doctoral dissertation, Professors in Trouble, tensions between members and the national office date back almost to the day a Washington office was established.

The tension is ironic, for the AAUP’s genius historically was that a small group of professors in a few institutions redefined the terms of academic work nationally. They formed a national association with a national project befitting a profession whose mission extends beyond local and state boundaries. They embedded concepts such as academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance in college and university policy and practice across the United States.

These concepts are continually under assault, and today we seek not only to defend professional conditions of employment for tenuretrack faculty but also to extend due process and academic freedom to the new majority in academia— contingent faculty—and to graduate student employees. As when the AAUP was founded, our efforts today are fundamentally important not only to our colleagues but also to our students, to colleges and universities, and to society at large.

To reverse the pattern of recent decades in higher education policy at local, state, national, and even international levels, we need to think of national more as a positive adjective (as in “a national project”) than as a negative noun. The more energy we expend on internal micropolitics, the less we have for the larger political battle that is well under way. In addition to collectively acting in local advocacy chapters, bargaining units, and other faculty groups, we should collectively act nationally and internationally. We each have a stake in what happens to academics in other parts of the country: every local attack has national repercussions for the profession, as does every local opportunity to advance the professional conditions of work in higher education. Presidents and provosts share ideas nationally. Boards of trustees draw ideas from boards in other regions. So, too, must we coordinate national strategies and messages for the profession and the academy.

We need a national campaign, a national office working with leaders and members to build strength locally and nationally. The national AAUP is you, extending your ideas throughout your state, region, and country. Our challenge is to support and stimulate, to catalyze and coordinate, that activity—in organizing new units and chapters, in building membership, in addressing hard times and institutional strategy, and in affecting public policy.

At its best, the AAUP is a national coalition of members who organize, lobby, write letters, and act together to shape our future. Together, we can redefine the nonrenewal of faculty in long-term contingent positions as what it is, as dismissal, as inefficient, counterproductive, “at-whim” employment. Together, we can redefine faculty, academic professionals, and graduate student employees so that they are seen not as labor costs but as intellectual capital that is central to reinvigorating our economy and society. Together, we can explain why public reinvestment in higher education is needed to ensure the student access and success envisioned by the Obama administration’s goals for 2020.

Although, as I wrote in my last column, we are getting it together in Washington, I did not accept the position of general secretary simply to manage “naaational.” I accepted it in order to be part of a national movement to redefine the terms of debate and public policy in higher education, the conditions of professional labor in the academy, and the future direction of higher education. Thus, I look forward to helping mobilize a national campaign, building on your work at the national level, and affecting national discourse and policy in ways that support members in local and state settings.

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