From the General Secretary: What if...?

By Gary Rhoades

Posted on my office pegboard is a bumper sticker that reads, “Why Is That?” expressing the scholarly exploration for understanding that has defined my work for nearly thirty years. Inscribed in my consciousness is another query—what if?— invoking the creative posing of possibilities for practice that has also driven my work and will focus it as the AAUP’s general secretary.

As the Association approaches its centennial, we should recall its extraordinary accomplishments. Who would have thought that within a few decades a small group of faculty could institutionalize academic freedom, tenure and due process, and shared governance? The Association’s work has strengthened the profession and also the higher education system. Now, confronting challenges in this century, we must imagine and work toward new accomplishments that will similarly enhance academe. For now, more than ever, the academy is in desperate need of our leadership.
Amid ongoing assaults on academic freedom, what if we were able to establish mechanisms for mobilizing rapid responses in defense of our colleagues? And what if we were able to build upon the casework of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure to establish an academic network for responsible leadership, which could serve as a resource for faculty seeking information about candidates for administrative positions? We must imagine ways to advance academic freedom more powerfully.

Amid the unacceptable exploitation of contingent faculty, what if we were able to establish for these colleagues due process and terms and conditions of work comparable to those of tenured and tenure-eligible faculty, ensuring their academic freedom? The foundation has been laid in the Association’s policy work; it remains now to effect these changes more fully in institutional practice and in the practices of our chapters and units.

Amid the unacceptable exploitation of graduate student employees and postdoctoral fellows, what if we were able to establish more broadly the right of these members of the academic workforce to bargain collectively? We are laying the foundation in our work; it remains for us to connect with and support the rights of these personnel, who are prospective members of the tenure-eligible academic profession. Our future depends not only on the strength of tenure-track faculty, but also on the professional strength of colleagues who labor off the tenure track.

Our future depends as well on touching more demographically diverse future generations of faculty. Amid increased competition for decreased numbers of tenure-track positions, what if we were able to provide resources and opportunities for professional development for these potential colleagues, speaking to their concerns and thereby expanding our membership?

Amid ongoing assaults on the structures and practices of shared governance, what if we were able to revitalize the value of shared governance through workshops and small conferences in partnership with institutional associations, through new statements on how collective bargaining can strengthen shared governance, and through investigations of violations of the precepts that guide us? Again, the foundation exists. It is time to build on it in ways that position faculty more centrally in the future of an academy that is currently too focused on status and revenue generation.

Amid national and state-level policy discourse that ignores the voices and demeans the work of professors, what if we were able to work with key institutional associations and with our colleagues in the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association to recenter the faculty in public discussions of the academy by spearheading a national commission or expanding our role in research on faculty? We have laid the foundation with our annual report on faculty compensation; it remains to forge a more prominent public-policy role through collaboration with colleagues and other entities.

The AAUP has many strengths. A central one has been the engagement and energy of its members. I encourage you to join our elected leaders, dedicated committee members, deeply committed national office staff members, and me in our important work. We have the responsibility as stewards of the profession and the academy to shape the future, if not in circumstances fully of our making, at least according to conceptualizations partly of our framing. Rather than resign ourselves to “new realities” that constrain our future, I invite you to join us in constructing new possibilities that will enable the academy to realize its potential more fully.