George Mason University AAUP Chapter

By Kelly Hand

In a pattern common for AAUP advocacy chapters, the George Mason University AAUP (GMU-AAUP)—which elected its first officers in 1964, when George Mason College opened in Fairfax as part of the University of Virginia—cycled between periods of engagement and dormancy for decades. In 2016, faculty members revived the chapter, shifting from “watchdogging” and advocacy to faculty organizing. GMU is Virginia’s largest and most diverse public research university, with more than fifteen hundred faculty members, including many serving on contingent appointments. Although collective bargaining for faculty at public universities in Virginia is currently unattainable, GMU-AAUP is working toward playing a union-like role on campus. The chapter has insisted on active faculty participation in the university’s governance—including in searches for the university’s president and provost—and demanded transparency and accountability from the administration for its decision-making on matters ranging from responses to the COVID-19 pandemic to budget-cut proposals. By effectively deploying social media, attracting media coverage, and building power strategically, the chapter has worked to maximize its influence and impact on campus.

We learned more about GMU-AAUP from its current leaders, President Timothy Gibson and Vice President Bethany Letiecq.

What were the most compelling reasons for reactivating GMU’s AAUP chapter and how did you get started?

In 2016, the university received a $30 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor on the condition that it rename the law school after the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. The gift agreement also came with other strings attached. But when the faculty senate, as the representative body of the faculty, raised objections to the renaming and other terms of the agreement, the administration just ignored it. It became clear that the faculty senate alone had little power to influence the administration. 

At the time, GMU had a small base of stalwart AAUP champions who were active in the faculty senate, but the chapter itself was inactive. Bethany Letiecq, who had gained organizing experience building a faculty union at Montana State University, began discussions with those AAUP members about reactivating the chapter. She was elected copresident alongside longtime member Rutledge Dennis, and the two got to work recruiting other faculty members to get involved, including our current president, Tim Gibson.

In 2017, Letiecq was awarded travel funding from Virginia’s state AAUP conference to attend her first AAUP Summer Institute. There, she met like-minded colleagues from across the country who were working to strengthen faculty governance and academic freedom. The inspiring workshops and courses connected our chapter with other chapter leaders and AAUP staff and provided the organizing tools and strategies needed to build faculty power. Letiecq credits the Summer Institute, along with faculty and student outrage over undue donor influence at GMU, for motivating a campus-wide organizing drive to demand administration accountability and transparency.

Which of your issue campaigns have been the most rewarding for the chapter and its efforts to build power on campus?

In 2019, Mason’s board of visitors began a search for a new university president. As is now too often the case, the presidential search was closed, meaning that faculty and the broader community would not be involved. GMU-AAUP (with assistance from national AAUP organizers) executed a campus-wide campaign to demand that the board follow an open and public search process, including campus visits and public presentations by the three finalists. During the campaign, we held rallies, circulated petitions, and generated local news coverage to focus public and campus pressure on the board. In the end, the board asked the three finalists to attend a closed meeting of the faculty senate to answer questions prior to the final decision. It wasn’t a complete win, but we demonstrated that issue organizing and mobilizing pressure can yield tangible results for faculty. This campaign also more than quadrupled our membership, which grew from 30 to over 120 members.

Our pandemic-era campaigns were also recent high points. For example, in fall 2020, we exposed a scheme involving COVID-19 test kits: a company hired to provide home test kits to students was using unapproved protocols. Informed by student activists, we investigated the company and the contents of the kit and learned, to our shock, that the Kallaco at-home kit included a throat-swab test that was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and that the test kit did not meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for self-administered tests (think about the difficulty of obtaining a valid sample by giving yourself a throat swab). We immediately alerted the administration and the campus community to the flaws of the Kallaco test kits, and, after weathering a series of bitter and baseless attacks from the administration, our campaign forced university leaders to close out their contract with Kallaco and develop a new, and quite successful, COVID-19 testing regime.

What are your immediate and longer-term goals for GMU-AAUP?

Our organizing stalled during the height of the pandemic, and we have experienced a steady decline in membership. Our immediate goals are to expand membership and recruit new chapter leadership. All advocacy chapters depend on the volunteer labor of their members, and without a regular infusion of new members and new leaders, the specter of burnout becomes increasingly real. We also want to extend our presence among segments of the faculty that are underrepresented in our current membership, including adjunct faculty, faculty from the sciences and engineering, LGBTQ faculty, and faculty of color.

We have a number of long-term goals: (1) opening a viable, teaching-focused pathway to tenure for our full-time contract faculty (“term” faculty in Mason parlance); (2) reducing workloads for faculty members teaching feedback-intensive courses; and (3) supporting campus-wide unionization efforts among student workers, contract workers, graduate instructors, and (eventually, if enabling legislation is passed) faculty and staff. We remain vigilant about, and are mobilizing to thwart political interference in higher education as well.

Your chapter contributed to an article in the winter 2022 issue of Academe about the importance of organizing as a model for change. How are you working to sustain this model as chapter priorities evolve?

It’s a constant struggle, and our organizing efforts have been slowed by post-COVID-19 changes in how Mason faculty conduct their work lives. Many faculty meetings—and nearly all faculty subcommittee meetings—now take place on Zoom, and the faculty culture of “hallway conversations” has atrophied significantly. We are not immune from these trends ourselves. This move to working from the “home office” has undermined the power of our most effective organizing strategy: in-person, one-on-one conversations with individual faculty colleagues. When you add the reality of our grind culture and postpandemic faculty burnout, the current environment presents organizers with more barriers to overcome. Now we are brainstorming ways to revitalize our organizing efforts.

How can AAUP advocacy chapters connect with the broader academic labor movement and work in solidarity both on campus and beyond to benefit higher education and the common good?

In 2021, to connect with the broader labor movement, we founded the GMU Coalition for Worker Rights. This coalition includes GMU-AAUP as well as regional labor leaders, campus contracted workers, GMU staff, and students, including student leaders of campus-based organizations and the student senate. Together, from 2021 to 2023, we worked to expose contracted labor abuses occurring on our campus. We continue to meet monthly to plan campus events and support each other’s campaigns.

Both Letiecq and Gibson also serve on the executive committee of the Virginia AAUP conference (VA-AAUP), and Letiecq is currently its president. Linking campus chapters to statewide movements to protect academic freedom and faculty rights has been critical. There is more work to do in this space, but this year we are working closely with state lawmakers to advance pro–higher education laws in the Commonwealth. The VA-AAUP also works in partnership with the Faculty Senate of Virginia, which represents faculty members across the state, and together we cosponsor the Virginia Higher Education Day—an annual event to lobby the legislature to continue to support higher education and its mission to serve the public good.