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How to Organize around Issues and Build Faculty Power

A primer for chapter leaders and faculty activists.
By Shawn Fields, Tim Gibson, Rob Kilgore, Bethany L. Letiecq, and Michael Magee

Administrative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and intersecting crises in higher education threaten hard-won advances in shared governance and academic freedom. Throughout the pandemic, administrations have skirted and ignored traditional processes of faculty governance: many a shady task force has been appointed, consultants have been paid, and academic departments have been dismantled. All the while, faculty have been asked to do more with less, and far too many have lost their jobs.

In the face of these staggering challenges, we must not despair or surrender. We must take action and organize to rebuild faculty power.

Indeed, since March 2020 nearly one hundred new AAUP chapters have been established, and many more have mobilized in response to administrative tactics that threaten the health and well-being of faculty members and the core educational mission of our institutions. This energy is exciting and inspiring, but we risk losing our momentum if we don’t channel it into building our organizations and our power. In this article, we—AAUP organizing staff and faculty leaders of two AAUP advocacy chapters—discuss concrete strategies and proven frameworks for building faculty power to fight back at this critical juncture.

Organizing Theory

Organizing is a term tossed about in activist spaces with abandon. To win a local ballot measure, we need “to organize”; if you want to influence Congress, you had better “get organized”; and it seems that just about every disaffected graduate student becomes “an organizer.”

As with all concepts, it is useful to begin by explaining what organizing is not so that the shape of what it is (or ought to be) comes more clearly into view. Table 1, below, owes much to the work of labor organizer turned labor studies scholar Jane McAlevey, who argues in her 2016 book, No Shortcuts, that much of the contemporary progressive movement, including the academic labor movement, has lost sight of organizing, properly understood, and has instead fallen into some bad habits of advocacy and mobilizing. The table presents a basic summary of her distinctions between those categories, adjusted for AAUP chapters.

Table 1: organizing compared with other models

The key distinguishing factor among these three categories is the role of members. In the “advocacy” model, members are subordinate to insiders with specialized knowledge and access to decision makers. Members simply pay dues in a transactional relationship with the AAUP, where the Association acts as an insurance agent, not as a vehicle to improve the lives of faculty.

Mobilizing is an improvement over this model insofar as members play a more prominent role than mere dues-payers. In this framework, symbolic actions with major visual or press appeal—a march through campus, a rally at the administration building, or a photo-op at the local courthouse—are meant to bring about change by pressuring those in power. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t help the chapter to grow by recruiting those not already convinced of the value of AAUP membership. Instead, it relies on preexisting “true believers”—a self-selected group of members—who act only when called upon by chapter leaders.

In contrast, organizing emphasizes the power of large numbers of faculty who take strategic actions together over time with the intent of changing the status quo and building their chapter. Change comes from the ability to systematically marshal a large number of people and not rely just on the “true believers.” Note that in this framework, people still “mobilize” and still might want to march through campus or have a good photo-op for the press, but these mobilizations are done because they fit into a broader strategy to build power, not just because they attract the attention of administrators.

Power, perhaps to an even greater extent than organizing, is a deeply contested concept. Here, we use the term in the old-fashioned sense of power as leverage. Your chapter’s power is directly proportional to its ability to move large numbers of faculty to take action and influence important decisions on campus. If your institution’s president doesn’t even know that your chapter exists, you don’t have very much power. If the mere threat of faculty mobilization in response to a proposed policy from the administration prevents the policy from being enacted, you have a lot of power.

In our experience, AAUP chapters can be roughly grouped into three categories based on the extent to which they embrace a model of faculty activism oriented toward building power, as shown in table 2.

These categories are not a developmental sequence. Even the most militant organizing chapters sometimes do “watchdog”-style things like issuing strongly worded statements or facilitating the “faculty voice” by hosting forums on the controversies of the day. The difference is that organizing chapters execute these actions with the goal of building power and growing. They ask questions like “How can we deliver this statement to the president in a way that will put the most pressure on the administration to accede to our demands?” or “How can we use this forum as an opportunity to recruit ten new members?” In other words, they view everything they do as an opportunity to develop the chapter and strengthen their ability to take action.

If your chapter fits into one of the first two categories, do not despair. As faculty, we’re trained to deliberate, critique, and have the best argument, so naturally those are the strengths to which chapters return by default. However, to really change the status quo on campus and to realize AAUP priorities, we need to do more. We need to organize.

Issue Identification: South Carolina

The trick is knowing where to start. At most universities, there are dozens of problems that chapter leadership can quickly identify. Perhaps the administration is overstepping the faculty in decisions about teaching modalities during a pandemic, the provost has had a “bright idea” for a general education curriculum revision that compromises academic integrity, or the board does not allow faculty to participate in presidential searches. These are all real problems, and there are always so many of them.

An issue campaign centers on fighting for a specific solution to one of these problems. It is not enough only to identify problems; our job as organizers in our chapters is to fight for solutions to those problems, and the first step is figuring out exactly what those solutions are. These solutions are the “issues” in an issue campaign.

Granted, sometimes the problem finds you and you need to organize to meet it. But if you have the opportunity to pick the fight you want, you want to pick a fight that people will join with passion and dedication, and you want to pick a fight you can win. In the 2016 book Secrets of a Successful Organizer, Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter argue that an organizing issue needs to be one that is widely shared, deeply felt, and winnable while also helping to build your organization and develop leaders.

Across five campuses of the University of South Carolina, AAUP chapter leaders took those considerations and added to them to compare possible issues in a systematic way using the rubric below:

  • Is the issue widely felt? (Would a majority of faculty feel the benefits of a win?)
  • Is it deeply felt? (Among those faculty who benefit, does it benefit them greatly?)
  • Is it nondivisive? (Will it unite faculty rather than divide them?)
  • Is there a clear decision maker? (Is there somebody who can deliver change?)
  • Will it result in real improvement? (Will the win change the day-to-day experience of faculty?)
  • Is it winnable? (Can you realistically build the power necessary to effect the change?)
  • Will it build chapter activism and leadership? (Will this issue help us recruit more activists and mobilize more faculty?)
  • Will it alter the relations of power on campus? (Will faculty have a stronger voice vis-à-vis the administration if we win?)

Mobilizing a large group of faculty members begins with the process of identifying the problem you want to solve on campus and educating faculty along the way about what organizing is and what campaigns are. It requires that you do more than broadcast your intentions to your faculty colleagues; you also must systematically engage the chapter’s members, so that members will start having one-on-one conversations with their colleagues that bring new and prospective members into the fold. In organizing, everything should be an opportunity to build the chapter, even the process of deciding what solution you’re going to fight for in your campaign.

For example, the AAUP chapter at the University of South Carolina Beaufort has been working with other AAUP chapters across USC campuses to build a joint organizing campaign. We began the issue-identification process in spring 2021, when we distributed a survey about campus working conditions to all faculty in the University of South Carolina system. The survey served a double function: it provided chapter leaders with information about the relative importance faculty attached to various problems, but it also provided a way for faculty to get involved in the identification and selection of our campaign issue. The survey was followed by a systemwide virtual organizing meeting, where we invited (through advertisements and one-on-one conversations) faculty across the system to help us choose our organizing issue. The chapter leaders provided an introduction to issue campaigns and summarized the results of the survey, and then leaders were distributed among Zoom breakout rooms, where faculty in attendance discussed and ranked the relative suitability of a variety of possible campaign issues. We asked faculty to submit volunteer cards if they wanted to be further involved in the campaign and encouraged attendees to join the AAUP. Almost one hundred people were in attendance.

In the months following this meeting, chapter leaders and activists analyzed the data from the meeting and used the rubric above to identify a good campaign issue. We decided on budget transparency and greater faculty involvement in the budgeting process as the systemwide campaign issue. This broad issue will continue to be refined on each campus as we transition to each campus’s campaign phase.

Once you have identified your campaign issue, it’s time to get strategic and build an organizing committee.

Strategic Planning: GMU-AAUP

Strategic planning is critical to keep your campaign in focus and moving forward. As any leader of an AAUP chapter knows, faculty activists are constantly confronted with problems or concerns that compete for our attention. And while they are all likely important, these problems can distract from campaign objectives and prevent us from finding a solution to a commonly shared problem. Indeed, the constant pull of issues confronting higher education can keep us in “watchdog” or “faculty voice” advocacy rather than propelling us to organize to build power. Developing a strategic plan will keep your chapter on track and on task.

At George Mason University, a new generation of leadership revitalized our AAUP chapter in 2015 and began to play a watchdog role and to advocate for change, with virtually no organizational structure. We had a three-person executive committee and a handful of semiactive AAUP members. Then, in 2019, Mason’s governing board announced that it was launching a search for a new university president. We quickly learned that the search process would be run by a private firm, dominated by administrators, and conducted with a level of secrecy usually reserved for selecting a new pope.

Later that year, we held an issue-identification meeting with faculty representing some twenty units across campus, and although we discussed several problems confronting the university, we chose collectively to forge a campaign to address the problem of secrecy in presidential searches. We had identified the problem, but we still needed our issue to solve. After some discussion, we decided that our campaign issue would call for all finalist candidates for the presidency to give public presentations to allow for faculty vetting.

To build a winning strategy, we needed to expand our organizational structure. We worked to build two additional committees to supplement the executive committee: an organizing committee, focused on planning and executing the presidential search campaign, and a liaison committee made up of members who agreed to serve as their department’s AAUP “rep.” This structure would be essential to carry out our strategic plan to build faculty power and win our issue.

For planning purposes, we used the Midwest Academy Strategy Chart, reproduced in table 3. It offers a disciplined and focused method for setting campaign goals; identifying decision makers, allies, and opponents; and creating a series of escalating tactics that pressure decision makers to protect academic freedom and improve the working lives of faculty.

Goals

To drive our campaign, we first worked to identify our goals, shown on the far left of the table. In GMU-AAUP’s case, our goals were simple: we wanted public presentations open to all faculty from all finalists in the search, and we wanted to increase our membership. But how could we pressure the board of visitors to open up the search while building our organization? That’s why, once you have your goals in hand, you need to dig into the heart of your strategy.

Organizational Considerations

At this point, you’re ready to examine the material resources you can bring to bear on the campaign. What is your budget? How many activists do you have in your chapter who can step up and join the organizing committee or the liaison committee? Most important, this is the moment when you discuss how your chapter will be strengthened by your campaign, whether you win or lose. We cannot stress this point enough. Each campaign has two goals: to win your issue and to build power in your chapter by recruiting more members, more activists, and more sympathetic followers. So, this is the moment to get specific. How many more members do you hope to recruit during the campaign? From what academic units? How many new chapter leaders and activists do you want to identify during this campaign? What about your social media accounts? How much do you hope to increase your followers during the campaign? With this dual focus—on winning the issue and building power through increasing membership numbers—you will find that no campaign ever fails. Even if you do not win your issue, you can strengthen your organization and build faculty power on campus. In our presidential search campaign, we set goals around building up membership, attracting media coverage, and using our social media accounts. In this way, even if we failed to crack open the search to public view, our chapter would emerge from the struggle with a broader base of faculty power and a much higher campus profile.

Constituents, Allies, and Opponents

Now you are ready to map the field of political struggle. Who are your chapter’s potential allies in this campaign? Your network of allies can include undergraduate student groups, graduate student organizations, staff, alumni, and even contract workers and their unions. Sometimes you can find powerful off-campus allies as well, including community members, business leaders, and politicians. At Mason, students joined our public presidential search campaign early on and were essential partners, serving on the organizing committee and managing student outreach efforts. State politicians who were advocates of transparency likewise were important to this campaign.

You also need to think carefully about your opponents—not merely targeted decision makers who are likely organizing against campaign efforts but anyone on campus who has an incentive to push back against and potentially derail your campaign. If you are running a campaign on donor transparency, you should probably expect fierce opposition from departments that have become reliant on dark money, for example. During the presidential search campaign at Mason, the university governing board and the search firm hired to conduct the search were clear opponents. Many deans and other top administrators also promoted private searches as necessary to yield the “best candidates” even though extant research suggests this is a false narrative.

Primary and Secondary Targets

Your primary target is the person—the individual human being—who has the power to give you what you want. When the power to make the change is vested in a committee or a collective body, it can be a good idea to focus messages on the committee’s chair or director. At Mason, the governing board held the power to determine whether the search would be conducted in secret or open for public scrutiny, so our primary target was the board chair—a smooth operator and former member of Congress. When campaigning to influence a decision maker, it is important to also think carefully about your target’s social and professional context. Who has power over the target? To whom does the decision maker respond? These channels of personal influence are your secondary targets, defined as the people who are sympathetic to your campaign and enjoy some influence with your target. At GMU, we quickly learned that our board chair was very attuned to Mason’s public reputation and responded especially strongly to negative press coverage, from both student journalists and the local news media. This realization helped drive our tactical decisions for the remainder of the campaign.

Tactics

A tactic refers to an action your chapter collectively takes to apply pressure on your targeted decision makers with the goal of changing their stance. The steps of your campaign, including all the actions you take and the messages you deliver, are your tactics. And if you’ve ever been involved in advocacy, you know that everybody loves to talk about tactics. Brainstorming messages, making graphics, planning actions, distributing petitions, organizing events, writing op-eds, and talking to reporters—this is where your chapter’s creativity can shine. The temptation to brainstorm tactics first and build strategy last can certainly be seductive, but there is a reason why this section comes last in the chart. Tactics mean nothing unless they are focused on the right target, mobilize the right allies, and deliver the right message. In this way, as we discuss in more depth below, tactics are always secondary. They support, but don’t drive, your campaign’s goals.

Campaign Execution

After you identify an issue, build your strategic plan, set concrete goals, and identify an escalating set of tactics that support your goals, it’s time to put your plan in motion. Campaign execution seems like an obvious next step, but just like all the previous steps in this process, it must be done thoughtfully, intentionally, and methodically.

That’s why the first step in executing a campaign plan is . . . more planning. Running a successful campaign takes planning, follow-through, and clear communication.

The same is true for tactics. Before executing each tactic, do the following:

  • Identify the tasks required to make the action successful. What materials do you need to bring or make? Do you need members to volunteer? Is there anyone you need to contact?
  • Assign each of the identified tasks. Who is making the one-pager? Who oversees signing up volunteers?
  • Set deadlines. When do you need a draft of the one-pager? When are you going to make posters?
  • Follow up on assignments. What does holding one another accountable look like? When do we check in with one another?

But what makes a good tactic? Ultimately, tactics are informed by the needs of your campaign. Some ways to gauge whether a tactic would be good for your campaign are to ask whether it is

  • relevant—something that makes sense for an issue;
  • effective—something that puts pressure on your decision maker;
  • visible—something that faculty and others can see;
  • timely—something that makes sense at the present moment;
  • unifying—something that has support from the faculty at large;
  • empowering—something that enables your chapter to build power by bringing in more faculty or allies; and
  • participatory—something that gives faculty members an active role.

In addition to being informed by the needs of your campaign, tactics should escalate—increase in pressure and impact—over the duration of your campaign. At the start of your campaign, you will most likely have a small but dedicated group of members and allies and will have capacity to carry out only limited tactics. Acknowledging this demonstrates that you are being “reasonable” and that you recognize that you will need more faculty and ally engagement before you can escalate to actions that have a bigger impact. But these initial tactics help acclimate members to participating in an action. This approach makes measuring campaign success easier. And it signals to the decision maker that more actions are coming.

Ideally, each action and tactic builds momentum, bringing in more people through one-on-one recruitment efforts, holding your colleagues accountable to the whole, and moving you closer to achieving your goals. Following each action, make space and time to assess your progress and capacity. Are more faculty involved than before? Did we reach our measurable goals? Are we demonstrating our power? Is the decision maker moving? What worked well? What could we improve upon?

After executing each tactic, follow up with participants. People are your primary source of power. Your campaign is stronger when more people are engaging with and participating in it. Following up with those who participated in your most recent actions provides your campaign or chapter with a chance to achieve crucial goals:

  • Build membership. If your issue is widely shared and deeply felt, there’s a chance that faculty members who previously never interacted with your chapter may get involved. Working on an important issue is a great way to show the value of your chapter and provides an internal organizing opportunity.
  • Build activism and leadership. A campaign focused on a widely shared and deeply felt issue can provide an opportunity for members to get more active.
  • Build relationships with allies. Never forget that you’re not alone in your fight. There may be groups that are inherently aligned with and supportive of you and your cause, or your campaign may provide a chance to build coalitions with groups that are not natural allies. Either way, checking in with allies afterward helps create a reciprocal relationship.
  • Gauge the temperature of your members and allies. It’s also important to check in afterward with participants so that you have a sense of how your campaign is resonating with the wider community and how this should inform your next set of actions.
  • Control the narrative. Depending on the response and feedback you receive from participants, you can tweak your messaging, inoculate against and dispel misconceptions, and develop new talking points.
  • Recognize participants’ action. Participants set aside time and energy to engage with your campaign. Recognizing them acknowledges that work and underscores that this is a collective process.
  • Maintain momentum and engagement. Checking in with participants can help keep your campaign a priority and gives you a chance to talk about upcoming opportunities, events, and actions.

Once your campaign goes live, different constitue cies and decision makers will respond to it, and your chapter may respond in kind. The campaign becomes a recursive and reiterative process. As you execute and escalate tactics, new opportunities or challenges may arise that may help or hinder your campaign. Having clear expectations, structures, and processes from the beginning of your campaign helps to ensure that you center your goals and control your campaign narrative as your campaign continues to escalate. Make sure to follow these steps before and after each tactic to hold yourselves accountable and to build your chapter and your power.

The figure above illustrates how the tactics of GMU’s presidential search campaign progressed as our capacity grew over time. In the end, the campaign scored a partial victory. Although we did not win a fully public search process open to all faculty and students, the search committee did ultimately invite faculty senators to interview three finalists for the position. But perhaps more important, during this campaign GMU-AAUP’s membership grew from roughly 20 to more than 120 dues-paying members, building both a stronger base of faculty power and an organizational structure as we geared up for our next campaign.

Conclusion

Organizing to build faculty power, advance shared governance, protect academic freedom, and fight privatization (among other threats to the academy) is time-consuming and labor-intensive. But having effective tools and strategies for identifying issues of common concern among faculty and for planning and executing campaigns makes the work much easier and often more enjoyable. Although the work ebbs and flows, successful chapters must have lasting structures, built on a foundation of organizing and solidarity, to sustain their work going forward.

There are myriad challenges and pitfalls in doing this work, and it will be invaluable to chapter leaders and faculty in general to pursue organizer trainings and other skill-building workshops offered by the AAUP and its membership as we work collectively for systems change. Organizing is not typically an intuitive process—it is about disrupting power—and for many faculty members, it requires unlearning some lessons drilled into us during graduate school, while pursuing tenure, or while negotiating our next contract, such as “keep your head down” and “don’t rock the boat.” Organizing also comes with risks that are differently felt depending on one’s position and privilege. Yet working as a collective can mitigate risks while building power. And building faculty power is the only way to disrupt administrative and, increasingly, legislative threats to the academy.

We must do this work together. In solidarity!

Shawn Fields is a lead organizer with the AAUP. Tim Gibson is associate professor of communication in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University and the GMU-AAUP chapter president. Rob Kilgore is associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the USCB-AAUP chapter president. Bethany L. Letiecq is associate professor of research methods in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University and the GMU-AAUP chapter vice president. Michael Magee is an organizer with the AAUP. The authors thank AAUP staff members Jim Bakken and Monica Owens for their contributions to the development of the ideas and concepts discussed in this article.

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