Merrimack College AAUP Chapter

The Merrimack College AAUP chapter was founded in 1963. More than sixty professors—nearly half of the faculty at the comprehensive Catholic college of some 2,800 students—belong to the chapter.

Michael DeCesare, chapter president and chair of the Department of Sociology, answered questions about the chapter for Academe.

How would you describe the mission of your chapter?

I see it as getting the word out about what the AAUP represents and what it can do for faculty. I think it can raise faculty consciousness about the fact that we’re all in the same boat. We’re all taught and socialized in grad school to think of ourselves as biologists or political scientists or what have you, but above and beyond that, we’re all professors. And by virtue of that fact, we all have common interests and concerns—and we have common challenges. So part of the AAUP chapter’s work is to help faculty understand that common identity and purpose and act on that understanding. An equally important part of our function on campus is to work with the Massachusetts state conference and the national office of the AAUP on shared governance and academic freedom and to educate faculty about those aspects of our jobs. Chapters do it at a local level, conferences do it on a state level, and the Washington office does it on the national level.

What other elected faculty bodies exist on campus—for example, a faculty senate or faculty council—and how does the chapter work with them or how does the chapter’s work differ?

We have a senate of the whole. It was organized in 1969. Every full-time member of the faculty and every professional librarian is a member of the faculty senate. We have about twenty standing committees of the senate. There’s lots of overlap between AAUP and senate committee members. All six members of last year’s senate executive committee, for example, were also AAUP members. Chapter members serve on a variety of senate committees. Often senate committees come to us for guidance about academic freedom cases or shared governance, just to pick our brains about AAUP policies and procedures. So we work with the faculty senate both by serving on committees directly and by serving as a resource.

What is your chapter’s proudest accomplishment?

Last fall’s Massachusetts state conference meeting, which we hosted for the first time in about twenty years. We felt it was very successful. We had almost seventy faculty members and librarians from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut come to our campus. We also had national officers on the program, including Rudy Fichtenbaum, Susan Michalczyk, Maria Bacigalupo, and Charlie Baker. As a small advocacy chapter, we’re very proud of organizing such a successful and well-attended event.

How has your chapter grown in recent years?

In spring 2012, we had twenty-six members. These longtime members are the core of our chapter. We very quickly grew to just under sixty by September 2012, in the span of only a few months. As far as I know, this is the biggest the chapter has been in its history.

How did you recruit so many new members?

The overall strategy has been to make ourselves, and the national office, more visible to the faculty. We send chapter representatives to the annual new faculty orientation, for example, so that all new faculty at least know we exist.

We did a very aggressive membership campaign last spring. A handful of us contacted people via e-mail or just went around knocking on doors. A lot of them immediately agreed to join. Others needed time, so we kept them in mind and periodically checked in with them to see how we could help them make the commitment to join.

Another way we’ve made ourselves more visible is by sponsoring campuswide events. For example, we hosted the Massachusetts conference in the fall, and I think the presence of national and state officers on campus was very useful. We had sociologist Gaye Tuchman on campus to promote her book Wannabe U last spring. Three years ago we had former AAUP general secretary Gary Rhoades come to campus to participate in our Hogan Governance Award ceremony. The governance award honors a member of the faculty, administration, or board who has worked like Tom Hogan, for whom the award is named, to foster openness, accountability, and the principles of shared governance.

We have also improved communication among chapter members through a variety of means. We recently established a chapter website—we’d never had a website before—to provide members with up-to-date information.

What is the biggest concern of faculty at your institution right now?

We’re going through rapid change as an institution. Our president took office in 2010, so he’s only starting his fourth year, but he’s implemented a ten-year strategic plan, which means major shifts in our identity. Traditionally we’ve had two thousand students, but this plan calls for us to become a college of three thousand students. We’ve started to implement our first graduate programs, and more are on the horizon; that’s a major shift in the college’s identity. Merrimack is changing quickly, and on a large scale, and what that means for the faculty remains to be seen.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing higher education now

For us, from the private college perspective, it’s corporatization and the institutional mind-set that comes along with it, from students and their parents who think of students as consumers, to the overwhelming emphasis on assessment, to the growing list of metrics we have to hit and intrusions from external agencies such as regional and disciplinary accreditors—not to mention governmental pressure that equates getting an education with getting a job. We’re feeling those aspects of corporatization. Both of our events last year dealt with that theme—Gaye Tuchman talked about metrics and corporatization, and AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum talked about the impact of corporate culture on the quality of higher education.

What is the worst idea the administration or trustees had in recent years?

I don’t know if there’s one single example. I can say that up until the new president came aboard, there was a major rift between the faculty and the president and board of trustees. The president, who was in office for fourteen years, personified corporate culture. He and the board viewed the faculty as employees only, rather than joint participants in the governance process. That led to constant and debilitating battles. Things have gotten much better since then.

What is the best thing the administration or trustees have done in recent years?

Oh, that’s easy. The new president has been committed to improving faculty salaries across the board, and that process began last year. For years salary inequities divided the faculty and impaired the ability of the college to move forward academically in all the college’s schools. The new president understood the problem and worked with the faculty senate’s salary and benefits committee and executive committee to address those inequities. They brought motions to the senate to raise minimum salaries to respectable levels across the board for full, associate, and assistant professors. Those equity raises improved our quality of life and morale. They also helped to create a more positive relationship between the faculty, the administration, and the board.

What one thought or piece of advice would you pass on to other chapters?

I would just say knock on doors. Go to your colleagues and explain the importance of the AAUP’s work. Many of us can’t see beyond the boundaries of our discipline. Explain the AAUP’s purpose and help people realize that we’re all professors. At the same time, it’s important to describe the AAUP’s significance to administrators. They need to see the faculty’s perspective in order to understand and appreciate its importance.

What projects would you like to undertake if you had more funds?

We’d love to be able to sponsor at least one or two major chapter events each year—that goes back to staying visible. Whether it’s a forum for a speaker or a visit from a national officer, as an advocacy chapter, we have to maintain our visibility. We’d love to fund one or two chapter members each year to go to the annual meeting. We would like to have more of our new members assume leadership positions. As a small chapter, we’ve realized that we need to make connections with other AAUP chapters if we’re going to continue building a strong chapter, a strong conference, and a strong national organization. Creating those ties is really important.