Organizing for Change

By Rudy Fichtenbaum

It’s been a little over a year since the Organizing for Change slate was elected to lead the AAUP. In running for office, we noted that higher education in general and the AAUP in particular are at a crossroads. We argued that higher education and our values are under attack, pointing to assaults on collective bargaining rights and shared governance, the continuing abuse of full- and part-time non-tenure-track faculty appointments, and the erosion of academic freedom for both students and the faculty. We argued for shifting our priorities to make the AAUP a more powerful and energetic force for mobilizing the faculty and academic professionals to defend our fundamental principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and providing a measure of economic security to attract the best and brightest to our profession. As we’ve traveled around the country meeting with members and leaders, we’ve continually heard about the AAUP’s outstanding reputation among the nation’s faculty. This reputation stems largely from our policy work and other activity on behalf of the profession as a whole, such as filing amicus briefs and supporting legislation to improve and defend higher education as a public good.

At the same time, however, we hear complaints from both collective bargaining and nonunionized “advocacy” members and leaders that the services they receive from us are inadequate. Clearly, there is a disconnection between how we are perceived by most of our profession and how we are perceived by many of our dues-paying members. For decades the AAUP has served the profession, but based on what we hear, many members now feel we are not adequately serving them.

To be sure, few, if any, AAUP members—advocacy or collective bargaining—signed up to be part of some narrow business union or association that takes care only of its own. But at the same time, an overwhelming majority of faculty members today will not pay the level of dues required to support the AAUP without receiving services in return.

When we were elected to lead the AAUP, some thought the only thing we cared about was collective bargaining and organizing. But organizing and, for that matter, collective bargaining are not goals in and of themselves. Collective bargaining is a vehicle, today perhaps the best vehicle, to defend our core principles of academic freedom and shared governance and to ensure economic security for the members of our profession. However, we recognize that not all faculty members have the right to bargain collectively and that we cannot afford to abandon our brothers and sisters who work in states and for institutions where collective bargaining is impossible to achieve at this time. So how can we best serve and protect our profession? Our answer is to build an organization of activists, in both union and advocacy contexts, to fight at a grassroots level for our principles and values.

Organizing is a tool to mobilize the faculty to fight back against the corporatization of higher education, which is well on the way to destroying tenure and shared governance and turning our profession into a low-paying occupation that undermines economic security by eliminating tenured faculty lines and replacing them with contingent faculty positions. In addition, the work of the faculty is being unbundled, and many activities that formerly were controlled by faculty members have now been turned over to academic professionals, another group without the protection of tenure. For years the AAUP all but ignored these developments.

We have no alternative but to change with the times. Like it or not, the AAUP, its staff and its member-activists, must make some difficult choices and set clear priorities. A wise leadership will, of course, listen to a broad variety of opinions solicited from both members and the staff, as we have tried and will continue to try to do to the best of our ability. However, as we approach our hundredth anniversary, our dues-paying members have made it clear that, if we are to remain relevant for the next hundred years, we must increase our membership by broadening our appeal to the profession, by reaching out to and involving our members, and by energetically organizing for change in higher education.