From the President: The AAUP’s Racial Equity Initiative

By Irene Mulvey

I am excited about this issue of Academe and its reconsideration of the role of race in the AAUP’s history. Examining, understand­ing, and coming to terms with this history is essential to the promo­tion of our mission by leaders and members of today’s AAUP.

For as long as I’ve been involved with the AAUP at the national level, there have been conversations about “diversity.” The AAUP, and especially the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress, made some efforts to move racial equity and racial justice efforts forward. On May 25, 2020, when George Floyd, a Black American man, was mur­dered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the necessity for an immediate and long-term national racial reckoning became apparent to all. For the Association’s lead­ership, racial justice within the AAUP and in the academy took on an urgency that remains to this day. Over the last few years, the AAUP has worked to make racial justice a permanent priority. During that time, our racial justice initiative—headed by Glinda Rawls, an associate professor of counselor education at Western Michigan University and a current member of the AAUP’s Council— has developed into the kind of ongoing initiative that is necessary for any meaningful progress.

In summer 2020, the AAUP engaged a consultant to provide comprehensive racial equity training to the AAUP’s staff and Council members. Following several months of training ses­sions, we established three joint staff-Council working groups to address different aspects of the AAUP’s work. Each working group is creating a strategic plan with the goal of keeping the work mov­ing forward and making visible progress. This initiative has two premises: first, that we must view all of our work all of the time through a racial equity lens, and second, that the initiative must be ongoing. Our collective shift in perspective inspired this issue of Academe, along with other recent issues that have addressed racial justice in higher education. Similarly, last fall our podcast, AAUP Presents, ran a five-episode series covering racial equity in higher education. Several AAUP reports and statements have been revised or rewritten by commit­tees over the past year with racial equity concerns in mind, and in 2022 a major special com­mittee report addressed racial equity in the University of North Carolina system. This spring, we are surveying AAUP members about racial equity issues on their campuses and in their chapters, and we will use what we learn to inform our future organizing work and the kinds of resources we provide to chapters. The national AAUP is also supporting chapter-level racial equity work through the recently established Katherine Morrison Racial Equity Fund, which honors the legacy of a former AAUP leader who helped the Association begin its journey toward pursuing racial justice in higher education.

The spate of educational gag orders—state-level legislative attacks censoring content and restricting teaching in K–12 and higher education—has also ramped up since spring 2020. Clearly, this is no accident. The legislative attacks are part of the backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement and the national outcry for a racial reckoning following Floyd’s murder. It may be difficult to tell whether the politicians advo­cating this legislation are cynically exploiting white fear and fragility or sincerely want to turn back the clock in order to maintain the sta­tus quo of white supremacy. Either way, they see an opportunity to thwart progress and sow chaos. Fighting back against inappropri­ate interference in higher education by legislators, donors, and others in positions of power is another of the AAUP’s current strategic priori­ties, and it is obviously connected to our racial justice initiative.

On June 11, 2021, before he left Twitter for good, historian, writer, and current Columbia Journalism School dean Jelani Cobb made clear the purpose of these reprehensible educational gag orders that target critical race theory or disallow the teaching of US history in all its complex­ity. He tweeted, “The attacks on critical race theory are clearly an attempt to discredit the literature millions of people sought out last year to understand how George Floyd wound up dead on a street corner. The goal is to leave the next dead black person inexplicable by history.”

It is up to all of us, especially those of us in higher education, to ensure that doesn’t happen. And that means that, in addition to protecting academic freedom, we must look critically at our sector’s past while committing to a more equitable future.