From the President: Eight Years of Organizing for Change

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

This will be my last column as president of the AAUP. I did not set out with the intention of running to be the AAUP’s presi­dent. My road to the presidency started when I became a member of the Council and treasurer of the AAUP’s Collective Bargaining Congress. When the financial crisis that resulted in the Great Recession struck higher education, several of us on the AAUP-CBC Executive Committee saw an opportunity for the AAUP.

At an AAUP-CBC meeting in Portland, Oregon, in 2009, I proposed that we use our emer­gency fund to hire organizers and try to organize new chapters. I argued that faculty members who had been reluctant to organize previously might see the mat­ter differently when they saw their administrations using the crisis to justify freezing faculty salaries, cutting health benefits, imposing furloughs, and eliminat­ing programs, particularly in the humanities.

At that time, the AAUP was in poor financial condition and our membership was declining. We were a divided organization. A number of us in the CBC thought that there was an opportunity to increase our membership and unify the organization around a mission of building chapters that would fight at a grassroots level for the principles upon which the AAUP was founded in 1915.

We decided that we needed to run for office and assume the key leadership positions in the AAUP. First, we ran a slate for the at-large positions on the AAUP’s Executive Committee. We used our positions on the Executive Committee to develop a statement that made organizing and building member­ship our top priorities. Ultimately, the Council passed this resolution.

Then, in 2012, we ran a slate of candidates for the four officer posi­tions, something that had never been done in the AAUP. I tried to convince someone else to run for president, but obviously I failed. We called ourselves Organizing for Change. Here is how we described our platform: “Everywhere our profession and its values are under assault. Attacks on collec­tive bargaining rights and shared governance, the abuse of non-tenure-track faculty (both full-time and part-time) and consequent erosion of tenure, the misplaced priorities of politicians and many university leaders, and assaults on the free expression rights of both faculty and students are increasing. To meet these challenges . . . [the] AAUP needs to become a more powerful, articulate, and energetic force committed to organizing and mobilizing faculty in a broad variety of ways to fight for our profession.”

From the beginning we never viewed “organizing” as limited to collective bargaining. We always said that organizing is organizing, whether you are organizing for col­lective bargaining or organizing a non-collective-bargaining chapter. I hope you notice that I did not use the term advocacy chapter, because in my view we are all advocacy chapters. Our goal has always been to build membership and unify our members. The best way to fight for our principles is through collec­tive action. I can’t count the times I have told our members that you don’t need enabling legislation to organize and fight for academic freedom, shared governance, and the economic security of our profession.

When the four of us took office the AAUP was in dire financial straits. We regularly had to use a line of credit just to make payroll and pay the rent. We had no cash-flow statements, and many of our chapters were behind on paying dues. So we surveyed members, chapters, and state conference lead­ers, and we rewrote our mission statement to add language about fighting for the economic security of the profession; the new mission statement took a more inclusive view of our profession and stated explicitly that the AAUP needed to “organize to make our goals a reality.” Then we developed plans to implement a strategy and got to work.

One of our first actions was to hire a new director of organiz­ing and build up our organizing department. We also successfully renegotiated our joint organiz­ing agreement with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Together, these changes enabled us to engage in solo organizing as well as joint organizing at major research institutions. Since 2013 we have increased our membership by 23 percent—20 percent in col­lective bargaining and 31 percent among non-collective-bargaining members.

Among the campuses we orga­nized were Bowling Green State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University,

the College of Southern Nevada, the Oregon Institute of Technol­ogy, Northern Illinois University, Santa Fe Community College, and the University of New Mexico. We also helped organize and revital­ize chapters like those at Miami University and the University of Louisville.

We started the One Faculty campaign and put forward a vision of one profession united across ranks, tenure status, and institutional type to ensure that the principles for which we fight apply to all who teach and engage in research. We invested in a new database and in a digital organiz­ing program to better position the AAUP to continue serving our members, the profession, and our movement.

Today the AAUP is financially stable and has built a reserve that has allowed us to weather chal­lenges like the US Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision—in fact, because of the work of our orga­nizing department, we not only weathered Janus but also emerged with stronger chapters. The AAUP is also well-positioned to meet the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As soon as COVID-19 began to affect US campuses, we issued a statement jointly with the AFT, and since then we have put out additional statements provid­ing guidance and preparing our members to resist cynical attempts by administrations to use the crisis to further the corporatization of our campuses.

During the eight years of my presidency, the AAUP has pub­lished numerous policy statements and reports addressing critical issues in the academic profession, including The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX, a revised state­ment on The Role of the Faculty in Conditions of Financial Exigency, a statement on Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications, and our latest statement, In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education.

The Association has conducted sixteen investigations of violations of academic freedom and tenure and five governance investigations, including a number of cases involv­ing the rights of part-time faculty and graduate students.

We have strengthened our relationship with our organizing partner, the AFT, and committed to working together more broadly to defend knowledge and the com­mon good.

We have provided financial analyses for many of our chap­ters and continued to develop the offerings at our Summer Institute, where we have trained many of today’s new AAUP leaders.

Finally, we ventured into areas that some even in our ranks viewed as controversial. After the elec­tion of Donald Trump, I issued a statement pointing out that “his racist, xenophobic and misogy­nistic statements and behavior had emboldened his supporters on campuses to engage in actions threatening the rights and human dignity of minorities, immigrants, and women.” In that statement, I said, “His presidency represents the greatest threat to academic free­dom since the McCarthy period.” I went on to say that “the Trump presidency will be neoliberalism on steroids” and that “the goal of creating an educated citizenry will be subordinated to the demands of wealthy and corporate interests, and academic freedom for faculty, students, and researchers will con­sequently be under attack.”

As president of the AAUP I have traveled all over the country, meeting members and leaders and learning about the struggles in which they are engaged on their campuses. I have urged chap­ters and conferences to get more involved in politics, particularly at the state level, and to build alliances with organized labor and social justice organizations. I walked the halls collecting cards during our organizing campaigns. I joined the picket lines at Cincin­nati State and at Wright State. I marched with the faculty at Rutgers, Rider University, the Uni­versity of Cincinnati, and Brooklyn College as they struggled to get fair contracts.

I believe that the leadership of Organizing for Change has helped to build a bigger, stronger, and more inclusive AAUP. As leaders we have been guided by asking what is best for our members, what is best for the profession, and what is best for our movement. It has been an honor to serve as president of the AAUP.