From the President: Ethics and Corporatization

By Cary Nelson

Almost every institutional problem we confront in higher education today situates us at the intersection of ethics and corporatization. Should we protect our lower-paid colleagues from pay cuts and furloughs? Should higher-paid faculty and administrators make sacrifices for community members living on the margins? Which is more important—a new campus building or free health care for all employees? As I point out in my new book, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (forthcoming from New York University Press), the logic of corporatization suggests one answer to these questions, ethics another.

The book grew out of a series of lectures presented at AAUP events— chapter and state conference meetings, as well as conferences on collective bargaining and academic freedom. As I responded to audience questions and comments, the relationship between the powerful forces pressing us toward destructive change became clearer. Even talking simply about corporatization began to seem inadequate. In No University Is an Island, I identify sixteen major threats to academic freedom now emerging in the neoliberal university, most of them linked to corporatization.

Even our pedagogical practices, under assault by conservative critics, have become an ethical battleground. Political analysis and reflection—long a staple of humanities and social science courses and increasingly pertinent to scientific studies of global warming, health, and environmental degradation—is regularly stigmatized as unethical. Instead we are urged to limit ourselves to uncommitted neutrality and corporate-style job training. As I promised the members of Committee A some time ago, I devote a portion of No University Is an Island to rebutting these charges and demands.

In two chapters devoted to collective bargaining, I ask whether it is possible for academic unions not only to gain the public’s respect but also to take the lead in redeeming the image of unionization in general. Faculty and graduate student employees are uniquely positioned to forge a deeper connection between collective bargaining and ethical principles—by championing fair working conditions for all and championing student rights. Because it seeks to strip employees of their voice and their security, disempowering and impoverishing them, corporatization will likely stimulate increasing numbers of recognition drives. Now is the time to win back public admiration for unionization as an ethical and progressive movement that makes the public good its first priority.

Over the course of two hundred pages, I establish that none of these goals is achievable without the AAUP, indeed, that higher education has no tolerable future without the AAUP’s vigilance and advocacy. Then I review some of the challenges we have faced and the mistakes we have made in the past, particularly in the dark years of 2005 and 2006, when the Association’s membership and finance departments, as we have repeatedly acknowledged in public, underwent a meltdown.

Those problems partly reflected a failure of leadership oversight. Maintaining a proper balance between staff and leadership is always difficult in nonprofit organizations, but the need for such balance is greater at the AAUP than at most other higher education nonprofits—both because the work we do requires collaboration and because that work is extremely important. If we do not learn from the past, however, we will repeat it.

I conclude the book with an analysis of the principles and practices that have governed Committee A operations. Long invisible to most faculty members, the criteria that shape investigations must be brought to public attention, I believe, if they are to capture the interest (and membership dues) of faculty nationwide. Several current or past members of Committee A who have seen the book have endorsed this view. But my willingness to describe in detail how we have worked—and to evaluate that process—is a departure from past practice.

If we are to convince faculty across the country that the AAUP matters, if we want to give them a stake in how we do business, we need both to promote our achievements and to disclose our strengths, our ambitions, our mistakes, and the challenges we face. For we are higher education’s only principled hope. At the intersection of ethics and corporatization, AAUP values must prevail.