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From the President: The Next 100 Years

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

The economist John K. Galbraith once said, “When it comes to forecasting the future, there are two kinds of economists, those who know that they don’t know and those who don’t.” So making statements about the future, especially without a crystal ball, can be risky. Perhaps this is why Yogi Berra, who recently passed away at the age of ninety, once said, “The future is not what it used to be.” Fortunately for me, I will not be around for the AAUP’s bicentennial, so I am free to speculate about the next hundred years.

In our first century of existence, the AAUP’s work centered on protecting academic freedom and shared governance and providing faculty members with economic security. Clearly, academic freedom has been and will remain a critical issue for all of those individuals involved in teaching in the broadest sense—faculty, graduate students, academic professionals, and postdocs. It is equally important to those involved in research and other creative forms of scholarship. Shared governance is a collective form of academic freedom, allowing faculty as a group to bring their expertise to bear on the curriculum, academic policy, diversity, hiring and retention, and institutional priorities, all of which affect the primary missions of colleges and universities. Economic security is important because it allows institutions of higher education to attract the best faculty.

I believe that these core issues will remain as important in the next hundred years as they have been in the AAUP’s first century of existence. The need for an organization like the AAUP, which recognizes that higher education is a public good and that it must serve the public interest by promoting the free exchange of ideas—whether in the classroom, in the lab, on the stage, or in the “public square”—is enduring.

Significant positive changes in higher education are unlikely to occur, however, until there is a broader mass movement that addresses the overall neoliberal agenda, which has been pushed by corporations and the super rich. One of the main manifestations of the corporatization of higher education has been the transformation of academic labor. Recognizing the changes that were beginning to take place, faculty began unionizing in both the public and the private sectors in the 1970s. The Supreme Court’s 1980 Yeshiva decision, which all but ended new organizing at private colleges and universities, struck the first blow against faculty unionization. Despite this setback, public-sector faculty unions, particularly those representing tenured and tenure-track faculty, continued to grow. Of course, in many states, public-employee collective bargaining is prohibited by law. Elitism among faculty at many public flagship institutions has also been an impediment to the growth of unions.

While the AAUP was one of the earliest voices calling attention to the growing use of contingent labor in higher education, our Collective Bargaining Congress and other faculty unions were slow to adapt to the changing landscape. The decline of tenure and the growth of both full- and part-time non-tenure-track faculty have radically changed the labor market in higher education. While the faculty was being divided, administrations were busy carrying out the neoliberal agenda in an attempt to transform higher education into a commodity.

Still, history does not move in a straight line, and sooner or later working people will begin to push back effectively against the neoliberal agenda. We have seen signs of this emerging activism in various struggles, both in the United States and in other countries. I am hopeful that when the pendulum does begin to swing more decisively in the other direction, the implementation of a progressive agenda will become the centerpiece of American political, socioeconomic, and cultural change over the next hundred years.

One part of that agenda will be reaffirming, as the AAUP’s Centennial Declaration does, that higher education exists to serve the public interest. Whether the AAUP continues to be a powerful voice to promote higher education as a public good will depend on how well we adapt to changing circumstances. It will depend on how effective we are in bringing all faculty and academic professionals into our association. It will depend on how effective we are in building alliances with other labor unions, progressive groups, and student activists. And, above all, it will depend on how effective we are in inspiring our members to engage in collective action.

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