From the President: No Faculty Member Is an Island

By Rudy Fichtenbaum

Like it or not, our profession has been changing in a number of ways. First, 70 percent of faculty appointments are now off the tenure track. So, although we will continue to fight to expand the number of tenure-track faculty, we must do more to expand our membership among faculty who are off the tenure track. Likewise, because in many cases faculty responsibilities have been “unbundled” and academic professionals are now performing tasks formerly done by faculty, we must also do a better job of reaching out to those professionals. 

Second, the number of faculty outside elite private institutions and flagship public universities has grown dramatically to match the enrollment growth where access to higher education has expanded. So we must also do more to expand our membership at other public research universities, regional university campuses, community colleges, and tuition-driven private institutions. 

Third, because of the increased role that specialized research and scholarship play in obtaining tenure, most tenure-track faculty now identify more with their discipline than with the profession as a whole. Likewise, many faculty who are seeking jobs on the tenure track also identify primarily with their disciplines, hoping that their research will help them to land a tenuretrack job. In the past, by contrast, most faculty thought of themselves as belonging to a profession. 

Part-time faculty, who have been shamelessly exploited, lead an existence that makes it inherently difficult for them to identify themselves as part of a profession. They not only lack employment security, but they also are frequently not provided with office space, computers, or other support. Moreover, they are generally excluded from a meaningful role in curricular and other academic matters. 

All of these changes are the result of the corporatization of higher education, which has transformed our profession. For nearly a century, the AAUP has fought to protect academic freedom and shared governance. The AAUP has also worked from its inception to provide a level of economic security to faculty, recognizing that this was necessary to attract the best and the brightest to our profession. But institutional adherence to these values and principles is threatened on an almost daily basis. 

What are the implications of these changes for building membership in the AAUP? Traditionally, the AAUP appealed to faculty as individual members. Chapters existed, but they were not the foundation of the AAUP, and the AAUP was not known for the work of its chapters. It was known for its policies and standards, in particular its defense of academic freedom and shared governance. It was known for its investigations and for its censure of administrations that violated the basic principles that it was founded to protect. 

This meant that the AAUP had the ability to attract and retain large numbers of faculty to its ranks simply by appealing to conscience. Faculty members who viewed themselves as being part of a profession saw the value in having an organization that developed great policies and standards and served as a watchdog for the profession. 

But today’s faculty members are much more likely to see themselves as employees. As such, they have begun to recognize that unless they join together and engage in collective action, they have no power. Thus, if the AAUP is to remain relevant to faculty and academic professionals today, it must continue its policy work while at the same time transforming itself into a vehicle for collective action. 

At institutions where unionization is possible, we should aggressively pursue that option. We also must recognize that because of the corporate assault on workers in this country, the overwhelming majority of faculty, academic professionals, and graduate students are unable to unionize. They can, however, still organize and exert their collective influence. 

While there is nothing wrong with appealing to members of our profession to join the AAUP as individuals, doing this alone will not sustain our membership. Our individual members tend to be older than our other members, and their numbers have been steadily declining as they have aged. For the AAUP to survive, it needs to build strong chapters of activists, both unionized and nonunionized, who will work with our allies to help defend our principles and our profession and to ensure that higher education remains a public good.