From the President: Politics and the AAUP

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

The AAUP should be more involved in working for a progressive social-justice agenda. Indeed, we must become more involved, even though some believe that in becoming more political we risk alienating some members.

The corporatization of higher education, along with privatization of public higher education, have led to rising tuition, increased student debt, and the growing use of faculty working on contingent appointments. The result can only be termed an all-out assault on academic freedom, shared governance, and the economic security of the profession.

Nowhere is this development more evident than in the recent budget proposal put forth by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Walker’s proposal would create a public authority to run the University of Wisconsin, cut $300 million from the UW budget, and remove both tenure and shared governance protections from state statutes. Walker has argued that individual campuses would be able to adopt policies that allow for tenure and shared governance. But when UW’s board of regents asked for the authority to protect tenure and academic freedom, right-wing Republican legislators responded that they might reconsider the whole notion of a public authority if the regents did not use its creation as an opportunity to eviscerate or even eliminate tenure and shared governance.

To understand why we must be involved in politics now, we need to review how we arrived at the present moment. In the 1960s and ’70s, working- and middle-class Americans enjoyed a period of unprecedented gains. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations we saw civil rights legislation; expanded voting rights; the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration; and the passage of the Employment Retirement and Income Security Act. The minimum wage was regularly increased, and economic inequality declined. Not coincidently, this period saw growing support for public higher education, including the creation of many new public universities and community college systems. Why did all of these progressive changes happen? The answer is simple: organized mass movements that involved ordinary working- and middle-class Americans.

When did this period of unprecedented gains end? The reversal began under the Carter administration and accelerated during the Reagan years. Why did it end? The answer has been well documented in the book Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The reversal of fortune for what we now refer to as the 99 percent occurred because the 1 percent got organized. During the 1970s, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business grew dramatically. Powerful corporate political action committees emerged. The supporters of the 1 percent began to create their own think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, funded by the Olin Foundation, beer magnate Joseph Coors, the Mellon Foundation, and, more recently, the Koch brothers.

The agenda of the 1 percent included rolling back government regulation, cutting taxes for the wealthy to “starve the beast” and thereby downsize government, and privatizing public services. To accomplish this agenda, the 1 percent broke the back of the labor movement (beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers) and started the “War on Drugs” and the consequent mass incarceration of African Americans, documented in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow.

This period also saw the Supreme Court’s Yeshiva decision, which effectively ended faculty unionization at private universities and colleges; the beginning of the corporatization of higher education; the first major cuts in state appropriations for higher education; and the rapidly increasing overuse of contingent appointments.

We now see what has ensued. Dependence on (and abuse of) faculty on contingent appointments is at an all-time high. State appropriations for higher education are plummeting, and, not coincidentally, student debt is skyrocketing. The Lumina Foundation (which rides on the back of massive student debt), the Gates Foundation, the Koch brothers, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and others escalate the attack. Money provided by the foundations supports so-called competency-based education as well as the hiring of faculty who advocate “free enterprise,” while the corporations’ products provide course content and assessment to replace real faculty.

That’s how we arrived at the present moment, when a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination advocates ending tenure and shared governance.

That’s why AAUP must remove its head from the sand and engage in progressive political action.

Comments

Response to the letter “Politics and the AAUP”

In the May-June issue of AAUP magazine Academe, the AAUP President, Dr. Fichenbaum, calls on the AAUP to engage in political action for a “progressive” agenda. I was stunned when I read this article.

In the article Dr. Fichenbaum gives a very biased view of the political history of the last several decades. He mentions various problems in education. He also mentions so-called legislative “gains," such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and raises in the minimum wage. He concludes again with a call to engage in political action of a "progressive" nature.

I take serious issue with his overall message.

I have been a member of the AAUP for many years and have always held the AAUP in high regard, a kind of moral beacon for education. Over the years, many of the articles have given me great insight into a number of issues. I believe that the mission of the AAUP is to promote education and take on issues like tenure, intellectual property, academic freedom, and university governance. I may not agree with every article, but strongly support the magazine and the organization. We all have the right to discuss what the right course of action is.

The article by Dr. Fichtenbaum mentions the issues in Wisconsin and the educational prospects there. The developments in Wisconsin have cast a shadow on tenure and governance in state universities. I agree with the author that we must take up the fight there politically. Although I concur on this particular issue, the jump to a general progressive agenda is, quite simply, out of context and unjustified.

For example, we all would like to see much higher wages for those in unskilled or low skilled positions. But whether a mandatory minum wage is the solution is an open question. But more importantly here, what does a mandatory minimum wage have to do with the AAUP? Or the Environmental Protection Agency or the Consumer Product Safety Commission?

The AAUP stands for noble values, a kind of truth if you will. The AAUP should stick to its primary objective, that is university education. Other than politics related directly to universities and education, the AAUP should be politically neutral. It is the right thing for the organization.

There is a new wave of progressivism and political correctness in U.S. schools. But there also is an equally sound view from a conservative viewpoint. Taking on a progressive agenda will be the end of the AAUP as we know it.

Very sincerely,
Henry Ledgard, Ph.D.
Professor
The University of Toledo
Department of Electrical Engineering
Computer Science
419-460-4445
Henry.Ledgard@utoledo.edu

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