From the President: Will Any Good Come of It?

By Cary Nelson

At its June meeting, the AAUP’s national Council opted for a one-year experiment in open nominations for the 2011 Council races. As in the recent rerun of the election for the chair of the Assembly of State Conferences, any member in good standing will be able to run for a Council position, either in his or her own district or for a nationwide seat. The only additional requirement is that each candidate submit a petition signed by at least six current AAUP members.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I did not vote for this plan. Now that it has been adopted, however, my job is to help implement it. To that end, I want to alert our members about some issues to monitor.

Please note that there is no limit to the number of candidates who can compete for any given seat. A minimum of two is required for each contest, but there is no upper limit. Some Council seats might have only two candidates. Others could have ten or more. As the AAUP’s constitution specifies, victory will be by a plurality, not by a majority. I believe we should consider a constitutional change in June 2011 requiring that candidates win by a majority, either by a rerun or through weighted votes that produce majority victories through a series of recalculations.

Plurality-based contests with large numbers of candidates mean that a rather small group of voters can determine the results. Candidates unfamiliar with the Association or with the duties of office can carry the day. A small and unrepresentative but passionately committed constituency—even one hostile to the AAUP’s historic emphasis on issues of academic freedom and shared governance— can win an election decided by a distinct minority of those voting. Is it in the organization’s interest to have, say, a candidate receiving only 10 percent of the votes cast win an election?

We have relied for years on a nominating committee selecting qualified candidates. It has not been a perfect system, in part because too few of us have actively recruited candidates. But it is possible that the simple existence of the committee made it less likely that unqualified candidates would be offered for consideration. The committee’s role in selecting candidates also largely eliminated the need for negative campaigning. There can be no question that unfettered and heated debate about the Association’s goals is largely to the good. But I’d rather not see widespread personal attacks, and I am concerned that the new process could lead to that and be a disincentive for members who might otherwise be inclined to run for AAUP offices. I don’t believe that people who join the AAUP to promote our core values are eager to be exposed to negative campaigning.

The system we have adopted for the next election comes with assertions from some that it is more democratic, and, in one sense, it is. Anyone can run. But it places a larger burden on voters to judge candidates’ qualifications. What’s more, the need for active recruitment of good candidates remains unchanged. I was recruited. I would never have thought of running for the Council on my own. Many other AAUP leaders tell the same story. Someone approached them and persuaded them to run.

Increasing diversity among AAUP members is a high priority. Diversity in the leadership is somewhat less pressing, given that both male and female candidates are well represented. And we have had very active part-time faculty members in the leadership, though not the percentage represented in the profession. I would like to see greater racial diversity in the leadership, but, once again, targeted recruitment is the best way to achieve that goal. Recruiting more younger members to the non-collective-bargaining side of the Association is also critical, but I believe experience often trumps age when identifying the best candidates for office.

For all these reasons I believe our “experiment” is being asked to do things it cannot do. It does offer the prospect of more chaotic elections and of a less qualified leadership. Whether any good can come of it I do not know, but I urge increased member attention to the process.



Cary Nelson's concern about elections being determined by a plurality rather than a majority is easily handled by using the Hare System in which candidates are ranked 1 to 5 etc.  The candidate with the fewest first place is eliminated and his votes then redistributed to the candidates his voters ranked second; now the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated and his votes redistributed.  This process continues until one candidate has a majority.


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