The Secrets of Successful Membership Recruitment

Creating an effective advocacy chapter at a private liberal arts university.
By Christopher Vecsey

When I began my second term as president of Colgate University’s AAUP chapter in January 2013 (I had served once before in the early 1990s), our chapter was moribund. Among the close to three hundred full-time academic teaching faculty at Colgate, only fifty-nine were AAUP members, forty-two of whom were full professors. There was not a single assistant professor among the ranks.

During the spring semester that year, working in consultation with other newly elected AAUP officers, I made appointments with almost every academic department (plus library faculty), as part of their regular department meetings. My primary aim was recruitment.

In each department, I recounted the history of the AAUP’s founding in 1915, particularly as a lobbying agent for academic freedom, which was more or less nonexistent at the time in the United States. I recounted the tale of Edward Ross, the economist who was dismissed from his position at Stanford University in 1900 because of his politics. I told of the efforts of Arthur O. Lovejoy and John Dewey to create a national organization of faculty that would help put an end to such ill treatment.

I defined academic freedom in vivid, practical terms: what it means (the right to research, publish, and teach, without institutional restrictions or penalties), and what it means not to possess it (the loss of scholarly and pedagogical integrity). “Thanks to the AAUP,” I quoted from the organization’s website, “academic freedom is recognized as the fundamental principle of our profession.” I made it clear that the professional criteria for tenure—standards regarding scholarship, teaching, and service to the university community—articulated in faculty handbooks like the one we have at Colgate, were the result of the AAUP’s influence. Because of the AAUP’s persistence, I said, we are judged in our faculty reviews for promotion and tenure by our peer-reviewed accomplishments, not by skin color, religious conviction, personal mien, or political bent.

For those who were unfamiliar with the AAUP, I described its national character: tens of thousands of members at more than five hundred institutions of higher learning. I pointed to the AAUP’s website, with its astute guidance regarding shared governance, faculty compensation, workloads, tenure reviews, retirement policies, contingent faculty rights, diversity and affirmative-action goals, family and work issues, problems of harassment and discrimination, professional ethics, and the like.

I spoke of the important role the AAUP had played at our own university. In previous decades, it had been pivotal in improving our faculty compensation by creating a list of prestigious, well-endowed institutions with which we could compare our salaries and benefits. (This list is accompanied by another list, created by the administration, of not-quite-as-wealthy institutions; every year we make the comparisons, and the administration vows that we shall not fall below the mean in these two reference groups. The vetting process works.) The AAUP is mentioned in Colgate’s faculty handbook, which refers to the Colgate chapter as “the national professional organization on campus for members of the faculty in matters primarily concerning academic freedom . . . and tenure.” At Colgate, the AAUP has functioned as ombudsman, as the engine for provost and presidential searches (at least until recently), and as a mechanism for producing solidarity and sharing faculty perspectives. Our local AAUP used to sponsor regular faculty forums and produced a faculty newsletter; I announced the revitalization of both of these devices, the latter online.

I told each department that the AAUP officers desired a renewed AAUP presence on campus. I then asked my fellow faculty members for their main issues of concern. I heard plenty and took notes. At the close of each session, I asked my colleagues to join the AAUP, and I handed out membership forms. In appealing especially to junior faculty, I joked that the graying of the AAUP on campus made it hard to tell the difference between the AAUP and AARP—a laugh line, but sadly true. I also joked about my smarmy (but effective) offer of a subsidized discount of $50 (but no toaster, no set of steak knives) paid from our dusty coffers for the first year of membership dues.

The membership applications came streaming into my office. By the end of the semester, Colgate’s AAUP membership had doubled, from under sixty to over 120. All told, we have gained seventy new members: eighteen full-time professors, twenty-six associates, and twenty-four assistant professors, plus one librarian and one contingent faculty member. The recruits came primarily from the humanities and the social sciences—only ten from the natural sciences and mathematics. Even with several losses resulting from retirements and second thoughts, AAUP membership now constitutes a substantial portion of Colgate’s teaching faculty.

Still, I wish there were more. It is disappointing that some faculty for whom the AAUP has gone to bat in time-consuming ways over the past year are still reluctant to join. Some do not think that membership is worth their monthly dues; they prefer a free ride on the coattails of their co-workers. Others are cynical about the prospects of improving labor conditions on campus. Some have told me in person and in e-mails that they will have nothing to do with “unionism,” “liberalism,” or faculty “rabble-rousing.” Others fear that an “us-versus-them” approach to governance shared by faculty and nonfaculty is “counterproductive” in a “money-making operation trying to survive in a competitive marketplace.” A few untenured members intend to “keep their head down” until their job security is assured.

My recruiting speech had some effect. So did the fact that AAUP members over the past year have been forthright in questioning and criticizing the administrative university culture at forums, in regular faculty meetings, and on the Colgate AAUP Issues website (http://www.colgateaaup.com). Clearly, our AAUP chapter is a visible, vocal force with which bureaucrats must reckon; therefore, it garners attention and attracts a constituency.

The most important factor in recruiting new members, however, had to do less with what I said than with what I heard—and what I continue to hear—about faculty distress over their reduced role in governance on campus. Faculty members at Colgate have expressed indignation that we are losing our rightful control over curricular matters and our consultative powers in other realms, such as strategic plans, building priorities, cost outlays, admission policies, and technological strategies.

Our faculty have testified to administrative encroachment, a “creeping, now galloping, corporatism” that subjects faculty to infomercials from top corporate brass, who expect them to “shut up and get in line.” More than one colleague has remarked that the administration doesn’t care what faculty members think about the present or what they hope for the future. I have heard from many people that democratic principles and elected offices are being undermined by administrative appointments and unilateral initiatives.

Partly the concern is over shifting institutional cultural values in the United States that have introduced the corporate model into the realm of higher education. But the concern is also a response to an administration that is perceived as particularly unresponsive to faculty perspectives. There is a sense that financial decisions are being made without consultation or transparency, and that academic considerations are no longer paramount. “The mission of the university is the academic enterprise,” one faculty member said, “but it doesn’t seem that way these days.” Instead, administrative interest seems to be in public relations, branding exercises, consumer-driven projects, and website manipulation, largely without expert faculty input. In this way, as entrepreneurship overshadows education as a bureaucratic ideal, the curriculum is no longer the most prominent feature on the horizon of university enter- prises, and faculty become merely one “stakeholder” amidst alumni, students, members of the Board, and investors in the university system.

Reacting to a rancorous session with a Colgate trustee who was pushing online operations, faculty were quick to claim our own technological savvy. We insisted that we must be the ones to decide what best serves our needs, instead of relying on outsiders brought in by the administration to “hector” and “intrude.” In determining future uses of technology, including possible mechanisms for online education, our faculty want to consult with fellow academics who have done research in this field and with whom we can share constructive ideas, including knowledge of intellectual property and copyrights. For their own part, administrators want to press ahead without heeding faculty objections.

I have heard it said that communication between faculty members and administrators has deteriorated over the past decade. In general, some faculty members say, there is too much bureaucracy, an explosion of administrators. A growing bevy of functionaries make themselves felt at faculty meetings, usurping the authority of the faculty and our elected committees. Control over the curriculum—especially our multidisciplinary Core Program, which has long been Colgate’s signature program—has been crucial to faculty governance and to the intellectual and communal life of our institution. The reduction of the curriculum in the profile of the institution has thereby endangered our body politic and compromised our academic mission.

This is what I heard (although certainly not from everyone) when I visited departments across campus. In addition, some faculty members spoke of a culture of fear, not only among untenured and contingent teachers, for whom existence is increasingly unsafe, but also among the putative leaders of the faculty. Department heads said they are afraid to speak honestly, so as not to lose something—like a faculty line or a cherished program within the curriculum—to budget freezes and shifting preferences, as funds tilt toward the latest thing and away from time-tested practice.

One faculty member saw a “Pandora’s box of democracy” in regard to curricular changes wrought by administrators. Perhaps some faculty members do not want change of any kind, in which case it may take some top-down, take-charge entrepreneurship to spark change. Another faculty member replied that administrators should support what the faculty have already created rather than encumber existing structures with extraneous, competing novelties.

In this divided atmosphere, where it is sometimes said that we are turning on each other, senior members report being marginalized, demoralized, and alienated to such a degree that they now refuse to attend faculty meetings or to serve on elected committees. Yet many other professors have seen the need for a rebirth of faculty energy, symbolized by a revived AAUP, as an alternative, oppositional voice at faculty meetings. A senior colleague avowed, “We are the faculty and should start acting like one.” One senior colleague proclaimed that the “old folks,” the “fearless faculty,” are obligated to voice their views in public, in order to achieve solidarity with younger colleagues. Recently the administration has sought to procure retirements among the sixty-and-over cohort, and many in that group suspect that one of the intended consequences of the buyouts is to silence those who know the university best and have secure positions from which to voice their concerns.

Tenure gives faculty the wherewithal to outlast transient administrators. Some faculty members have argued that the search for the next president (and provost) must have greater elected faculty input, with a renewal of the AAUP chapter’s role in the process. I have heard it said that the increasing use of search firms has tended to close faculty out of participation in these important decisions. Faculty need to regain their prerogatives in the selection, evaluation, and retention of administrators, producing in the long run a greater sense of accountability when administrators make policies and decisions.

The strongest reasons for joining the AAUP have arisen not only from the AAUP’s record as originator and protector of academic freedom and equitable tenure procedures and from its support for increased faculty compensation packages, but also from the realization that the future of our academy is at stake. Umbrage has been a more effective recruiter than my powers of persuasion could ever be.

Christopher Vecsey is the Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of the Humanities, Native American Studies, and Religion at Colgate University, and the president of the Colgate AAUP chapter. His email address is cvecsey@colgate.edu.

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