Trinity College AAUP Chapter

By Kelly Hand

The AAUP chapter at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, was created in April 2017. Within six months, its membership more than tripled, from seventeen to fifty-three. Faculty had begun to orga­nize following the 2016 presidential election amid concerns about how to protect undocumented students and those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. Trinity College president Joanne Berger-Sweeney responded to the ad hoc faculty group’s calls to make Trinity a sanctuary campus by promising to do anything possible within the limits of the law to pro­tect these students. Faculty wanted a stronger commitment from the ad­ministration and decided to increase their impact by establishing a more formal group.

After forming an AAUP chapter at the end of the academic year, members expected to resume activ­ity in the fall, but the controversy surrounding sociology professor Johnny Williams mobilized chapter leadership over the summer. Trinity had placed Williams on involuntary leave after reports on the right-wing website Campus Reform misrep­resented his social media postings on racial issues, resulting in violent threats to Williams and the cam­pus. A group of sixty colleagues demanded that the administration rescind its decision, and the chap­ter’s executive committee issued a statement of support for Williams, citing concerns about academic free­dom, due process, and the stifling of “critical engagement with issues of race.” More than one hundred Trinity faculty members signed a statement noting that the decision to place Williams on leave was a clear violation of AAUP standards. Chapter leaders consulted with the national AAUP, which sent a letter urging Berger-Sweeney to reinstate Williams. The administra­tion ultimately acknowledged that Williams’s posts were protected by academic freedom, though Williams agreed to remain on leave during the fall semester.

Trinity College AAUP members have been building on the momen­tum of this victory and continue to play an active role in articulat­ing faculty concerns on campus and improving faculty governance. Solidarity with all faculty— whether on tenured, tenure-track, or contingent appointments—and with other campus workers and students has remained a top prior­ity for the chapter.

We learned more about the new chapter from members of its execu­tive committee.

What role did the Johnny Wil­liams controversy play in the rapid growth of your chapter?

Trinity College faculty were positioned to respond rapidly and coherently to the attacks on Johnny Williams because we were already organized with the AAUP. The exis­tence of a chapter on campus gave faculty an official platform from which to speak and an organized structure for making decisions and expressing opposition to the administration’s handling of the situation. The administration’s deci­sion to unilaterally place Professor Williams on leave, however, was just the latest example of a general decline in working conditions and faculty governance and a trend of prioritizing the demands of other “stakeholders” over faculty con­cerns. By crystallizing these existing grievances, the administration’s failure to defend Williams from his right-wing attackers galvanized the faculty. Many who did not previ­ously see the importance of orga­nizing with the AAUP were deeply troubled by the apparent lack of protection offered by tenure. And many more who already had griev­ances saw the importance of being organized and speaking in a unified political voice.

Although your chapter helped win a victory for academic freedom at Trinity College, the administra­tion’s handling of the case raised ongoing concerns. How do you envision the chapter working with the administration in the future?

Trinity College’s faculty manual is organized around AAUP principles, which creates clear structures for shared governance. The adminis­tration’s unilateral action to place Williams on mandatory leave in response to the Campus Reform attack, despite the fact that the faculty manual clearly leaves issues of suspension and sanction to the faculty, was disconcerting. Our goal moving forward is to reinforce existing faculty governance struc­tures and challenge administra­tive overreach. This fall alone we have raised objections to efforts to change various policies that sought to centralize decision-making in the dean’s office rather than involve the appropriate faculty committees. So far these objections have been met with fair-minded responses from the administration, and we are hope­ful that our relationship with the administration will continue to be productive in the future.

As your chapter moves forward, what are the major issues members want to focus on and how are you working to define and advance your agenda?

In addition to committees focus­ing on expanding membership and organizing events, our Contingent Faculty Committee is identifying issues important to non-tenure-track faculty. Our Sanctuary Campus Committee works to ensure that the college has the best policies in place to protect undocumented members of the Trinity community and to network with statewide and national coalitions to help protect immigrants from deportation. Another committee is laying the groundwork for a campuswide la­bor network that we hope will bring together campus unions, exempt and nonexempt employees, faculty, and students. Our Committee on Issues Affecting Faculty of Color is preparing to advocate for greater hiring and institutional support for faculty of color. Finally, our College Governance Committee is docu­menting and responding to threats to faculty governance.

What are some of the obstacles you have encountered to organiz­ing faculty at Trinity and what are your strategies for overcoming those obstacles?

Our greatest strength as a chapter has been that many of the members of the executive committee have been non-tenure-track and nontenured faculty—our first executive commit­tee consisted of six members, only two of whom had tenure. So the re­alities of economic inequality and the tenuous nature of academic freedom protections have always been at the heart of our organizing. However, especially after the Johnny Williams controversy, a number of contin­gent and junior faculty felt particu­larly vulnerable. What would have happened if Campus Reform had attacked a nontenured faculty mem­ber? We responded to these concerns this fall by greatly expanding the size of the executive committee and involving more faculty on contingent appointments. By involving more people in planning, discussion, and organizing, we can better shield po­tentially vulnerable faculty members. More work needs to be done, how­ever, to strengthen solidarity between tenured and tenure-track faculty and those on contingent contracts.

Tell us about work the chapter has done to engage staff and students. What motivated these efforts and what results are they yielding?

First of all, our chapter has worked hard to make sure that the admin­istration clarifies its position on the protection of undocumented members of our community. Now that we are clear about what the administration is willing (and unwilling) to do, we have been reaching out to organizations and lawyers in the community who work on issues of forced deporta­tion. Our hope is that building such bridges will enable our AAUP chapter to expand protections for undocumented members of our community. We also organized a number of public events for faculty and students this fall, including a lecture by Johnny Williams on the first day of the semester, a teach-in about academic freedom and white supremacy, and film screenings and public lectures. The chapter will be stronger when it works closely with other employees and with students from across campus.

Your chapter was in frequent con­tact with the national AAUP during the Williams controversy. How was that helpful, and what kind of support would benefit your chapter and other advocacy chapters like it in the future?

The national AAUP was extremely important this summer during the Williams controversy. AAUP first vice president Henry Reich­man wrote a piece for Academe Blog that gave us a sense of the contours of the situation early on. Hans-Joerg Tiede and other staff members were incredibly helpful as we crafted our public responses, in­cluding by providing material from AAUP statements to frame and sup­port our positions. The letter Tiede sent to the administration condemn­ing its decision to place Williams on suspension also provided powerful support for the positions being taken by our chapter. Tiede later came to campus and gave a series of lectures on academic freedom both inside and outside the classroom. We were also impressed by the AAUP’s ability to magnify our voice over the summer, when the Associa­tion informed faculty from around the country about Williams and encouraged them to sign petitions and send support. Funding from the state AAUP conference made it possible for a member of our execu­tive committee to attend the AAUP’s Summer Institute last July.

Because right-wing attacks on academics can happen at any time, on any campus, we highly encour­age all campuses to organize their own chapters of the AAUP and to work closely with the national office to develop a greater under­standing of the principles and protections of academic freedom.

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