University of Pennsylvania AAUP Chapter

By Kelly Hand

This profile is part of a preview of the forthcoming spring issue of Academe, which will be published in full in May.

Faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania began organizing their current AAUP chapter in 2020—reviving a defunct AAUP chapter that had dated back at least to 1935—to push back against the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included hiring and graduate admissions freezes, staff layoffs, and austerity measures unilaterally imposed by the central administration. This imposition revealed the limitations of existing institutional governance structures, including Penn’s faculty senate, which lacks sufficient independence from the administration and representation of the non-tenure-track instructors who hold about 60 percent of the university’s teaching positions. The chapter grew during the pandemic in response to members’ need for advocacy around workplace safety and disability rights. Officially certified as AAUP-Penn in late 2020, it has on its current elected executive committee a majority of non-tenure-track faculty members and strives to unite Penn colleagues in the spirit of the AAUP’s “One Faculty” campaign, organizing across ranks and job classifications. Although Penn’s status as a private university imposes obstacles to faculty unionization, the chapter provides support for collective bargaining efforts on campus and functions at an exemplary level of activity and member engagement for an advocacy chapter.

Since October 2023, AAUP-Penn has worked to address the assault on academic freedom and shared governance principles at Penn, which began before the onset of the Israel-Gaza war but has escalated since then. The chapter has found itself in the national media spotlight as it challenges the threats to institutional autonomy, integrity, and even accreditation posed by the interference of politicians, wealthy donors, and trustees.

Executive committee members responded to questions about the chapter.

What lessons did AAUP-Penn learn from the pandemic?

Getting our chapter started in the early stages of the pandemic gave us a crash course in emergency workplace organizing. That moment, like this academic year, was a wake-up call for many of us about how our institutions operate in a crisis. Advocating against harmful and unnecessary austerity policies in 2020 and for basic workplace safety protections for faculty, staff, and students taught us the importance of prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable. The longer-term priorities at stake in those struggles still shape our chapter’s work, including a member-led Health, Safety, and Disability Task Force that is currently developing an accessibility and equity campaign to address some of the forms of discrimination that faculty members with disabilities face. It also taught us the importance of organizing to align our many shared interests with those of students and coworkers across job categories, particularly between non-tenure-track and tenure-track faculty.

How has AAUP-Penn worked to represent all members of the faculty? What are your priorities for addressing inequities among faculty?

Cross-rank organizing has been vital to everything we do, and our chapter works most effectively when non-tenure-track faculty are not just actively involved but in leadership positions. Contingent faculty are in the majority at Penn, as at most institutions, so issues of contingency are necessarily a priority for us all. Faculty of all ranks will gain a stronger collective voice when as many of our colleagues as possible have job security, economic security, and working conditions that enable us all to teach, study, and conduct research. Job security protections are essential to academic freedom, quality education, and a more functional workplace.

What is the state of collective bargaining at Penn, and what is the chapter’s role in supporting it?

Our campus is in the midst of a historic organizing wave, but Penn’s central administration has unfortunately responded by launching costly antiunion campaigns against its employees and students. When the Provost’s Office attempted to enlist faculty in a campaign against the Graduate Employees Together University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP) union, our chapter delivered a letter calling on the administration to take down their antiunion websites. When they refused to do so, we published an op-ed in the Daily Pennsylvanian asking faculty to reject these tactics. We also released our own annotated guide to the provost’s materials. In June 2023, AAUP-Penn also called on the administration to accept the wage proposals made by Penn Museum Workers United. In early fall 2023, we hosted the series “Faculty Conversations on Unionization at Penn” and created an FAQ on graduate student unionization as an alternative to the administration’s antiunion messaging. Members of our chapter have rallied with campus and regional unions during contract campaigns and strikes. Over the past two summers we have held Labor Solidarity Happy Hour events to bring together members of unions on our campus and across the city.

How has the Israel-Gaza war affected AAUP-Penn’s work?

The assault on academic freedom on our campus began long before October 7, though it has intensified into a crisis since then. It went public in September when donors attempted to force the university to cancel the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. Subsequent attempts by donors, unelected trustees, and advisory board members as well as by members of Congress to control teaching and learning have destabilized the university’s governance and impaired its basic academic functioning. Campaigns of targeted harassment have abetted this attack on academic freedom, instigating death threats against faculty and students with the aim of silencing dissent and censoring legitimate teaching and research. Because we decry antisemitism and all other forms of bigotry, we have been shocked to see administrators at Penn and commentators outside the university distort and weaponize those concerns in order to restrict the study of the Middle East, stifle antiwar protest, and threaten members of our community. Rather than defend Penn faculty and students who have been targeted, administrators have attempted to cancel educational events such as a Jewish student group’s screening of an award-winning documentary film critical of the Israeli government; shut down teach-ins on Palestine; restricted antiwar protests and student organizations’ events; and publicly criticized and disciplined faculty members and students for their scholarly work and protected speech. All this was in violation of the university’s own long-standing policies protecting academic freedom and open expression.

AAUP-Penn’s executive committee has publicly responded to these attacks on academic freedom, including in our October 28, 2023, “Statement on Threats to Academic Freedom, University Governance, and Safety at the University of Pennsylvania”; November 20 letter on targeted harassment; November 28 urgent message about screening the film Israelism and about threats to academic freedom; December 6 “AAUP-Penn Statement on the Dec. 5 Congressional Hearing”; December 9 Statement of the AAUP-Penn Executive Committee on the Resignation of President Magill”; December 12Statement of the AAUP-Penn Executive Committee on Marc Rowan's Questions to Penn Trustees”; December 19 op-ed for the Nation; and February 8, 2024, letter on the targeted harassment of Dwayne Booth. Members of our chapter also organized colleagues to add a statement on academic freedom to course syllabi and departmental websites and to participate in the comment process for Penn’s reaccreditation. Responding to a need for programming and open discussion, we have held public meetings and events on academic freedom. All this has made for an exhausting and demanding year. But it has also energized our chapter and brought in a lot of new members. We launched our positive campaign at a January 22 public rally, where it was energizing to hear speakers from across the university come together. It has been crucial to stress how vulnerable the freedom to teach is for the majority of Penn faculty with contingent status. Together with other AAUP chapters and unions across the country, we planned an April 17 national day of action for higher education for the public good. We stand together in support of higher education for all, demanding job security and fair pay, freedom to teach and learn, and public reinvestment in colleges and universities.

What are your longer-term goals for the chapter?

Our longer-term goals are simply stated and ambitious! We hope to organize Penn faculty of all ranks to strengthen shared governance and improve working conditions for all, especially the most precarious among us.