Willamette University AAUP Chapter

By Kelly Hand

Until 2015, Willamette University, a small liberal arts college in Salem, Oregon, had not had an active AAUP chapter in decades. Faculty at Willamette revived their chapter in response to increasing concerns about austerity measures imposed by the administration and a lack of transparency. In 2013 the administration abruptly closed the School of Education, which resulted in the dismissal of tenured and nontenured faculty as well as staff and left many dissatisfied with the lack of faculty involvement in institutional decision making. The new advocacy chapter soon proved its value in challenging controversial decisions made by the administration and the board of trustees.

In the 2015–16 academic year, President Stephen Thorsett’s administration proposed dramatically scaling back the university’s commitment to Willamette Academy, a college access program serving area middle and high school students from communities historically underrepresented in higher education. Administrators announced plans to reduce the size of the academy by transforming it into a pipeline program strictly serving Willamette University. The changes angered Willamette University students, especially those who felt that voices of students of color and community members had been silenced by administrative decisions. Following the lead of students, and with the help of the new AAUP chapter, Willamette faculty mobilized around this issue.

Faculty also objected to a resolution from the board of trustees that provided departments with incentives to increase the hiring of contingent faculty. The resolution would have required that at least 20 percent of faculty appointments be in part-time and temporary, non-tenure-track positions and that the remaining 80 percent include faculty in continuing non-tenure-track contract positions with higher teaching loads than tenured or tenure-track faculty.

The Willamette AAUP helped convince the administration to reverse both of these unpopular decisions. In June 2016, College of Liberal Arts faculty negotiated a “Joint Agreement on Shared Governance, Consultative Decision-Making, and Communication” with the president, board, and students. This agreement addressed the future of Willamette Academy, student and faculty involvement in Title IX implementation, performance reviews of administrators, and other issues.

We asked Willamette University AAUP chapter officers to answer some questions and received replies from Frann Michel, Gaetano DeLeonibus, Todd Silverstein, and Jonneke Koomen.

Why did starting an AAUP chapter at Willamette seem like a good way to address faculty concerns in 2015, and what were the first steps you took to form one?

For a couple of years leading up to 2015, departments in the College of Liberal Arts had been asked repeatedly to cut their budgets and undergo a “prioritization planning process” of the sort promoted by higher education consultant Robert Dickeson. In 2014–15 an administrative reorganization of the College of Liberal Arts at the level of dean and vice president, despite involving some faculty representatives, neglected reports from past faculty task forces.

Faculty felt disenfranchised. We were expected to accept conclusions that President Thorsett presented to us based on reported directives from the board of trustees. Some faculty members concluded that faculty governance had become meaningless.

Aware that the changes happening on our campus were related to wider patterns in higher education, we wanted outside perspective on these events and on how we might best address them. We contacted the AAUP, and, after holding meetings in spring 2015 that brought together a core group of seven colleagues who became AAUP members, the minimum required to form an advocacy chapter, we developed a set of bylaws.

What was your most effective means of recruiting and engaging new members?

Initially, we more than doubled our membership after a few social events. Since then, we’ve continued to talk individually with colleagues, and faculty members have been joining as they see what we can do. Some joined when we drafted a faculty letter about Willamette Academy, some when we participated in negotiations with the board of trustees, and some when AAUP staff member Hans- Joerg Tiede came to campus to talk about academic freedom in the age of Trump. Many faculty members are drawn to the AAUP because it offers useful resources and because it connects the issues we face at Willamette to broader concerns in higher education.

What are some of the advantages and challenges of organizing on a relatively small campus?

On a campus like ours faculty tend to know one another. In recruiting members, we’ve been able to reach out to colleagues we know will be receptive while also building new relationships. One challenge is that all of us feel stretched thin already, juggling teaching, research, committee service, and the rest of our lives. That’s likely true at larger schools as well, but with a small group of faculty there are fewer of us to share the work of the chapter and fill leadership positions.

What did your chapter learn from your successful mobilization around last year’s controversial administrative decisions?

We came to see more clearly that our faculty governance structure, which had generally worked for us prior to President Thorsett’s arrival, no longer functioned well. Faculty representation on decision-making committees was ineffective because decisions were being made elsewhere by senior administrators. In many cases committees tasked with making decisions were bypassed, not informed of decisions made elsewhere, or informed after decisions were finalized. The administration set up several “task forces” but ignored or misrepresented recommendations when they weren’t in line with administrators’ goals.

We learned we needed a diverse chorus of faculty voices, as well as solidarity with students and staff, to change the course that the administration was plotting for our future. We needed not only the faculty representatives elected to committees but also other key faculty voices. This is where our AAUP advocacy chapter came in. We were able to amplify the knowledgeable voices of students and colleagues who had long been protesting the Willamette Academy decisions, as well as those of faculty representatives who had dissented from the board of trustees resolution on the size and composition of the faculty. By keeping the important issues in the open and under discussion, and by developing widely supported positions, we persuaded the administration that the increasingly corporate, opaque, and top-down structure was not an acceptable model for decision making. As a result, when our joint agreement was negotiated with the president and the board, AAUP representatives were present at the table, alongside other College of Liberal Arts faculty leaders.

As you build on last year’s successes, what are your chapter’s primary goals and what work lies ahead?

Probing our fiscal situation and monitoring last year’s joint agreement are our primary goals. Accomplishing the latter is the more straightforward. We have to stay on top of the deadlines for various provisions in the agreement, communicate with the relevant faculty and administrators, and demand an explanation if the administration misses a deadline.

Our fiscal situation is more complex. We hope that consulting with AAUP-CBC chair Howard Bunsis will help us contribute to College of Liberal Arts faculty development of a proposal for getting the university back on an even fiscal footing without harming contingent faculty. Last year we participated in National Adjunct Walkout Day, and we are continuing to raise awareness about the situation of contingent faculty and to advocate for improved working conditions.

More generally, we want to continue to educate ourselves and our colleagues about the AAUP, to build membership, and to strengthen our chapter. In doing so, we are trying to foster solidarity between tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, between different generations of faculty, and among faculty and staff and students so that we can support and sustain one another’s efforts to build a more democratic university.

What suggestions do you have for the AAUP in its efforts to address the needs of advocacy chapters like yours?

We have found the national AAUP useful in two main ways so far. First, it has been immensely helpful to have AAUP standards on crucial issues such as tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance to point to in strengthening arguments against administrative overreach. Second, national and regional AAUP resources have proved very helpful: AAUP staff have attended our meetings and helped us to strategize, and resources like the Redbook, Academe, and the Summer Institute have educated us about AAUP policies and what is going on at other institutions. In short, we hope the AAUP keeps doing what it does for another hundred years!

Does your chapter have a story to share? Write to communications@ aaup.org to be considered for a chapter profile in Academe.