Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, has written an important piece in the Chronicle of Higher Edification this week (The AAUP: A View from the Top“). At the heart of the essay isn’t the long litany of complaints about about Higher Education. That’s familiar territory. The heart of the piece is his call to reinvigorate the academic union movement:
Over more than a generation, too many campus unions have lost sight of their larger social mission to focus instead on narrow self-interest, seeking job security and salary increases only for their own members and ignoring not only the abuse of other campus workers but also the multiple political and economic challenges to higher education. A more democratic and progressive form of unionization—built on the sort of engaged faculty membership the AAUP has advocated—would look out for the welfare of all members of the university community.
I’ve seen this work both ways. The union I worked with in graduate school, the Texas State Employees Union, had a wide view of the job of organizing. We weren’t simply trying to get people to join, although that was certainly important, and we weren’t simply working to materially improve the working conditions of graduate students and other state employees, although we had a lot of success in those areas. We had to work on creating a larger vision of reform, a progressive context, for our goals.
Perhaps because we were working in a so-called right to work state, we thought of our work practically, politically, and culturally. If we marched on the capital (as we did each year) we were fighting for tuition waivers and lower work loads for social workers, but we also had a strong Gay Pride presence, and often enough anti-war groups. When I moved to Illinois, however, I was disappointed at the narrowly legalistic focus of the academic unions.
Don’t get me wrong, these unions were doing a lot of good work; as bad as things are in Illinois Higher Education now, they would be much worse without the unions, especially the University Professionals of Illinois. But the unions had become mired in all of the details of what amounts to an ongoing war of attrition with an administration– several administrations–that think it can kill the union by wearing it down and outliving it. The death of a thousand cuts.
Many union members– some happily and some unhappily– see this war as the sole function of a union. The price of this narrow focus is a membership that no longer sees the forest for the trees. The union can’t take a strong position against imperial war, or even on an issue like national health care, without (it believes) alienating its more conservative members. It can’t even defend members victimized by the inevitable pettiness of academic infighting, for fear of creating insurmountable internal divisions.
Nelson seems to be honestly admitting to the very sort of thing in the AAUP. “Unlike our Canadian counterpart, the Canadian Association of University Teachers,” Nelson writes, “which regularly issues findings objecting to faculty-committee actions, the AAUP typically focuses on process, rather than substance, and lets bad faculty decisions stand.” I think that his call for a more open discussion of “academic freedom, tenure, and shared-governance practices” is a welcome breath of fresh air.