Cary Nelson's New Platform

April 20, 2006

Cary Nelson -- author or editor of 25 books -- has never been at a loss for words. He'll now have a new forum to express his views about academe, as he has been elected as the next president of the American Association of University Professors.

While the presidency is in many ways like a board chair -- the AAUP's general secretary, Roger Bowen, runs operations in the association's Washington office -- Nelson made clear in an interview Wednesday that he plans to be a vocal leader of the organization, which was founded in 1915.

Nelson is the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He's also long been an activist on behalf not only of established professors like himself, but of adjuncts and graduate students. His books include both literary criticism and commentary about higher education, and the titles of works in the latter category give a good sense of Nelson's view of academe. Among his books: Will Work for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis and Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education.

While Nelson is quick to criticize college administrators, David Horowitz and others who attack professors, he's also quick to criticize the AAUP, and he suggested Wednesday that while he is very proud of the group's ideals and history, it needs to change.

For instance, asked about whether the AAUP has a problem with aging membership, Nelson says that many people joke, upon arriving at a state AAUP meeting, that they aren't sure "if this is the AAUP or the AARP." The AAUP's membership is about 44,000, less than half its level in 1970. Nelson said it was essential for the group to increase its numbers. To that end, his plans include:

  • Sending e-mail copies of selected AAUP investigations on academic freedom violations to "half a million faculty members," so that more people have some awareness of what the association does. "Right now I'd say that at a minimum 90 percent of the professoriate doesn't have the faintest idea what we are about," he said.
  • Following up on this publicity campaign with direct pitches for membership.
  • Increasing membership recruitment for adjuncts and graduate students. (Nelson noted that the AAUP has changed its membership rules in recent years so that graduate students have full rights, but that it has not yet capitalized on those changes by getting grad students on board.)
  • Improving communication with current members, so that they are more involved and effective. Nelson said that the AAUP's listserv of a few hundred members needs to be upgraded so that e-mail can be used to immediately notify all members of news, actions the association would like them to take, and so forth.

The AAUP is best known for its work on behalf of academic freedom, and Nelson said that there is great value in the investigations the association does of various complaints from faculty members. But he acknowledged that the association faces a "fundamental paradox" in that its investigations take so much time that the victims of a violation of academic freedom may already lost their jobs before a report comes out. Nelson said that he envisioned the AAUP sticking with its process in most cases. "Our deliberative process is based on an assumption of neutrality. The process by which we do an investigation, arrive on campus, and issue detailed reports is based on us not having already taken a public stand on something," he said.

But selectively, he said, the AAUP should look for opportunities to get involved instantly, speaking out about a policy or situation, so that the association can influence events before someone becomes a victim.

Nelson also said it was important for the association to look for academic freedom cases involving adjuncts, which would dramatize the way being off the tenure track limits instructors' freedom. "We need to make it a priority to find some academic freedom cases involving contingent labor and defend them to the death," he said.

In terms of other AAUP roles, Nelson also said he would like to see the association's annual survey of faculty salaries -- currently based on institutions and faculty rank -- find ways to focus on disciplinary differences. The AAUP is also a union on some campuses, and Nelson said he would like to see the AAUP hire more organizers so that more campuses could have collective bargaining drives.

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