Change Ahead for AAUP

Top official of professors' association is up for college presidencies elsewhere, amid reports of managerial concerns.
January 23, 2007

The American Association of University Professors appears to be on the verge of a change in leadership.

Roger W. Bowen, who as general secretary of the association is the lead staff professional, has been named as a finalist for at least two positions elsewhere: chancellor of higher education in North Dakota and president of Westfield State College, in Massachusetts. In an interview Monday, he said that no decision had been made -- by himself or the AAUP -- on whether he would remain in his current position when his three-year contract expires later this year. Bowen said he is also a candidate for "several" other positions. Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that he could not comment on Bowen's status.

Bowen said he was "not going to predict the future," and that he remained deeply committed to the AAUP and its mission. He called his work there "a labor of love." But he also said that the AAUP "changes every couple of years" and that for him, "the hardest part of this job has been the lack of sustained contact with faculty and students." Prior to becoming AAUP general secretary, Bowen was president at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Several sources involved in the AAUP said that differences between Bowen and the association's governing board were less about philosophy -- there is generally appreciation that Bowen has been an articulate and passionate defender of faculty interests -- than of management.

Last month, the AAUP announced that Bowen would be taking himself out of day-to-day leadership of the organization to focus on the group's capital campaign. At the AAUP's last annual meeting, in June, the association was unable to present members with a financial report for 2005 because the AAUP did not yet have auditable figures for the year. Several speakers at the meeting noted concerns about the membership operation of the AAUP -- with people noting complaints about billing and management of records. And many AAUP members were embarrassed when the association's planned conference on academic boycotts collapsed last year, amid criticism of the invitation list and the inadvertent distribution of an anti-Semitic article to those who planned to attend.

Bowen stressed that it isn't clear whether he will stay in or leave his current position. He said that association leaders were "comfortable" with his exploring other options, such as the jobs for which he is a finalist. He said that he made the decision jointly with association leaders to shift his attention to fund raising out of the sense that the campaign is doing "OK, but not as well as it should." He said it was "not warranted" to say that there have been managerial problems at the association, and that the AAUP was financially health and had a "rosy" outlook.

Membership issues are particularly sensitive to the AAUP, which has been stagnant at around 44,000 members in recent years, down from highs of 100,000 a few decades ago. When Bowen came into office in 2004, he spoke of a goal of increasing membership, but he said Monday that "staying steady" was notable, given national trends of declining membership in many associations. (Within higher education, many associations are supported by institutions or because people need to be members to receive journals or to participate job searches. Other organizations that rely on individual memberships and lack such pulls have had difficulty as well.)

Nelson, the AAUP president, is normally willing to discuss just about any issue in higher education. But he was insistent that there was nothing he could say about Bowen's job.

Of the various issues that have been mentioned with regard to Bowen's performance, Nelson said that the boycott conference "was no longer a concern." He declined to discuss any relationship between managerial problems and Bowen but did agree to discuss the auditing and membership problems that were identified the last annual meeting. He said that the financial statements were "in the process of being cleaned up" and were "being handled responsibly and thoroughly." He said that the bottom line for the association won't change, but that there may be "tinkering" in how the association organizes and reports on its finances. "Our record-keeping has not been what it should be," he said.

As to membership problems, Nelson said that the system currently in place assured that new memberships were being properly recorded. But he said that membership data for older memberships "has not been fixed." He said that was in process, and that "we're going to be looking at each one."


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