When Professors Can't Get Along

The American Association of University Professors -- a champion of open debate and free exchange -- is having some difficulties with the nature of debate in its own (virtual) house.

September 25, 2007

The American Association of University Professors -- a champion of open debate and free exchange -- is having some difficulties with the nature of debate in its own (virtual) house.

The association last week told those signed up for its listserv that it was shutting down. "In recent weeks, many subscribers have withdrawn from the list, complaining of the nature and tone of some of the postings. More recently, anonymous messages containing allegations against other members have been posted, raising possible legal concerns. In light of these occurrences, it has been determined that AAUP-General be closed," the message said.

While people on the list confirm that such postings were indeed becoming more prevalent, some eyebrows were raised by the announcement because it followed by one day a posting (that was not anonymous) posing questions about the independence of the association's nominating committee. The posting in question drew attention to the fact that four of the five members of the nominating committee had publicly supported Cary Nelson, the association's president, in his last campaign for AAUP office, and asked why a committee with such ties to Nelson should be in charge of nominating candidates (including Nelson and his opposition) in next year's elections.

"I have heard of the advantage of incumbency, but this seems way over the line," wrote Tom Guild, a professor emeritus of legal studies at the University of Central Oklahoma. Guild was defeated by Nelson in last year's election and while Guild wasn't picked by the nominating committee to oppose Nelson next year, Guild is gathering signatures to get on the ballot.

Still more questions have been raised because the evidence Guild cited -- information on Nelson's Web site -- changed. When Guild posted his comment on the listserv, four of the five members of the nominating committee could be found on the list of those who endorsed Nelson in 2006. A few days later, their names disappeared when Nelson had them taken down. He said Monday that he did so, against his own instincts, upon advice of an AAUP staff member, who wanted the names removed so that questions wouldn't be raised about "the perception of fairness" in the nominating process. Nelson noted that the endorsements were for the last election, not the one on which the nominating committee was acting, and that no AAUP rules were violated.

Nelson said that the AAUP's listserv has been losing readership -- three or four people a day -- and drawing complaints for months. AAUP leaders discussed what to do about it and considered options such as moderating the discussion or shutting it down. Nelson said that he opposed the idea of moderating the discussions for fear that would limit academic freedom in the discussions, and said he resisted shutting down the e-mail list for some time. In the end, the posting that led to last week's announcement wasn't the criticism of the nominating committee, but an anonymous posting about another AAUP leader, who expressed anger to the association over the posting, even though Nelson described it as "factual."

"At that point, staff members said to me: We're sick of spending our time on this. It's not doing any good. let's just suspend it and cool it down for a while," Nelson said. He characterized the move as a suspension, not the elimination of the list.

On the criticism of the nominating process -- that four of the five members of the panel had publicly endorsed him in 2006 -- Nelson said that came about because members of the AAUP's governing council were so concerned about the 2006 race that most of them took a public stance. Because three members of the nominating committee come from the council, he said that it wasn't surprising that some of them had backed him in 2006.

When he discussed his campaign Web site with AAUP staff members, he said he considered taking it down, but thought that doing so would be unfair to members, who can use the site to evaluate how he is doing on his campaign promises. He originally planned to leave the endorsements as they appeared. But a staff member whom he declined to name said "it might facilitate the perception of fairness if you remove for a time the names of the people currently on the nominating committee who previously had endorsed you." So he did so.

Robert C. Comeau, who teaches English at Union County College and who led the nominating committee, was one of those who endorsed Nelson in 2006. He said Monday that he didn't realize that Nelson's Web site was still up and that his name had been removed.

Comeau said he understood the desire to have "a politically aloof" nominations committee. The problem, he said, is that the people who are familiar with the AAUP leaders and its issues are going to be people who took stands in previous elections. So while the nominating committee is barred from picking its own members, Comeau said it was unrealistic to expect its members to have no past ties to any AAUP campaign.

Guild, the AAUP critic whose e-mail questioned the nominating process, said that if the association was concerned about anonymous insults being posted, it should have just stopped posting those messages. But Guild, who noted that other recent postings to the listserv have criticized other AAUP policies, called it an "eerie coincidence" that the listserv was suspended after these postings.

He also said that his posting about the nominating committee raised legitimate questions. "It is not healthy for an organization to be run by one small group of insiders," he said, adding that this was especially the case for "an organization like the AAUP that promotes due process, and criticizes college administrations that unfairly control search committees, grievance committees and the like."


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