AAUP Approves Major Reorganization

Professional association and union will now be legally separate in ways association leaders hope will bolster both. Joint organizing seen increasing with AFT.
June 16, 2008

The American Association of University Professors on Saturday approved a major reorganization, which will separate the organization in some ways into three related groups: a professional association, a union and a foundation.

The reorganization follows a four-year process of reviewing the AAUP's governance. The changes are designed to reflect reality (the AAUP has legally been a public charity, a designation many believe it has long outgrown) and to help the AAUP improve its various functions. The union, for example, will have substantially more independence and will not be constrained by limits the AAUP faced because of its structure, such as a ban on political endorsements.

In the end, the voice vote to approve the changes was overwhelming, with only one audible Nay. The substance of the changes has not been terribly controversial, but the discussion of reorganization has created a space for some AAUP members in the last two years to voice frustrations over the association's management. The AAUP experienced a financial meltdown in 2006, and was unable to complete an audit of that year's finances until recently. The association is still in recovery from that year, and is running a deficit. Much of the criticism of the reorganization plan in the past year has come from those frustrated over the management problems more than those with serious gripes about the new division of the group.

The three organizations will share the same office and staff, although separate officers will have control over the various parts of the recreated AAUP. For many rank-and-file members of the association, the change may not be immediately visible in terms of their interactions with their chapter, the national office or (for those in a union that is part of the AAUP), collective bargaining. But the argument from association leaders has been that all the association's functions are likely to improve -- and risk of scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service is less likely to cause problems -- if the group divides its functions into legally appropriate units. (The IRS must approve the reorganization and while preliminary discussions have encouraged AAUP leaders about the prospects, there is a formal process that could take months.)

Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, called the vote on reorganization "the single most important thing we will do today," in his pre-vote remarks, and also called the switch "a legal necessity."

While the AAUP's annual meetings typically feature considerable discussion and on-the-floor copy editing of resolutions and policies, the discussion of the reorganization was brief. Privately, several AAUP members said that they still had reservations about the management of the association but had been convinced that the reorganization plan was the only viable path forward, and that they had seen progress on management as well.

On management, the members heard both good and bad news. For 2007, the annual deficit came in at $373,177, and a report on membership and finance described the situation as being one of "crisis management mode," with many "oversights and mistakes." AAUP leaders stressed that the size of the deficit is shrinking and this year's shortfall is related to the need to spend on outside financial help to deal with the problems. AAUP officials also pointedly said that no current staff members played any role in the 2006 problems, when severe record-keeping and financial shortcuts resulted in a loss of data and information.

Officials see the reorganization -- combined with the improved finances and the selection of a new general secretary -- as putting the AAUP at a turning point. Ernest Benjamin, a former general secretary, returned to the post last year when Roger Bowen's contract was not renewed and the search for a permanent successor is expected to conclude soon.

Benjamin said that a key sign of progress for the AAUP is that it gained about 3,000 members in the last year, bringing membership to just over 47,000. While decades ago the AAUP's membership was close to 6 figures, it has been relatively flat lately, and Nelson and others have stressed the importance of renewed membership growth. AAUP membership doesn't come cheap. Prices vary depending on state and other factors (and are much more if collective bargaining is covered). But finding many professors reluctant to pay $160 a year or more for full membership, the association has been experimenting with lower rates, substantially lower for those of relatively low incomes. Early results are promising and many of the new members took advantage of these experimental rates.

In his remarks at the meeting, Benjamin also noted a potential path to growth in the unionized ranks of the AAUP. The association, he said, has been in negotiations with the American Federation of Teachers about jointly launching organizing drives "to reach the kind of institution we haven't," he said. Most of the AAUP's collective bargaining chapters are regional public colleges and universities -- and organizing at flagship universities has been more difficult. Benjamin said that leaders of the two groups believe that by pooling resources they may be more effective with that sectors.

Lawrence N. Gold, director of higher education at the AFT, in an interview Sunday, stressed that the discussions had not been concluded, but called them "promising." Gold noted that the AFT has conducted joint organizing drives with other unions in some cases previously, and that some AFT chapters are joint chapters with the AAUP, where one group or the other conducted the initial organizing drive and that later both groups joined forces.

Gold said that the idea was not to just organize one or two campuses, but "to spend a couple of years," working with campuses where faculty members want to be organized and where a joint effort might be productive.


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