AAUP Turns to Scholar of Higher Education

Faculty group turns to professor who studies professors and their working conditions as its next general secretary. Plus a podcast interview with Gary Rhoades.
August 28, 2008

If the American Association of University Professors set out to find a scholar to analyze its situation, Gary Rhoades probably would have been someone to talk to. Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, Rhoades is an expert on faculty-administrator relations, faculty unions and the economic status of professors.

Rhoades is the author of Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor (SUNY Press) and co-author of Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press). Today the AAUP is announcing that Rhoades will be its next general secretary. Much of his work looks critically at the way new economic models in higher education have been used to change and in some cases limit faculty roles and rights.

In an interview, Rhoades mixed praise for the AAUP's traditional role as guardian of academic freedom with a frank take on its problems: not enough money, an aging membership, and a lousy economic environment for higher education. He acknowledged that the AAUP is seen as focused on the tenured professoriate at a time when more and more faculty members are working off the tenure track. And he noted that while the AAUP's views are respected, "speedy" is not a word generally associated with its responses to issues.

For the AAUP, Rhoades will arrive in January at a promising and challenging time. The association has just approved a structural reorganization that its leaders believe will improve its management of its various roles as a professional association, a union and a fund raising group. After a period of shaky finances in which the group couldn't complete its annual audit last year, the AAUP has a better handle on its money (even if no one would accuse it of being flush).

But even amid such progress, the fact remains that much of the agenda Rhoades outlined -- attracting more and younger members, being more nimble -- is similar to the agenda Roger W. Bowen outlined when he became general secretary in 2004. Bowen left the AAUP a year ago, after the end of his three-year contract, amid much frustration by AAUP board members (although the nature of their disagreements with Bowen was never publicly discussed by either party).

So the question remains as to how Rhoades plans to succeed.

He outlined a series of strategies:

  • A focus on graduate students and faculty members without tenure (either on or off the tenure track). Rhoades said that there is "a hunger for knowledge and experience" that the AAUP can provide. If the association is viewed as a resource on how to deal with the professional issues of such individuals, they will be more likely to join and to be active. The AAUP, he said, can be new professors' guide to the "micropolitics" of the profession.
  • The addition of policies to protect adjuncts. While the AAUP has already stated in several policies its view that academic freedom should apply to adjuncts, Rhoades said that in every area where the AAUP has policies to protect tenured faculty members, it should work on equivalent policies for adjuncts. In collective bargaining, he said, the AAUP should view caps or limits on the number of courses or credits adjuncts can teach as an incomplete solution to the problems in the faculty job market and should push for the conversion of adjunct positions to tenure-track jobs.
  • A continued emphasis on "family friendly" issues that affect younger faculty members.
  • More collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association on joint organizing. Rhoades noted that his scholarly work has involved both the AFT and NEA and that he has good relationships with the leaders of these unions, and saw ways for them to be "mutually supportive" rather than rivals. The AFT and the AAUP are currently holding discussions about a formal plan for more joint organizing, and Rhoades said he strongly supported the effort.
  • The addition of new procedures besides censure to draw attention to colleges that violate the rights of professors. Rhoades said that the censure process has an authority that he does not want to change. In fact, he said he would like to see the association do more to publicize censure decisions in ways that might make colleges pause before hiring administrators from such institutions. But Rhoades said that the AAUP needs to be able to speak out on issues or on behalf of victimized faculty members without waiting for the long periods of time associated with censure investigations. He stressed that it was not an either/or choice -- that the AAUP could keep the censure process while speaking out in additional ways as well. He said the association needs to be "more nimble" and to have "a rapid way of responding to a situation."

Rhoades also said it was important for the AAUP to speak out on the general way that higher education is financed and that college budgets are allocated. He said that many issues related to the treatment of younger faculty members -- adjuncts and non-adjuncts -- are affected by the lack of resources at colleges.

Reflecting his background as a researcher, Rhoades also said he would like to see the AAUP conduct more studies related to faculty working conditions -- and that he is open to conducting this work with other higher education associations. He stressed that it was important to document conditions to establish and promote good policies.

Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that he sees Rhoades as an ideal choice for the association. "He has a long and deep history of addressing cutting-edge issues in higher education," Nelson said. In discussions the AAUP leaders had with Rhoades, it became clear that "he independently came to the same conclusions about the organization." And Nelson noted that as a professor running a program, Rhoades not only is close to the faculty experience, but "he's a grant writer."


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