Backlash Over an Ouster

AAUP, used to questioning managerial decisions of colleges, faces tough questions from own members about treatment of its now former general secretary.
June 13, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The departure last week of Gary Rhoades as general secretary, which unfolded slowly and -- by many reckonings -- inelegantly and publicly, continued to grate many members of the American Association of University Professors during Saturday's plenary session of the annual meeting here.

The displeasure over his leaving, which bubbled up somewhat indirectly during the morning session and was the subject of off-the-record conversations throughout the week, emerged fully into view during the afternoon. Howard Bunsis, secretary-treasurer of the AAUP Executive Committee and chair of the Collective Bargaining Council, read aloud the text of a resolution that the CBC passed Thursday night with near unanimity.

The CBC condemned the Executive Committee's recommendation not to reappoint Gary Rhoades and the process by which he was evaluated; the leaking of this recommendation to the press; and the decreasing role of the National Council and what it called the "concomitant growth" in the role of the Executive Committee and the president, Cary Nelson. The CBC also chided Nelson for ignoring the CBC's recommendation on the process for hiring staff for the Department of Organizing Services. It also recommended clarifying the role of the general secretary and the relationship of the position to the presidency.

While both Rhoades and AAUP leaders have been circumspect about the nature of their disagreements, they appear to involve not philosophical issues related to faculty rights or higher education, but management of the organization. Rhoades has been widely praised for building up the organization's union chapters and, in some cases, for helping to keep them in the fold; for forging closer ties with other unions and higher education associations; and for presiding over an organization that is once again balancing its budgets. But his popularity with the AAUP rank and file appears not to extend to staff members in the Washington office, or to board members concerned with those staff members and with the day-to-day management of the office.

Nelson said that he chose not to accept the CBC recommendation on the hiring process because it didn't include the participation of a staff member, which he said ran counter to typical practice and would not be helpful to a new hire or to the staff. "The aim was not to ignore CBC leadership. It was to balance both interests," he said. "If you want to take action against me because of it, so be it."

Other members of the Executive Committee and those who were involved with the evaluation of Rhoades took on that issue more directly, while noting that they were bound by confidentiality.

Gerald Turkel, professor of sociology at the University of Delaware and chair of the committee that gathered information that was used in evaluating Rhoades, lamented that neither he nor his colleagues was asked what happened before Thursday's vote by the CBC. "In the face of not even asking colleagues what they did and why they did it, the process stands condemned, which I was astounded by and which I continue to be extremely disappointed in," he said.

Turkel said the committee spent months reviewing prior evaluations, contacting other organizations and disciplinary associations about their practices, and compiling evaluations. "We can certainly disagree with a judgment based on the facts that you have, but to condemn a judgment by colleagues without having the facts they have, to virtually equate that judgment with a betrayal of the association -- a leak -- just strikes me as something I don't understand," he said. “This really doesn't help.”

Some in the audience advocated for a third party to investigate the leaking of the recommendation regarding Rhoades, which occurred in April. “I'm deeply concerned about the process -- or, may I say, perhaps it's the perceived process that was followed in the evaluation of our general secretary," said Maria T. Bacigalupo, professor at Curry College's Program for the Advancement of Learning, in Wheaton, Mass.

She worried that the leaking of Rhoades's status could have the effect of undermining the perceived integrity of the AAUP on the local level, at campuses where it acts as a union in contract negotiations. "Let's look at the leak to make sure it doesn't happen again," Bacigalupo said.

But Nelson showed little interest in launching a leak investigation, and the president said he was more interested in looking forward. "In my heart I don't think anyone from Executive Committee spoke to the press," he said.

Jane Buck, former AAUP president, adopted a more fiery tone. "The contention that we behaved unethically or unconstitutionally -- that is simply preposterous," she said. "Nothing was done wrong. I do not know who leaked the vote of the Executive Committee because the general secretary resigned. He resigned. He was not forced out. He was not fired." Howls of protest answered her. (While it is technically true that Rhoades was not fired, sources on all sides of the dispute have indicated that his resignation followed a vote by the Executive Committee not to renew his contract.)

Rudy Fichtenbaum, professor of economics at Wright State University, said the efforts to defend the decision reminded him of a promotion and tenure case gone bad -- in which a worthy candidate gets turned down because of concerns over collegiality. "When was the last time we had two huge victories?" he asked, referring to organizing gains at Bowling Green State University and, more recently, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which the AAUP achieved in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers. "When I look at the facts of what's happened to the organization, it just doesn't add up."

Tensions over the departure of Rhoades also found expression earlier in the day, though the ostensible subject was how and why the national office was having difficulty quickly tracking revenues, which was attributed by some to balky new computer software.

The slowness in tracking revenue was seen as particularly troubling for an organization that, while technically in the black, was not comfortably so. Bunsis announced that the AAUP had brought in $6.4 million in revenue last year and spent $6.3 million on operating expenses, a surplus for which he gave Rhoades much of the credit. "Every $50,000 or $100,000, even $10,000 is a big deal to us with our margins being so thin," Bunsis said.

Some in the audience returned to the word “outrageous” to describe their reaction to senior financial staff being hampered by the software. Others saw it as an opportunity to take the Executive Committee to task, with some arguing that its members should be keeping closer watch over the office.

"You are responsible and you should take responsibility," said Abel Bult-Ito, incoming president of United Academics and a professor of biology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, which was followed by applause.

Nelson retorted that it is not the job of elected leaders who hold posts across the country to run the daily affairs of the national office.

Several people on both sides took note of the increasingly hostile political climate for academic labor and higher education more generally, and observed that this was a poor time for internal feuding.

“We are under threat in lots of different ways,” said Allen Zagarell, professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University. "The days that we could discuss things ad nauseum are over. What we need from this organization is not just discussion. We need real leadership."


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