A Change in Philosophy?

The American Association of University Professors’ newly elected slate of officers promises to make collective bargaining a priority. Where does that leave the other roles of the AAUP? 

April 20, 2012

On her campaign website, Irene Mulvey, a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University, has a statement from an endorser that characterized this year’s election of the American Association of University Professors’ office-bearers as one that would decide the future course of the organization. The AAUP would either remain true to its commitment to standards and principles of the profession, or focus on unionization as a way to achieve its goals, it said.

In results declared Wednesday night, Mulvey, whose bid for president was endorsed by outgoing AAUP President Cary Nelson, lost by about 1,000 votes, (a sizeable margin in an election where the total number of votes cast in the contest was about 3,500) to Rudy Fichtenbaum (seen above), an economics professor at Wright State University and a former member of the organization’s National Council. Fichtenbaum’s campaign had stressed the role of union organizing to protect the profession and bring reform to higher education, and he is part of a group that has been critical of the ouster of Gary Rhoades as the AAUP's general secretary last year.

Was the statement on Mulvey's website just election hyperbole, or is there a battle for the soul of the AAUP?

Mulvey did not return phone calls Thursday, but others are talking. Many see an increased emphasis on organizing as necessary for the AAUP to bring in more members and make itself more relevant, while some AAUP members feel that the core mission of the organization will remain unaffected. The AAUP represents faculty members at some campuses for purposes of collective bargaining but the association's roots are in taking stands on academic freedom and issues that affect professors -- and much of the country does not allow unionization of public college faculty members, while private faculty unionization has largely been shut down nationally by court rulings for years.

While Nelson, the outgoing president who served three two-year terms (the maximum allowed under the AAUP constitution), was quick to say that Fichtenbaum and other elected officers were very knowledgeable about collective bargaining, he said he also hoped that they would boost the AAUP’s work in more traditional areas.

“I hope they also support the traditional strengths that define what the AAUP is: Committee A policy statements and reports, amicus briefs from the legal department, recruitment of new members devoted to our core principles, and government relations work. We need to sustain all these activities at their current levels,” he said.

Fichtenbaum repeated Wednesday what he had said during his campaign: union organizing will be a priority. “That certainly is a direction we would like to take the AAUP. Tradition is important and we support the core policies of the AAUP but we need to build an organization of activists who will work together. There are private institutions where having a union might not be possible but we can still have collective action to defend academic freedom and shared governance,” he said. But critics have questioned whether the AAUP has the financial resources to do more of any one of its missions without sacrificing resources in other areas.

The AAUP president-elect said all this may alter the character of the AAUP slightly, but it could also be the foundation for supporting the historic mission of the AAUP. “What is the best way to achieve academic freedom, shared governance and protect economic interests of faculty members? I think the answer is being an organization of activists, where the core values of the AAUP remain a centerpiece.”

Fichtenbaum said his main goals revolve around increasing AAUP membership, which is currently about 40,000, and building more coalitions, including those representing the interests of non-tenure-track faculty. “We continue to support tenure, of course. But we support the idea of academic freedom for all faculty,” he said.

John Thelin, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky and higher education expert, said that the AAUP might be forced to make collective bargaining more of a priority because of the difficulty of making progress on other issues. “Management and administration, they stopped fighting the fight. They just evaded it by not hiring as many tenure-track faculty,” he said. “What I come away with is a great sadness, because I think they are being forced to do this to survive.”

Some members, like Michael A. Olivas, former general counsel of the AAUP and a law professor at the University of Houston, cautioned against jumping to conclusions based on the election statements.

“These things are not mutually exclusive. President Obama might decide to pay more attention to comprehensive immigration reform if he gets a second term. But that doesn’t mean everything else is going to fall by the wayside,” he said, and pointed out that the AAUP has been involved in collective bargaining for a very long time. “He [Fichtenbaum] comes from that side [collective bargaining] of the house, so he is likely to emphasize that side,” Olivas said.


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