WASHINGTON -- An investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor has forced the American Association of University Professors to redo last year's election for the position of chair of the Assembly of State Conferences (which consists of all of the state AAUP bodies). The department found that the association did not follow proper procedures in the election it held last year.
Following a commitment by the AAUP to hold new elections this year, using new procedures, the Labor Department this month agreed not to take legal action against the AAUP, according to a letter from the department obtained by Inside Higher Ed.
The AAUP is made up of several parts, one of which focuses on collective bargaining. While the Assembly of State Conferences is not focused on the AAUP's union role, the chair of the assembly is, by virtue of his or her position on the AAUP's national board, which oversees all parts of the organization. As a result, the Department of Labor -- which has authority to question union elections, but which wouldn't otherwise oversee AAUP activities -- considers the position subject to labor law requirements on union elections.
Under the new election arrangement, all AAUP members in states that have a state conference will be able to vote for the chair of the Assembly of State Conferences. In the past, state conferences have determined for themselves how to elect delegates, and those conferences (some of which are more active or have larger memberships than others) have varied in their procedures. Some have used informal procedures in which, according to the complaint filed with the Labor Department, many members may not have known that anyone was being elected, or they may have known but had no way of voting.
Rachel Levinson, senior counsel of the AAUP, said that because the Labor Department's inquiry "is still an open investigation," she could not discuss its details. But she said that the AAUP was fully cooperating. She said that her sense is that the Labor Department's issues were "largely procedural" and did not suggest anything improper about the person who was elected chair of the state conferences, Judith L. Johnston of Rider University. Johnston will remain in the position while the AAUP organizes a new election.
The complaint over the AAUP was filed by Virginia Fichera, an adjunct in linguistics at the State University of New York at Binghamton and someone who has filed numerous complaints with or about the AAUP. She said that important values were at stake, namely that the systems used in some states by AAUP conferences "deny members the basic principle of democracy, which guarantees each member a vote in all national officer elections, either through direct election or election of delegates to represent them." Fichera praised the Labor Department for taking an "important first step in changing the closed culture of AAUP."
One irony of the situation is that the AAUP in 2008 reorganized its structure,  in part hoping that a clear legal distinction between its roles as a union and professional association would advance the missions of both parts of the organization.
The Labor Department's interest in the AAUP's elections has also been of concern to the United University Professions, the faculty union of the State University of New York, which is affiliated with both the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers.
At the UUP's convention this month, a proposal was made to disaffiliate with the AAUP. The motion was tabled, pending a review by UUP leaders. A spokeswoman for the UUP said that one of the issues of concern was whether the Labor Department's scrutiny of the AAUP's election practices might extend in ways that would lead to challenges of election practices of the UUP.
The spokeswoman said that the UUP leadership's review of the issue was continuing and that no decisions had been made on what to recommend to the members.