AAUP President Urges Faculty to Organize to 'Conquer Fear'

June 9, 2011

With many professors at public universities battling efforts in states nationwide to strip faculty of their collective bargaining rights or to roll back tenure, the president of the American Association of University Professors urged them to organize and fight -- especially locally.

“Even powerful national trends can be reversed at the local levels,” Cary Nelson, AAUP president and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Wednesday morning at the opening plenary address of the association's annual meeting. “That's the only silver lining that's here.... It's time to stand on your hind legs and fight.”

In keeping with its somewhat ominous title, "Something Wicked This Way Comes: What is Happening and What We Can Do About It," Nelson's speech traced the past several months of anti-union efforts, which he described as “astonishing” and unprecedented in his experience. And, though his remarks struck a less optimistic tone than the one used by union leaders at the annual meeting of the American Federation of Teachers, Nelson also seized on the recent spate of bad news as examples of why the 40 attendees at the session -- about half of whom hailed from organized AAUP chapters -- should organize.

An AAUP chapter -- whether it functions as a collective bargaining agent or as a membership organization, can serve as the public face of the faculty, Nelson said. It can also run useful grievance procedures on campuses where they might not be seen as inadequate, he continued, and they can serve as a counterbalance to and check on administrators -- even if the chapter has no formally recognized role in collective bargaining.

“It can make the faculty an organized force,” Nelson said, adding that some AAUP chapters, even though they are at private colleges where collective bargaining is barred by a 1980 Supreme Court ruling, still claim as members a solid majority of the faculty. With this share of membership united under the AAUP banner, he said, professors can still be a force on campus, stiffening the resolve of a college's faculty senate and promoting shared governance: “The AAUP chapter is the senate's political whip.”

On a more general level, Nelson said, solidarity is the best means of combating the efforts that faculty see as so harmful -- and of lessening the accompanying emotional impact. “Like it or not, fear is the primary emotion of faculty these days,” he said. “If you organize, it can help to conquer fear.”

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