A Report on AAUP’s 104th Meeting
The following is a brief report on AAUP’s most recent national meeting, which I attended this past weekend. The 104th annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) met June 14-17 in Washington DC. The event consisted of several overlapping meetings: a gathering of the collective bargaining units, a conference on higher education, and the association’s official business meeting. I attended the latter two.
The theme of AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum’s remarks to the association was “endangered species”: in the current environment, the principles AAUP cares about—academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure itself—face a serious risk of extinction. In many ways, this was the conference’s leitmotif.
The panels I attended at the Friday higher education conference called attention to some of the ways in which privatization and corporatization are fast transforming our profession and threatening its current form. Representatives from the Indiana AAUP conference talked about the recent acquisition by Purdue, one of Indiana’s major public universities, of Kaplan University Online, a for-profit university with a history of predatory practices. The new “university”—now dubbed “Purdue Global”—was acquired in an underhanded manner, with virtually no faculty involvement. When AAUP members tried to speak out against the acquisition by delivering comments to the appropriate accrediting body, they were issued a “cease and desist” letter. Faculty do not know who is teaching at “Purdue Global” or what kinds of courses it is offering, even though its classes now count towards university credit.
I also heard about the tremendous work being doing by UnKoch My Campus, an organization formed by former students at George Mason University and Florida State University. After much stonewalling from George Mason’s administration, the organization was able to obtain some of the donor agreements regulating the privately-funded institutes that have been set up on their campus. They have also sued George Mason university and its fundraising operations for lack of transparency.
The intellectual and political background to the situation that George Mason exemplifies were examined by the plenary session speaker, historian Nancy Maclean of Duke University, the author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Recapping her book’s main arguments, Maclean explained how, beginning in the 1970s, University of Virginia economist James M. Buchanan allied with wealthy industrialist Charles Koch to formulate an ideology that equates the economy and property rights with “freedom” and government with “oppression.” On this foundation, they developed a covert plan to dismantle tax-funded public institutions and scale back many government regulations, while restricting democratic mechanisms that stood in the way of their efforts. According to Maclean, the dismantling of public schools and universities and the infiltration of institutions of higher learning by privately funded centers are crucial elements of this larger project, which is intended to culminate with a constitutional convention that many GOP-controlled legislatures have already authorized. Interestingly, several members of the Charles Koch Foundation and the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies were in attendance at the AAUP meeting.
Building on the work that AAUP has done this past year in North Carolina, notably our mobilization against the state’s “campus free speech” law, I presented a talk on the Goldwater Institute model bill that was the basis of this legislation. A brief interview I did for AAUP’s Facebook page is available here (scroll down a bit). If you have not done so already, I encourage you to read the report I cowrote with AAUP’s Government Relations Committee on the “campus free speech” movement.
The business meeting, which was held on Saturday, is the forum in which much of AAUP’s most important work gets done. One of its key tasks is to decide whether to place university administrations on the AAUP censure list. Administrations are placed on this list when they are found, after an investigation, to be in serious violation of academic freedom and shared governance, as defined in AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. At this year’s meeting, one institution was considered for censure: the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Hank Reichman, on behalf of AAUP’s Committee A for Academic Freedom and Tenure, presented the recommendation. In August of last year, a UNL graduate student and lecturer, Courtney Lawton, was involved in an altercation with an undergraduate from the conservative campus organization Turning Point USA. Although the university changed its story several times, Lawton was ultimately removed from teaching responsibilities and became the target of political attacks by the Nebraska legislature. AAUP decided to recommend UNL’s administration for censure after Committee A sent an investigative team to Lincoln. The full report can be read here. AAUP voted unanimously to place the University of Nebraska-Lincoln administration on the censure list. In other business, Stillman College was removed from the list, and the University of Iowa had a sanction relating to shared governance practices lifted.
An issue that currently has AAUP greatly preoccupied is the Janus vs. AFSCME case, which the Supreme Court will most likely decide in upcoming weeks. This case challenges the right of unions to charge fees of non-union members who belong to collective bargaining units and benefit from collective bargaining agreements—i.e., so-called “fair-share” or “union security” agreements. Given the court’s conservative majority, it seems likely that it will decide in favor of Janus—in other words, that it will declare fair-share agreements to be in violation of the First Amendment. AAUP opposes this position in principle (earlier this year, it filed an amicus brief defending fair-share agreements). If the conservative majority prevails, this decision will also result in significant loss of revenue for the association: currently, about 42,000 of AAUP’s 52,000 members nationally belong to collective bargaining chapters (as opposed to advocacy chapters). The association is already slowing down some spending to be able to absorb the anticipated financial hit.
All these concerns—privatization, political attacks, and the assault on labor rights—explain why AAUP president Fichtenbaum warned that academic freedom and shared governance are “endangered species.” But he ended with a positive—though sobering—message: we need to learn to act collectively. Just because many AAUP chapters are not collective bargaining units does not mean they cannot be “unions.” Unions, he reminded the membership, existed long before collective bargaining rights. If we do not act collectively to defend our rights and our profession, no one else will.
Michael C. Behrent
Acting AAUP chapter president, Appalachian State University
Vice President, NC Conference of the AAUP