A Tenured Radical Takes Office

June 09, 2006

Cary Nelson, the insider who acts like an outsider, wants to shake up the AAUP

Manifesto writers don't typically do well in general elections. The political track record for satirists is even worse. And yet, this spring, Cary Nelson managed to get himself elected president of the American Association of University Professors without a hitch.

It probably helped that Mr. Nelson, a Jubilee Professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has sat among the association's national leaders for the past 10 years. And that he is an internationally renowned scholar of poetry, with the editorship of an Oxford anthology to his name. And that his Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, despite its title, was hailed as a benchmark defense of old-fashioned liberal education.

His most noteworthy satire, Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education, which he wrote with Stephen Watt, an English professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, likewise seemed to charm more AAUP hands than it alienated. Although the book spends due time mocking the fratricidal tendencies of scholarly life, it reserves its most caustic scorn for the forces of academic "corporatization," one of the association's chief bugaboos.

In matters of substance, therefore, Mr. Nelson plays an able — even virtuoso — preacher to the AAUP's choir. In matters of style, however, he is a visitor from the planet Gonzo. The AAUP is solemnity in tweed. Mr. Nelson is something else entirely.

A photo of Cary Nelson, who will take office at the association's annual meeting this month, in Washington, would not look entirely out of place in the pages of Rolling Stone. At 60, he has unruly, shoulder-length gray hair, a voluminous beard, and the physique of a man who loves food. He describes himself as a believer in street theater and the strategic uses of outrage, an unabashed liberal who never caught the "politically correct" bug. He promises to add a new, activist dimension to the presidency of the AAUP. And he prides himself on pointing out the inanities of his allies when he sees them. "It seems that there are some people who have never said anything unkind or hyperbolic in their lives," he says. "I am delighted whenever I meet an AAUP activist with an incorrect sense of humor."

Founded in 1915 to safeguard the academic freedom of professors, the AAUP is still the nation's foremost faculty association, and its statements and reports carry an august authority. But the group is not as strong as it used to be. Since the 1960s, membership has slipped from 66,000 to 44,000, where it has hovered for the past several years. And the decline is not just in numbers — many leaders of the association say it is beginning to lose battles as well. These days, the AAUP sees itself beset by legislators toying with limits on academic freedom, by colleges' increased appetite for part-time academic labor, and by hundreds of emboldened administrators who are, in Mr. Nelson's words, "crudely obsessed with power."

It is tempting to think, then, that in Mr. Nelson, the AAUP was electing a live wire — somebody who promises to mount an uncompromising defense of the association's values in public, but who can also speak frankly within the ranks. Tempting but iffy. The AAUP seems ready for a manifesto writer, but a satirist?

When Mr. Nelson recently pondered whether he might have been elected for his own "incorrect sense of humor," he paused for a moment and said, "I may have been elected despite that."

Amused or Incensed

In a diner near his home here a few weeks ago, over a breakfast called "the Eighteen Wheeler" (French toast, bacon, two eggs, and home fries), Mr. Nelson enumerated some of the struggles that await him as president. He wore Birkenstock sandals over gray socks, billowy black pants, and a rumpled lime-green shirt under a faded black double-breasted sport coat. Struggle No. 1: The AAUP's other leaders expect him to wear a tie from time to time.

More important: As president, he will have to balance his career as an independent critic of academe with his public office — something he doesn't expect to be stress-free.

In a couple of years, he will publish his third volume with Mr. Watt, a satire to be titled The Anguish of English. Some English professors will be "very amused" by the book, he predicted, "and some will be homicidally incensed."

He also plans to grant himself some degree of leeway to step outside the presidential role and criticize the AAUP itself. "I maintain my core academic freedom in this job," he said with a wince that seemed to anticipate headaches to come. "I will feel free from time to time to disagree with AAUP policy."

So some parts of his constituency will get upset when he criticizes their academic turf, while others will get upset when he turns to the foibles of the association. "And," he said between bites of French toast, "there will be some people who will get upset about Thursday."

Taking the AAUP Downtown

On Thursday, two days after "the Eighteen Wheeler" breakfast, Mr. Nelson got arrested.

It happened in New York, where he had traveled with Jane Buck, departing president of the association. They were there to attend a rally in favor of union recognition for graduate teaching assistants at New York University. The rally began at nearby Judson Memorial Church, where Mr. Nelson gave a fiery speech denouncing NYU. Then he and Ms. Buck went outside and sat in the middle of the street with about 50 striking graduate students, at which point the police arrested them all, put them in vans, and sent them downtown for processing.

Since graduate students at NYU began striking for union recognition, in November 2005, several of the major national union bosses had gone to the campus, many of them to get arrested. The AAUP was different, though. None of the association's presidents had ever gotten booked for acts of civil disobedience. The whole enterprise made Ms. Buck and Mr. Nelson giddy. "It's just the right thing to do," she said before getting locked up.

Breaking with AAUP form was Mr. Nelson's idea, of course. The minor audacity of the gesture was delicious to him. Before the rally, he said he could picture some of his AAUP colleagues "fainting dead away" at the thought of his and Ms. Buck's "being carried away in a paddy wagon."

As it turned out, no one swooned. Roger W. Bowen, general secretary of the AAUP, runs the association's main office, in Washington. In the days following the rally, he says, he received a fair number of e-mail messages about the arrests, hardly any of them expressing dismay. "The communications to my office were, with one exception, quite positive," he says, "and a number of former members who had let their membership lapse said that they would be rejoining."

In a couple of ways, the NYU rally exemplifies Mr. Nelson's vision for the AAUP. First, he hopes the group will start paying more attention to graduate students. Under his watch, he hopes, it will craft "a more elaborate statement on graduate-student rights, procedures, and responsibilities," he says. The concern for teaching assistants is not at all out of character for Mr. Nelson; he is a longtime advocate of graduate-student collective bargaining and has written extensively on the subject.

More generally — and this is a larger break from form for the AAUP — he also wants to inch it toward being more interventionist. The association typically throws its moral weight into an issue only after it has had the chance to conduct a thorough and neutral investigation, and only after there is a "body" — meaning that a conflict has come to a head and someone has gotten hurt. Mr. Nelson thinks there are some instances where the AAUP's principles are so clear, and where violations are so unambiguous, that condemning them should not take months of investigation.

He thinks NYU is a good example. AAUP policy says all campus employee groups should have the right to decide whether they want to bargain collectively. NYU has taken that decision away from its teaching assistants, Mr. Nelson says; hence the AAUP has every reason to stand publicly against the university, without further discussion.

(Of course, the legal debate over TA unions has hung for years on this semantic snag: Are teaching assistants employees, or just apprentices with no bargaining rights? So far, every private university that has faced graduate-student unionization has categorized them as apprentices.)


One of Mr. Nelson's more dutiful preoccupations as president will be leading the association's first nationwide capital campaign. As it happens, he sat on the AAUP's development committee during the planning of the campaign and came up with some of the ideas for it. He says he was the one who suggested setting the minimum recommended donation at $1,000 per member, and setting the overall goal of raising $10- million — numbers that initially made other members of the committee balk.

When Mr. Nelson took this campaign pitch to the Executive Committee, the nucleus of the association's national leadership, he made what he calls a "hard, fairly obnoxious sell." He told the 11 members that unless each of them committed to giving $1,000 on the spot, they should call off the campaign. If the leaders weren't going to pony up, he figured, how could the AAUP prevail upon its members to give that much?

"Some of them were really angry. Just furious," Mr. Nelson says, smiling. "I wasn't nice about it. I felt that it was either do or die."

Larry Gerber, first vice president of the association, remembers Mr. Nelson's plea as a major feat of arm-twisting, but he doesn't remember anybody getting particularly livid. "I'm sure that a number of people on the committee probably wouldn't have committed to a thousand dollars each had he not put everybody on the spot," says Mr. Gerber, "but I don't remember people coming back and saying, 'What a horrible thing!'"

Mr. Nelson has pledged $5,000 of his own money. A couple of months into the campaign, he has already raised $31,000 from the 150 AAUP members on his own campus. "And I haven't given up, either," he says. Nationwide, he says, he has raised nearly $100,000 so far.

Then there are the e-mail addresses.

Mr. Nelson was surprised recently to discover that the AAUP does not maintain an e-mail list of its 44,000 members. Short of an expensive mass mailing through the postal service, he says, there is no way to contact all of the members quickly. When he proposed that the association compile such a list immediately, he met with resistance. A member of the Executive Committee said it would first have to ask each member's permission to use the e-mail addresses before anyone started to gather them from university Web sites.

This flabbergasted Mr. Nelson. "That's crazy! It's constipated! It's silly!" he says. Now he is determined to assemble the list by the end of the summer, even if he has to do it himself.

Tone Down

Years ago, in the days when academic socialites lived and dined by the works of Julia Child, a colleague of Mr. Nelson's served an especially rich and elaborate dish from Mastering the Art of French Cooking as an hors d'oeuvre at a dinner party. Over the course of cocktail conversation, Mr. Nelson observed another colleague furtively using his foot to push his plate of the delicacy under the sofa.

When the host asked the empty-handed guest if he wanted another helping, the guest declined but paid compliments to the chef.

Mr. Nelson could not stop himself. In front of everyone at the party, he exposed the subterfuge. "You just kicked it under the sofa!" he said.

The colleague did not speak to him for years.

Every now and then, Mr. Nelson's contrarian id gets him into trouble. These days he acknowledges that his new political office will require him to be a little more, well, politic. "I'll have to tone down a bit," he says.

The trials and errors have already started. In February an AAUP conference on academic boycotts, slated to be held in Bellagio, Italy, was called off when it came to light that the organizers had accidentally included an anti-Semitic article among the conference materials. Soon after, Mr. Nelson publicly criticized the organizers and added that he thought the conference invitees were too partisan to boot. He was "doing damage control" for weeks afterward, he says, taking flak from outside the association for the miniscandal and from inside the association for adding to the criticism of the organizers. He does not entirely regret speaking up, but nearly everyone who has talked to him about the incident has told him that they wish he'd held his tongue, he says.

More generally, since the election a number of his AAUP friends have taken him aside, Ms. Buck among them, and advised him to curb his penchant for sarcasm. "I'm just asking you to be a little circumspect," his predecessor has told him.

Inside Man

Mr. Nelson's opponent in the presidential election was Thomas E. Guild, a professor of business law at the University of Central Oklahoma. If Mr. Nelson has a Rolling Stone look, then Mr. Guild is more the BusinessWeek type — short hair, ruddy cheeks, an affinity for neckties.

"Looks can be deceiving," says Mr. Guild over the phone from Oklahoma. "He was clearly the insider candidate."

Ms. Buck, after all, ran Mr. Nelson's campaign. He had been on the Executive Committee for years. And every living past AAUP president endorsed him.

Mr. Guild, who speaks with an Oklahoma twang, managed to get 41 percent of the vote, in an election with 14-percent turnout. He doesn't grant it too much weight, he says, but "there was probably a little red-state/blue-state bias going on."

Perhaps the biggest difference in character between the two men is that Mr. Guild is more of a conventional politician. No manifestoes here. He ran on a platform of reducing membership dues, shifting power to state and local chapters, and bringing new blood to the national leadership. (Annual dues, which are the association's main source of revenue, run $149 to $180 for tenured members. Mr. Guild wanted to drop them to $100.) It was also not the first time Mr. Guild had run for office. He campaigned for the AAUP presidency first against Ms. Buck, and in 1985 he was a candidate to lead Oklahoma's Republican Party. (He is now a Democrat.)

According to Ms. Buck, the outstanding fact about Mr. Nelson's candidacy is that his status and reputation did not depend on his becoming AAUP president. His authority to speak about higher-education issues was already well established. Journals solicit essays on the profession from him. That is not true of other recent presidents. "Cary does not need to be president of AAUP," she says. "The AAUP really needs Cary Nelson."

But will Mr. Nelson succeed in changing the association? Ms. Buck's response is indirect: "You know the old cliché about turning around an ocean liner?"

http://chronicle.com Section: The Faculty Volume 52, Issue 40, Page A10