AAUP Appears Ready to Part Ways With Gary Rhoades, Its General Secretary

Ting-Li Wang for The Chronicle

Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
April 11, 2011

[Updated at 5:45 p.m.]

After three years as general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, Gary Rhoades may be on his way out, the casualty of personality clashes between him and the organization's longtime president—Cary Nelson—and its staff members in Washington, according to AAUP sources familiar with the disputes.

Charles J. Parrish, a professor of political science at Wayne State University and vice president of the Michigan AAUP conference, said on Monday that several people close to the situation had told him that the association's nine-member executive committee voted in March not to renew Mr. Rhoades's appointment as general secretary. Mr. Parrish is not a committee member, but he does sit on the association's 39-member national council, which must now weigh in on the executive committee's vote against Mr. Rhoades when it convenes in June at the AAUP's annual meeting in Washington.

Mr. Rhoades's three-year contract with the AAUP is due to expire at the end of this year. He has been on leave as a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona and must decide by December whether to return to Arizona or give up his tenure there. Neither Mr. Rhoades nor Mr. Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, would say much about the situation.

"It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment at this time," Mr. Rhoades said during a break at a meeting he was attending in New York City of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Nelson said it was too soon to tell what would happen. "We are in the middle of a conventional review process, and it's not appropriate with a personnel matter to try to predict the end," he said. "We have a lot of people writing in to say things to us [about Mr. Rhoades's leadership], and we're reading those things and talking." Asked about accusations that he and Mr. Rhoades don't get along and that the discord may lead to Mr. Rhoades's departure, Mr. Nelson said: "I don't think that's true."

Several members of the association's executive committee who were contacted on Monday by The Chronicle directed questions to Mr. Nelson.

'Personality Driven'

Some of the AAUP's major state collective-bargaining units, including those in Michigan and Ohio, have written to the national organization affirming their support for Mr. Rhoades. People who know him and the situation at the AAUP confirmed Mr. Parrish's version of the events, but they did not want to be quoted by name. They said Mr. Rhoades and Mr. Nelson see eye to eye on most major issues, including the AAUP's recent expansion of its collective-bargaining efforts.

But in terms of personality, the two men just don't click, they said. "There is general agreement between Cary and Gary on where AAUP should go," said an AAUP chapter leader on one campus who did not want to be identified by name. "A lot of this is personality driven."

Mr. Nelson, the sources said, is a larger-than-life bear of a man with an outsize ego who has trouble staying in the background or giving others credit. Mr. Rhoades, they said, is a laid-back, soft-spoken educator who is smart on higher-education issues but who perhaps doesn't quite fit in Washington. He has never traded in his Arizona blue jeans and open-necked, long-sleeve white shirts for a D.C. suit and tie. And he didn't even have a cellphone when he took over at the AAUP three years ago.

Mr. Rhoades has apparently also clashed, the sources said, with some staff members in the AAUP's national office, who have written scathing letters to the executive committee about his lack of management skills and complained that he is frequently out of the office visiting campuses. But one source said the D.C. staff members didn't seem to understand that Mr. Rhoades was their boss, and said they functioned at the level of "the petty politics of a college English department." Mr. Nelson called that charge "nonsense."

This is not the first time the AAUP has found itself in trouble at the top. The general secretary before Mr. Rhoades, Roger F. Bowen, quit after just three years in the job, amid talk of discord between him and Mr. Nelson, and amid complaints about Mr. Bowen's management abilities. For years before Mr. Bowen's tenure ended, the AAUP had been losing members, and by the time he left, in 2007, the organization faced a $250,000 budget deficit. Mr. Nelson said that the organization was now back on track and that both its membership and finances were stable.

William G. Tierney, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, nominated Mr. Rhoades for the AAUP job. He said the problems surrounding the organization had more to do with it than with Mr. Rhoades.

"Regardless of the specific individual, any organization where the last two leaders end in failure, in no-confidence votes by the organization, that is a reflection on the organization more than the individual," he said. "The AAUP is in crisis, and they have to recognize that."