The president of the American Association of University Professors painted a bleak picture of higher education in his remarks that opened the association's annual meeting here on Wednesday.
"The last eight to 10 months has been like nothing that I've ever experienced before," said Cary Nelson, the association's president, who has been a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1970.
In a speech that highlighted recent attacks on collective-bargaining rights, academic freedom, and tenure, Mr. Nelson chastised faculty members who refuse to acknowledge that the nation's higher-education system is broken. He said his own predictions over the years about the shifting higher-education landscape turned out not to be bleak enough.
No one predicted the recent spate of program closures in the humanities, said Mr. Nelson, of a trend that includes undergraduate and graduate programs at public and private colleges across the country. "The pace at which reality has overtaken expectations has been overwhelming."
Mr. Nelson urged professors to band together and fight back, saying that having an active AAUP chapter on campus, particularly when forming a collective-bargaining unit isn't an option, can make a difference. AAUP chapters can push to institutionalize the association's policies, pursue grievances, and present a unified voice to administrators about every aspect of campus life, he said.
"Even powerful national trends can be reversed at the local level," Mr. Nelson said. "If you have enough solidarity on your campus, you can stand up against these political movements, and you can win."
The group's annual conference on the state of higher education, which runs through Saturday, comes at a time of change for the organization. This week, Gary Rhoades formally resigned as general secretary of the AAUP, and it appears likely that the organization will spend the summer and fall redefining the top executive position, putting off selection of a permanent replacement until next year. In its announcement of Mr. Rhoades's resignation, the AAUP cited unspecified "fundamental differences" between him and the group's executive committee.
About 450 people are registered to attend this week's conference. At the association's business meeting, to be held Saturday, members will vote on which institutions the group will sanction, censure, or remove from previous lists of sanctioned and censured colleges.
Fact-Check of Finances
In his speech, Mr. Nelson also urged professors to push to get access to financial records at their colleges and then scrutinize them, especially when institutions say that budget cuts have forced them to cut salaries or close programs.
He acknowledged that the recession has pushed some small liberal-arts colleges into a financial bind but said that state universities often aren't facing a crisis as dire as what they portray. Poring over their institution's cash-flow predictions can make it easier for professors to determine whether claims of serious financial troubles are warranted, Mr. Nelson said.
"Majority membership in a voluntary organization means your faculty is organized," Mr. Nelson said. "The president will defer to such an organization if it has 70 to 80 percent of the faculty lined up behind them in solidarity."
Faculty who can collectively bargain will gain added power, he said. They can use contracts to detail the level of research support that professors should receive or to limit the percentage of professors not on the tenure track that the university can hire. Most importantly, Mr. Nelson said, unions can take colleges to court for violation of contracts, a move that should help bolster faculty members' confidence that they can speak out on issues affecting them.
"Fear trumps everything these days," Mr. Nelson said. "But if you join together, a group can help you conquer fear."