Commentary

Forget Executives, the AAUP Should Turn to Grass-Roots Leaders

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

January 08, 2012

In my first months on the job in 2009, I said in jest that I had no intention of being the last general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. My joke referred partly to what was then the association's dire financial condition, but also to a less immediate but more challenging threat: the external perception and internal sense that the AAUP was on the defensive and in decline.

The AAUP is a metaphor for the condition of the tenured university professoriate with which it is identified. Here, too, are challenges. How to construct a professional identity with new, more diverse faculty? How to increase strength when most faculty are off the tenure track, in contingent positions? How to adapt principles such as academic freedom to changing structures of employment and work? All difficult questions.

So it was with some interest and no little bemusement that I read a recent story in The Chronicle that reported the AAUP's decision to change the title of "general secretary" to "executive director," repurposing the position to focus on managing the national office. It's the wrong signal to send—to the association's members and staff, and to academe—at the wrong time. The name change doesn't really matter, but focusing on name changes signifies an inward-looking perspective that detracts from the mission of serving members and the academy.

The AAUP and academe need leadership that looks beyond itself, that gets out and listens to and learns from people, cultivating and catalyzing organized grass-roots initiatives. Our brightest future will not be realized by executives directing professional staffs in central offices. It will be realized by professors taking leadership with other constituencies to redirect public policy.

In my 25 years of researching higher education and two-and-a-half years as general secretary interacting with groups inside and outside the Beltway, I have seen several clear patterns. Some are troubling; others offer hope for advancing higher education's affordability, principles, and promise.

The last three decades have brought academe more centralized management, with presidents becoming like chief executives. That has had costs beyond the disproportionate rise of presidential pay and noninstructional costs. A hypercompetitive, entrepreneurial orientation narrows our vision to rankings, efficiency (versus quality), and short-term revenues, as if colleges were isolated firms with simple bottom lines, not part of a larger educational infra­structure shaping national vitality in complex ways.

Policy makers, too, have failed to understand that higher education is less a cost than a public investment that yields enormous public (and private) returns to states and communities. As states disinvest, and as colleges invest in generating revenue, the availability of affordable quality higher education erodes. And we are crushing this generation of students with debt that mortgages their and our future.

Occasionally a college president will decry these trends. But most are trapped in a "do more with less" discourse that, like the larger political ideology of "cut taxes and government," makes neither academic nor economic sense. Where, then, to look for leadership to change our (dis)course?

Time's 2011 Person of the Year was "the Protester." A reservoir of national dissatisfaction with escalating economic inequities has spilled over in the form of Occupy Wall Street and student protests. Through a physical presence on streets and campuses, and through a virtual presence in social media, local protesters have captured the nation's imagination and changed the policy conversation by expressing a widely shared sentiment that the system is fundamentally unfair, rigged by and for the 1 percent.

Similarly, to reshape higher education and the AAUP's future we need the association's early spirit, one that takes the offensive, creating new space for and narratives about academics and the academy. But charting a new course requires an activist stance.

This means focusing on actions in local settings rather than on work centered in a national office; on organizing, servic­ing, and catalyzing groups of faculty in the field to change working conditions rather than on policy statements developed by large, central committees over a period of years; and on connecting with activist groups in the academic work force (women, faculty of color, contingent faculty, graduate employees) to change campus conversations and practices through direct, often public, channels of action rather than on working through traditional faculty committees in formal governance structures.

An activist stance means translating statements into action, investing in coordinated campaigns to change conversations about and practices in higher education. Fortunately, the foundation has been laid to move in these directions, to go beyond the all-too-common practice of issuing a report and then leaving it to collect dust.

When I was general secretary, that involved a small-scale campaign expanding academic freedom to include speech about institutional matters and reframing shared governance as independent faculty voice. It also meant getting beyond process to reshaping campus conversations. Financial analyses done by the AAUP faculty leaders Howard Bunsis and Rudy Fichtenbaum have galvanized campus faculty to challenge distorted priorities. As the instructional share of institutional expenditures continues to decline and those of administration, athletics, and nonacademic facilities continue to increase, faculty and students are calling for renewed emphasis on academic missions. The next step is to scale this activity up, to catalyze a national movement.

Yet greater focus, efficiency, and productivity will not solve, either for the academy or for the AAUP, what is essentially a revenue problem. Both are confronted with insufficient capacity to do the work at hand, and both require new resources to rectify a system that exploits adjunct faculty, postdocs, and graduate employees with limited prospects for secure academic careers who work in conditions that undermine independent research and students' learning. The AAUP and higher education need to win greater support from outside the system, from new categories of employees and from constituencies that extend beyond the academy.

Several of the AAUP's most important policy statements have been pursued with allies outside the professoriate, and such coalitions are more important than ever. It would make sense, for example, to jointly develop: orientation materials with the American Council on Education for new presidents and provosts; professional-development materials with the Association of Governing Boards for board members, focused on academic freedom and shared governance; campus-based learning-outcome initiatives with the Association of American Colleges and Universities; and state and national campaigns with the United States Student Association for refocusing campus resources on instruction, academic programs, and personnel.

It makes no sense for the AAUP to turn inward. At their best, professors question orthodoxy, imagine alternatives, and create new possibilities. But standing alone is a losing position for professors and the AAUP, particularly if they stand apart from, looking down on, the world. The AAUP, like many professors, is constrained by its past success, traditions, and self-conceptions. It must get beyond that past to write the story line of the future and best realize the academy's promise.

Gary Rhoades is a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona and was general secretary of the AAUP from 2009 until last summer.