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AAUP president discusses faculty leadership

April 25, 2008

AAUP president discusses faculty leadership

Campus Voice spoke with Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, prior to his campus address in April. The interview has been edited for length.

Campus Voice: What is the role of the president of the American Association of University Professors?

Cary Nelson: First of all it is to be a spokesperson for the organization. I’d been writing about higher education policies for about 20 years before I became AAUP president, so it was a natural role for me to slide into. I have also been a highly visible scholar working in the field and have written a number of books about higher education, so I was well suited to become spokesperson.

The elected leadership of the AAUP also sets policy for the organization. The staff carries out the policy that the leadership sets. The president has a daily role in articulating what those policies should be and getting advice from other elected leaders and trying to reach consensus on those things.

When I came into office, I had a couple of priorities for policy issues. One was to make some very detailed statement on academic freedom in the classroom. I felt that if you look back over AAUP policies . . . the detail about what academic freedom means in the classroom is really not there. As freedom in the classroom has come under pressure over the past decade, I felt the organization needed a much more substantive, persuasive, detailed statement on that issue.

In September we released a Freedom in the Classroom statement which has had an unbelievable response.

As AAUP president that is, without question, the single most rewarding thing: to be able to be part of an organization that writes policy that can effect the country as a whole.

Campus Voice: Membership in the AAUP is about half of what it was in 1970. Are you working on membership recruitment and retention issues?

Cary Nelson: In August the executive committee that I head passed a list of priorities for the office saying that membership recruitment and retention should be an office-wide priority.

When I came in as AAUP president we sent Academe [the magazine] out every other month. The idea was that we would tell people what wonderful things we have done every other month and they will love us as a result. But actually, that’s not a 21st century or even late 20th century model of communicating with the membership of an organization.

So I pledged in my 2005-06 campaign that the first thing I was going to do was to get the staff to acquire member e-mail addresses. We had 44,000 members at that point and we had 8,000 e-mail addresses.

We now have e-mail addresses for most of our members and I send e-mails to them twice a month, which means that they are getting something from us on a regular basis.

In order to build membership, we needed to educate faculty about who we are and what we do. So I had the staff hire 12 graduate students during the summer to collect e-mail addresses of non-members. They collected about 350,000 e-mail addresses and I now have about 400,000 e-mail addresses. So we are now sending messages about who we are and what we do to that whole 400,000 and offering subsets of the 400,000 memberships. We have about 2,000 members more as a result of this campaign so far.

We are now at the highest membership level – about 46,500 – that we’ve been since 1988.

Campus Voice: Some commentators have called you a “risk taker” and an “angry critic.” What did they mean by that?

Cary Nelson: I have always spoken what I think to be the truth and not everyone loves me for it. But anger is for me a valid response to injustice. You should feel fueled by injustice and want to do something about it.

It was about 20 years ago that I started interviewing part-time faculty around the country. I met a lot of part-time faculty, especially in the big cities on the East Coast, who had been teaching at under $1,000 a course with no health care, no vestment in a retirement system, no job security, and I was running into people who had been done a lot of damage by that.

We were exploiting faculty members and wrecking their lives. I was running into people who had no health care who had something major happen to them, a problem pregnancy, a broken leg or arm and no health care coverage. Their lives were really getting messed up.

That is a reason to be angry and to get the profession to wake up and listen to us. Anger for me often involves a certain amount of satiric wit and it’s not exactly rage. It’s targeted satire and frankness. There is nothing I can do about it at this point. That’s who I am. That’s what you get.

Campus Voice: Why are you visiting PLU?

Cary Nelson: This is actually part of a West Coast tour. I started in Los Angeles, flew up to Berkeley, went over to San Francisco, came up here to speak with you folks today and I’ll be at the University of Washington tomorrow.

I’m interested in the PLU chapter because it has been revived. You have 12.5 percent of the faculty, roughly, in it. There seems to be enthusiasm for growing still more. I have a really old friend here, Kirsten Christensen, who is your membership recruitment person. She likes the place and speaks well of it and thinks that the AAUP chapter can grow. So this an obvious place to visit.

You have a faculty that is strongly committed to academic freedom. You have good shared governance provisions written into your handbook. They entail a lot of work on the part of the faculty – shared governance doesn’t mean that you get to sleep through your job, it means that you have to work. By and large the faculty here accepts that and is willing to do the work.

What an AAUP chapter can do is really speak of truth. A senate has to have alliances, it has to be politic. But you also need a source on campus that will stand up for the truth, the best interests of the faculty, the best interests of the students and that is part of what an AAUP chapter can do.

When you have a campus that is grounded in principal, as I think this one already is, the chapter can really enhance that and give people more of a sense of participation in those values.

This is a winning opportunity here so it is appropriate for me to visit.

Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His Web site, which includes his AAUP candidate statement, a vita and biography and essays on academic freedom and corporatization in the academy is