The June 2015 annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) marked the centennial of the organization, whose principles of academic freedom, tenure and shared governance established standards for colleges and universities around the country. Fittingly, the centennial was an occasion to put those fine ideals to the test, as members were asked to consider a number of matters of contemporary concern reminiscent of the challenges facing the professoriat at the association’s inception. Among these matters are “trigger warnings,” a statement about which now appears on the AAUP website, and “civility,” the supposed transgression of which has been cited by administrators seeking to deprive faculty members of due process rights. On civility, the AAUP has bundled a number of policy documents on its website to address the problematic concept, whose definition is unclear and contested. The AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom will devote a special issue on civility this fall.
Delegates meted out special opprobrium to Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor and chief engineer of proposed legislation to strip away long-standing, hard-won tenure and due process rights for faculty in the multi-campus University of Wisconsin system. A resolution was put forward from the floor of the meeting that condemns Walker’s legislative proposal and calls on the university administration to work to defeat it. Colleagues from around the country were enjoined to show solidarity with Wisconsin faculty, who again find themselves on the threshing floor of the national assault on public education. Two professors from the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater spoke in vigorous support of the resolution, which passed unanimously.
But the most anticipated moment was a resolution to censure the University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign, which came to the membership at the recommendation of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (Committee A). After extensive investigation of the university’s rescinding of its 2014 offer to Steven Salaita of a tenured position in the department of American Indian Studies, Committee A found flagrant violations of AAUP principles and deplored the chancellor’s refusal to complete the final stage in Professor Salaita’s appointment because of the incivility of his tweets during the latest war in Gaza.
Nelson at Odds
Several faculty members from the University of Illinois spoke to the resolution, including the chair of the faculty union, two professors of Judaic Studies, and a historian, Bruce Levine. Remarks from Salaita were read in his absence by the executive director of the Illinois state conference of the AAUP. The censure resolution’s only vocal opponent was Cary Nelson, the University of Illinois English professor whose public statements against Salaita and in support of UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise are by now well known. It is surely one of the most interesting ironies of recent AAUP history that Nelson, the immediate past president of AAUP, is now so sharply at odds with Committee A and the overwhelming majority of those in attendance at the AAUP annual national meeting who voted for censure on this key case of academic freedom. Nelson sits on the association’s National Council and was the lone dissenting vote when the resolution reached that body in advance of the annual meeting. Three other administrations – the University of Southern Maine, Felician College and MD Anderson Cancer Center – were placed on the official censure list at the 2015 AAUP national meeting, and one – Yeshiva University – was removed.
Some Good News
There was good news on membership recruitment with the Collective Bargaining Congress making solid gains and the Advocacy chapters also reporting increases. After facing some challenging times with falling membership and troubled finances, the AAUP, in its centennial year, has turned around its financial problems and is growing once again under the leadership of Rudy Fichtenbaum, AAUP president, and Howard Bunsis, chair of the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress. The PSC has been a strong supporter of the current AAUP leadership and PSC representatives were instrumental in enacting current policies. Anne Freidman, recently retired from the Borough of Manhattan Community College, continues to serve on the AAUP National Council and on the Council’s Executive Committee. Also, the PSC sent 10 delegates, newly elected this spring, to the Annual Meeting.
James Davis, associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, just finished a four-year stint as an officer-at-large on the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress.