Thursday, February 05, 2009

Gary Rhoades: An Interview with the AAUP’s New Leader

As of January 2009, Gary Rhoades is the new General Secretary running the national American Association of University Professors. Rhoades is currently director of the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, and the author of two excellent books, Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor (SUNY Press, 1998) and Academic Capitalism and the New Economy (with Sheila Slaughter) (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

Illinois Academe editor John K. Wilson interviewed Rhoades via email. Rhoades has agreed to be the keynote speaker for the Illinois AAUP annual meeting scheduled for Saturday, April 18, 2009 at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. Mark your calendars and plan to join us at this free event.

Question: The growth of non-tenure-track faculty has led some observers to argue that we need to detach academic freedom from tenure and fight for a universal protection of all faculty. What do you think can be done to protect non-tenure-track faculty, and will doing so reduce the impact of tenure?

Rhoades: Academic freedom is not contingent on tenure, either on being tenured or being tenure eligible. The AAUP has statements and recommended institutional regulations that support and provide for the academic freedom not only of tenure track faculty, but also of contingent faculty and graduate student employees.

A key for further institutionalizing the academic freedom of faculty who are not on the tenure track is to expand their due process rights in practice in the 21st century, comparable to way the AAUP accomplished this for tenure track faculty in the 20th century. The AAUP is already effectively working towards this for contingent faculty, as evidenced for example in recent censure cases involving the violation of due process rights and academic freedom of contingent faculty. It is now in the process of more fully specifying and elaborating such due process rights for graduate student employees. Two of the goals I have identified in my forthcoming General Secretary column for the January/February issue of Academe involve just this sort of expansion and provision of professional terms and conditions of work for contingent faculty and graduate student employees more comparable to those of tenure track faculty, in collectively bargained contracts and in institutional policies. Finally, the academic freedom of the academic workforce as a whole is contingent not only on strengthening the due process rights of contingent faculty and graduate student employees, but also on facilitating the conversion of contingent positions into full-time, tenure track positions, and on strengthening and expanding the tenure track workforce.

Question: When the AAUP was started in 1915, its founders hoped that it would not only serve to defend academia against attacks, but also help faculty to collectively express expert viewpoints to guide public policy. That’s largely been forgotten, but do you think the AAUP should ever try to resume that role?

Rhoades: A few years ago a former General Secretary of the AAUP, Mary Burgan, wrote a book entitled, What Ever Happened to the Faculty (2006). In part, Burgan’s title was a comment on the absence of faculty in national public policy discussions, an absence in terms of their direct presence in policy, their involvement and consultation, as well as in their indirect presence, the consideration of faculty in the policy deliberations.

One of the chief reasons I accepted the position of General Secretary was my commitment to changing this pattern, and my confidence that such change is feasible. There are various mechanisms the AAUP can utilize to play a more prominent role in public policy, at the national, state, and institutional levels.

As a scholar who has worked for over twenty five years to study the academic profession and public policy, and who has sought to engage policy deliberations and patterns at various levels, I have many ideas along these lines, some of which have been articulated in a forthcoming article in Change magazine (for example, establishing a national commission on the 21st century professoriate). At the same time I would encourage and welcome any ideas and suggestions your readers would have along these lines.

Question: For a long time, the AAUP has resisted taking public stands on academic freedom controversies out of fear that this would taint perceptions about the censure process which takes years to come to a final verdict. Do you think the AAUP needs to be more active in speaking out on cases outside the censure system?

Rhoades: The censure process is an important mechanism for carefully and thoroughly examining particular cases in which academic freedom has been violated. The cases provide the AAUP with a foundation for identifying and speaking to key challenges and threats to academic freedom. For example, in the November/December issue of Academe, Jordan Kurland details two cases of contingent faculty who essentially were dismissed or non-renewed because they insisted on maintaining quality standards.

Similarly, my article in the same issue is about how this enables the AAUP to reverse the discourse about accountability and quality: rather than a public discourse and set of practices that are used to hammer faculty, it is possible to invert the challenge, to argue that we increasingly need to hold academic administrators and institutions accountable for protecting faculty members’ academic freedom and upholding of quality standards.

Certainly the findings of the censure process itself could more aggressively and
effectively be utilized in taking public stands and shaping public policy. And
there are other mechanisms by which the AAUP can address fast breaking challenges to academic freedom in a more timely manner than is possible with the time consuming censure process. In some regards, the leadership of the AAUP is already moving in this direction. Most recently, for example, the president of the association, Cary Nelson, has been quite active in directly challenging the “no buttons” policy of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign administration, an interpretation of state government ethics standards that has powerful and adverse implications for all public institutions of higher education in Illinois. Matt Finkin, an endowed professor of law at the University of Illinois, and a consultant to Committee A of the AAUP, has also been very active in challenging the administration’s expansive interpretation and application of state codes. Cary Nelson has played a quite public role in this regard, working through the media quite effectively to make this a national story, and to pressure the university administration to back off to some extent on their policy. In addition, he has communicated with the broader membership of the AAUP through email about these matters.

In my view, there are still other ways that the AAUP can and should speak to challenges to academic freedom in a timely way. There will certainly be some understandable constraints on these in the case of Committee A investigations. But there is no reason these should prevent the association from thoughtfully addressing important challenges to academic freedom in a timely way.

Question: The AAUP has been teaming up with the AFT in union organizing drives. Right now, Illinois has no AAUP union chapters. What do you think should be done in Illinois to expand membership, both union and non-union?

Rhoades: The question of how to increase AAUP membership in Illinois is connected, of course, to the question of how to increase AAUP membership nationally, in union and non-union settings. There are similar challenges, principles, and opportunities.

The AAUP needs to get younger and more demographically diverse, and it needs to speak more effectively to the needs and concerns of prospective, contingent, and new faculty. One approach for membership generally is to create and provide professional development resources, workshops, and other sorts of opportunities to support and facilitate the work of faculty.

A second approach for increasing union membership is to undertake an organizing campaign or two, possibly in the state of Illinois. The recent joint organizing agreement between the AAUP and the AFT makes these a reasonable prospect, and there are certainly campuses and categories of employees in Illinois that are potential sites for organizing. More broadly, the current fiscal situation of the country, the bailout of Wall Street, the casualization of faculty, and the terms and conditions of labor, combined with the reorganization efforts of employers/academic administrators makes the time ripe for a resurgence of the academic labor movement.

Some issues may be specific to Illinois, but I think there some sweeping challenges that all faculty face. Again, I welcome your ideas on how we can move our association forward, together.

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