The Union in Academia

Against the Current, No. 153, July/August 2011

Dan Clawson

No University is an Island:
Saving Academic Freedom
By Cary Nelson
New York: NYU Press, 2010, 289 pages, $24.95 (paperback edition, 2011).

CARY NELSON IS a distinguished professor of English and the president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a group that is part professional association and part union. This book is perhaps half about academic freedom and half about the AAUP, and Nelson’s struggles to have it become a less staff-dominated institution.

Very much to his credit, Nelson has an expansive conception of academic freedom. Above all, this means that he includes as part of it the concept of “shared governance,” effectively a limited form of faculty-only “workers control” for some of the most important issues at a college. This is embodied in AAUP principles:

Under AAUP principles, shared governance gives faculty the authority to shape the curriculum, select who will be their colleagues, arrange teaching schedules, and so forth. When such authority is ceded to administrators who lack disciplinary expertise, academic freedom becomes meaningless. (44)

In the neoliberal university, shared governance has been drastically eroded: the administrator who once saw him- (or rarely her-)self as rooted in the faculty has been replaced by the administrator whose self-image and behavior are modeled on that of a corporate CEO, making decisions and giving orders without consulting faculty, much less students or (could it be imagined?) non-faculty workers.

As an activist, Nelson has consistently battled for graduate students and contingent faculty, taking principled positions at all times, declaring that “The movement for graduate-employee unionization is the single most promising development in higher education over the past two generations.” (146). He is as determined to protect the academic freedom of contingent faculty as of full professors, and recognizes the special challenges that poses. Nelson speaks up not only for academic freedom, but for better wages and conditions for contingent faculty: “A university president who earns a million dollars while denying classroom teachers a living wage is a criminal.” (158)

He has taken progressive positions on a range of other higher education issues, supporting free higher education and insisting that “Faculty unionization as a vehicle for narrow self-interest has no future.” (144)

Most of the attacks on academic freedom are made by conservatives and directed at people on the left. A handful of issues — in recent years, the Middle East; in coming years, perhaps unions themselves — have provoked almost all of the attacks. Nelson, who reports that he supports the war in Afghanistan (108), makes a serious effort to be balanced in his consideration of controversies about the Middle East. I disagree with Nelson on many of the specifics, but there can be no question about his motivations, commitment to operating on principle, and willingness to defend academic freedom even when those attacked, like Ward Churchill, may not be saints.

Much of the book is about the internal workings of the AAUP. He bemoans the fact that it is far too common to find a well functioning “staff run local that includes virtually no engaged, well-informed faculty members.” (137) If Nelson is to be believed, before his presidency the AAUP, like many unions, was essentially controlled by the staff, with the elected membership kept largely sidelined. (The membership controlled the association’s journal and its reports, but the staff controlled most of the rest of the operations, including key elements of the defense of academic freedom.)

The AAUP staff apparently felt that the members were not savvy enough to be trusted to make key decisions. In some sense this is no surprise, but in another sense it is amazing to see the business union “staff-rule-and-members-can’t-be-trusted” approach in an organization where a large majority of the members are doctorate-holding faculty.

The last quarter of No University is an Island is primarily about Cary Nelson’s struggle with the staff, and his attempts to make the AAUP more member-run, an account that in some sense would be familiar to any union reformer. The book is a part of this struggle, an attempt to shine a light on the way the AAUP has been run, and thus to build support for the changes Nelson is making and seeks to make.

In doing so, Nelson, the elected president of the organization, is openly at war with the staff: “The culture that dominates the national office and shapes the psychology of some (though not all) key senior staff remains one dedicated to withholding as much information from the elected leaders as possible.” (219) The operations of the key (staff run) committee that is to defend academic freedom “are actually more like a court staffed by a priesthood,” focused exclusively on individual grievance handling, and often missing opportunities to raise the larger issues. (255)

Special Faculty Status?

Despite Cary Nelson and the book’s many admirable stands on issues of importance to the left, I am fundamentally opposed to one central aspect of his position: his insistence that faculty rights are based on the special status of the faculty.

The AAUP was once a professional association, but like many other such associations has become in significant part a craft union, in this case for the most skilled and privileged part of the university workforce. Today, 75% of AAUP members are in collective bargaining units, a fact that Nelson regrets. (209)

The professional association/union issue applies not only to faculty, but in other parts of the workforce — nurses, teachers, in some sense even flight mechanics. In the 1930s industrial unions displaced craft unions in many industries; even unions that were in some sense craft unions became more like industrial unions.

In recent years, however, craft unions, especially craft unions that evolved out of professional associations, are displacing industrial union approaches. When a professional association that has evolved into a union goes up against a union with an industrial approach, the likelihood is that the professional association approach will win, as we’ve seen for nurses, who choose nurse-only unionization over one-big-union unionization.

Nelson’s argument for academic freedom, for example, applies to faculty, not to custodians or football coaches (37), and is based on “the appropriate community of expertise.” He argues that the courts should carve out a special status for faculty. (59) A faculty member who challenges administrative policy should be protected; apparently a janitor who goes public about the cleaning agents used by the university would not be covered.

In our discussions of the university, Nelson argues, we need to mount “a defense of the special character of higher education. Certainly declaring education a basic human or civil right gets one nowhere….” (82) Nelson extends solidarity to all faculty, but it’s not clear if it goes beyond that. He is rightly upset at the treatment of contingent faculty, and insistent that it is criminal if they aren’t paid a living wage (158), but no concern is expressed about the wages of dining hall workers.

I see this as a crucial divide for the left, and not only in battles over the future of higher education. If the defense of faculty, or nurses, is based on their special training, expertise, and professionalism, the implicit — and sometimes explicit — message is that others don’t deserve equivalent rights and conditions.

This approach does not rise to the level of industrial unionism, which is concerned with all the workers at an organization, whether they mop the floors, do the secretarial work, or give the lectures. It certainly does not rise to the level of social unionism, that is, the ways that the workplace connects to struggles for justice in the rest of the society.

Much of my own political activism is in higher education, but my vision here is seriously at odds with Cary Nelson’s. Terms like students, costs, tuition and graduation don’t appear in the index of Saving Academic Freedom, and those issues are barely discussed in the book.

In contrast, our doctoral institution research faculty union has worked hard to build PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, as an organizational form to cement alliances not only with faculty at state and community colleges, not only with graduate students, but also with secretaries and janitors.

More important still, PHENOM is based on an alliance with students, working with them not on the basis of faculty’s special expertise and professionalism, but as people united in a vision of a democratic transformation of higher education.

My statewide union leadership — whose 107,000 members are mostly K-12 teachers — is very wary of (and sometimes opposed to) these efforts, concerned that students do or will soon dominate PHENOM. I suspect Cary Nelson would agree with our statewide union leadership, not with the progressive vision of PHENOM. That issue — respect and rights for high status professionals, or for all people — seems to me fundamental to our political vision.

p>July/August 2011, ATC 153