No Man or Woman Is an Island: An Open Letter to AHA Members from the AAUP President

Cary Nelson, February 2008

By the time you read this letter, Barbara Weinstein, AHA president for 2007, and I will have presented key speeches on current challenges to academic freedom at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association (held December 27–30, 2007, in Chicago). I invited Barbara to join me at this session because I realize historians are very much aware that cultural values are subject to change, that every generation must be educated anew about the issues that matter to us. That awareness is perhaps not universal in the academy, but it is shared by the American Association of University Professors and the American Historical Association.

Barbara plans in part to focus on the ongoing exclusion of foreign scholars from the United States. The AHA and the AAUP have been working together to resist that fundamental assault on academic freedom. If AAUP plans materialize, I would also hope that before long we can begin more fully coordinating lobbying activities on behalf of higher education.

Enhanced lobbying will be possible under our plans for restructuring, which we hope to have approved at our June 2008 annual meeting. We are expecting to become three interlocked entities under one AAUP roof–a foundation devoted to charitable activities, a professional organization, and a labor union. The professional organization, which will be registered under section 501 (c) (6) of the tax code, will not have the same limitations on lobbying that both the AHA and the AAUP now have. We could thus all work together through the professional organization, perhaps even hiring a full-time higher education lobbyist to represent faculty interests. A link to detailed information about the restructuring can be found on the opening page of our web site, www.aaup.org.

In 2006 I had the opportunity to meet with the AHA's Council and talk about the AAUP's plans for the future. That meeting was a recognition at once of shared interests and values, as well as testimony that our organizational responsibilities and capabilities differ. For nearly a hundred years the AAUP has been the primary source of principled policy statements about the faculty's role in higher education. We are the only faculty group that speaks for all disciplines. We are also the only national organization prepared to investigate violations of academic freedom and shared governance.

Those of you who have been reading the informational e-mails we began sending to 350,000 faculty members last September should now be well informed about our recent projects. We opened the academic year by issuing our new statement on "Freedom in the Classroom," which was widely debated in the press and on web sites. The principles it details are particularly critical for humanities disciplines under increasing cultural and financial assault. If you then followed the link to our massive investigative report on the academic aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina, you learned how the AAUP responded to a region-wide abandonment of good governance practices. Our Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure alone responds to over 1,000 faculty inquiries every year. We constantly monitor new technologies and the necessity of guaranteeing academic freedom in a changing world. Our recent statement on academic freedom and electronic communication is a good example. Last year we published recommendations offering increased job security and due process to contingent faculty; we did so not simply out of human decency, but because the new regulations were necessary to ensure the academic freedom of our most vulnerable colleagues, faculty whose numbers have vastly increased over a generation. All these activities have attached monetary costs–conducting the Katrina investigation and issuing the report alone cost us about $100,000, for example.

And yet we want to do still more. And indeed we must, for the humanities are threatened by corporatization and the pressure to instrumentalize the curriculum. For all this, we need your support. This February we are mounting by e-mail our largest campaign ever for new members. If you are not now a member I urge you to join the current AAUP–which will become the professional organization in due course and continue to be the home for all individual members. Your professional identity and needs are only fully assured if the AHA can partner with the AAUP in advocating for faculty rights and responsibilities. That goal can only be met if each of you recognizes the need to belong to both organizations. Only our collective work can help protect an industry vulnerable to political, cultural, and economic forces. No faculty member is an island. We need to work together to reinforce the principles that unite us.

—Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is president of the American Association of University Professors.