AAUP: Becoming Irrelevant One Careful Step At A Time

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photoby P.D. Lesko

Blah. Blah. Blah. Dr. Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University of Professors. Blah. Blah. Blah. Scandal concerning the ouster of recent AAUP General Secretary What’s His Name. Blah. Blah. Blah. Leaks to the press concerning the vote of the AAUP’s Executive Committee to accept What’s His Name’s “resignation.”

Dan Berrett’s piece posted to InsideHigherEd has to be 3,000 words long. Oh. My. Goddess. Can we just watch the paint dry or the grass grow? The feature reads like something out of People Magazine. He says. She says. He denies. She denies. Former AAUP President Jane Buck “fires back” at someone about something. Cary Nelson claims that it’s not the job of the AAUP’s “elected leaders,” i.e. the Executive Committee that voted to oust What’s His Name, “to run the daily affairs of the national office.”

Yeah. That’s for sure, because that would mean the elected officials might be held to account for the fact that the AAUP has turned into an irrelevant gaping maw bureaucracy that rakes in million in dues and provides about as many member services as Yugo provides luxury features. The organization is a bastion of old, white men with tenure, and in that respect Dr. Nelson is the perfect President to represent the status quo both within the AAUP, and the AAUP’s place within higher education.

In 2002, the AAUP represented 45,225 members and by 2010 that number had fallen to 40,717 (4,100 of whom are part-time faculty). Revenues, however, rose from $5 million in 2002 to $6.2 million in 2010. The secret? The organization charged fewer members more in dues. It’s the business model from Chelm, for those who have read the short stories of Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem. Chelmites, in Aleichem’s stories have the common sense of, well, they don’t have any common sense. An example?

The town of Chelm decided to build a new synagogue. So, some strong, able-bodied men were sent to a mountaintop to gather heavy stones for the foundation. The men put the stones on their shoulders and trudged down the mountain to the town below. When they arrived, the town constable yelled, “Foolish men! You should have rolled the stones down the mountain!” The men agreed this was an excellent idea. So they turned around, and with the stones still on their shoulders, trudged back up the mountain, and rolled the stones back down again.

The American Association of University Professors  has become entrenched in battles over how to best “revive” the slowly dying organization. Alas, the result of the incredibly poor leadership of President Cary Nelson and his hand-picked Executive Committee members has been that the Grand Dame of academic labor unions has become increasingly irrelevant both to higher education, as well as the group’s own members.

Dues have risen from $120 per year in 2002 to $170 per year as of 2010. That’s a 45 percent increase, and the increase didn’t go toward representational activities (member recruitment, representing members, etc…). The AAUP spent almost $4 million of the $6.2 million the union brought in on overhead—salaries and benefits for staff, office expenses, travel for the Executive Committee, etc…

In 2010, the AAUP had a conference: $114,000. Held elections for the Executive Committee: $59,000.  Put on meetings of the Executive Committee: $8,000-$35,000 per monthly meeting. Published and mailed out seven issues of a magazine for members: $196,000.

So where did the rest of the $6.2 million dollars go?

AAUP has over 40 employees and spends the majority of its money keeping those employees employed. The results between 2002-2010? A loss of 10 percent of the membership in exchange for $3,000,000 in higher operating costs paid for by hiking the cost of membership by 45 percent. Between 2002 and 2010 office and administration costs for the AAUP rose from $1,000,000 per year to $4,000,000 per year. In 2002 when Jane Buck headed AAUP, the organization reimbursed her for $3,800 in expenses. In 2010, the AAUP paid President Cary Nelson $8,984 in expenses.

The members of the AAUP may as well keep rolling those rocks up the hill.

The AAUP has three staff attorneys, yet spends hundreds of thousands of legal consultants. The AAUP pays staff to oversee membership, yet employed a membership consultant. The AAUP has a staff member who earns a six-figure salary and benefits to oversee organizing, and employed an organizing consultant. AAUP even employs a personnel firm to oversee hiring, pays a company $60K per year to take care of a job that should be done in-house by one of the organization’s many staffers.

It doesn’t take an expert in management to see that the AAUP’s well-intentioned staff has been allowed to over-expand, employ consultants to do their jobs, and under-perform—all without consequence. The result is that higher education media might latch onto the tele novella that is the ouster of the AAUP’s General Secretary, but for the rest of us it’s just another sad chapter in what has become the comic opera that is the American Association of University of Professors.

Dr. Nelson has been the President of AAUP long enough. His attempts to reshape the AAUP into an organization of relevance and import have, unfortunately, failed. At some point, he stopped being able to see the big picture, and believe me when I say that Dr. Cary Nelson is a man who understands the big picture in Academe. He is a brilliant man, a scholar, a forward-thinking activist, and an utter failure as the person responsible for setting the path back from the brink of oblivion toward which AAUP has steadily progressed over the past decade.

AAUP needs a President who, together with a tough-minded General Secretary will trim the top-heavy staff by 3o percent (AAUP doesn’t need an Associate General Secretary, Executive Director, Assistant Executive Director, and a Director ). AAUP needs to move away from the print magazine format and into the age of blogs, Tweets, Facebook updates, daily headlines and digital journalism. A new chief executive and president need to wean staff off of consultants, and its own Executive Committee from $35,000 monthly meetings at the Hilton and Hyatt.

In November of 2008 I wrote this in response to Cary Nelson’s proposed “restructuring” of AAUP:

Sadly, Cary Nelson’s suggested restructuring of dues will do little but pump more cash into AAUP headquarters and into the pockets of more staff (Nelson writes, “Succeeding would bring in enough income to enable us to appoint another staff member in the AAUP’s national Department of Organizing and Services to concentrate on this area.”) The staff AAUP members have employed over the past three years have lost 3000 members, and not replaced them by recruiting and winning over new affiliates. More money for yet another staff member seems less a solution than business as usual.

In reality, AAUP is in desperate need of part-time faculty. Part-time faculty, I would argue, have no great need of the AAUP’s mediocre organizing and bargaining services. I don’t envy Cary Nelson the task before him. Straightening out the finances and challenges at AAUP is a daunting task. However, like the leaders of the Detroit automakers who want billions from taxpayers for a bailout without a concrete plan for how the companies will change their failing business practices, Cary Nelson has taken a similar course.

Nelson’s plan: AAUP needs more money, he writes. AAUP needs more staff. Here’s a counter-suggestion. Instead, let’s see AAUP clean up its house, put together a solid track record of successful bargaining on behalf of its current part-time faculty members, appoint part-time faculty to positions of leadership within AAUP (including the group’s Committee on Part-Time Faculty to which Nelson appointed a tenure-line faculty member as co-Chair) then come to part-timers from a position of strength, instead of a position of debilitating structural weakness.

My prediction was prescient. Here’s another: unless Dr. Cary Nelson steps down or is replaced, AAUP’s membership, influence and status within Academe will continue to shrivel. Its organization will stagnate politically and intellectually. Dues will go up to feed to bureaucracy, and member services will continue to be limited to the bare bones. Within five years, the AAUP will be completely irrelevant to the discussion of faculty rights within higher education.[/private]

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