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AAUP Debates the Role of Its State Conferences in Guarding Faculty Rights

  • June 14, 2012

The American Association of University Professors has long prided itself in being an organization that protects faculty members' rights. But when scholars appeal to the national organization for aid, many find it unwilling to take up their cause, while those it does help find that its assistance tends to arrive slowly, in carefully measured steps.

Frustrations with the AAUP's failure to more aggressively defend individual faculty members came to a head Wednesday at the group's annual conference, as representatives of its Colorado affiliate described how they feel compelled to themselves investigate alleged faculty rights violations that are not being investigated by the national organization.

The Colorado members described how they established a state panel comparable to the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure partly out of frustration over the AAUP's refusal to investigate the University of Colorado's 2007 dismissal of Ward Churchill, the controversial ethnic-studies professor, and they suggested that other state affiliates might want to consider establishing similar committees to expand the AAUP's protection of faculty rights.

The national organization's leaders have argued that the AAUP not only lacks enough staff to assist every member who appeals to it for help, but also maintains its credibility—to the long-term benefit of all of its members—by only taking up cases it sees as involving clear violations of bedrock principles, and by taking the time needed to get the facts and the perspectives of all parties involved.

At a Wednesday panel discussion focused on the Colorado conference's efforts, Ernst Benjamin, a former general secretary of the AAUP who remains a consultant to it, argued that state conferences usurp the powers of the national organization's democratically elected leaders and threaten the AAUP's credibility by taking on investigations typically reserved for Committee A.

Most of the association's efforts to prod college administrations to respect faculty members' rights, Mr. Benjamin said, depend on the institutions' willingness to take such actions voluntarily in response to the AAUP's findings they have violated academic freedom or due process. "We are effective to the extent we persuade the academic community," Mr. Benjamin said. "That is why we have to be so slow and so careful and constantly frustrating people with that slowness and care."

But Don Eron, a writing instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a member of the executive committee of the AAUP's Colorado conference, argued that the national organization will "become a paper tiger" if it continues to take the same approach to dealing with faculty complaints of rights violations. "We can help people who need us, and here is a way to do it," he said in encouraging other state conferences to consider establishing mechanisms for investigating such complaints.

Hank Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University-East Bay who will take office as the AAUP's vice president at the close of this year's annual conference, stood up in the audience and voiced support for the Colorado conference's activities, arguing "we have to become far more effective in advocating academic freedom" and less preoccupied with maintaining the appearance of neutrality in dealing with campus controversies.

In interviews conducted prior to the conference, the organization's incoming president, Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, a professor of economics at Wright State University, argued that the national office "just can't help everybody" and would serve itself well by empowering and training its state conferences to better assist investigations.

Cary Nelson, who leaves office as the AAUP's president at the end of the conference, said does not believe state conferences should be conducting formal investigations, which he described as "a bit of a technical task." But, he said, because "there is only so much we can do" at the national office, he welcomes state conferences' efforts to advocate on behalf of wronged faculty members through letters, newspaper commentaries, and other statements, which "helps solve problems that need to be solved."

Gary Rhoades, who held the AAUP's top administrative post, general secretary, from 2009 until last year, said he sees some basis to criticisms that the national office lacks the manpower to fully protect faculty rights. "The AAUP is strengthened by having strong state conferences, just like it is strengthened by having strong chapters," although for people in the organization's main office in Washington "they can be seen as threatening," he said.

Individual Focus

Many of the AAUP's state conferences—including those in Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio—have their own equivalents of the national organization's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. As a rule, however, such state-level committees restrict themselves to advocacy work, and do not conduct formal investigations of alleged rights violations and issue reports based on their findings.

Outside the AAUP, at least one organization, the Wisconsin Association of Scholars, has established a state committee somewhat similar to the AAUP's Committee A, although it too is focused on promptly issuing position statements on cases rather undertaking long-term investigations that attempt to adjudicate them.

The Colorado Conference has gone beyond the AAUP's other state affiliates, in 2008 establishing the Colorado Committee to Protect Faculty Rights, a standing committee that has no affiliation with the national organization's Committee A but takes upon itself many of the same investigatory powers. The Colorado conference has devised extensive guidelines for its faculty-rights committee, spelling out its procedures for weighing the merits of faculty complaints, helping faculty member seek redress from administrators, and investigating those cases in which there is factual evidence of a rights violation, the faculty member has suffered significant damage to career or position, and efforts to work with administrators to resolve the dispute have failed.

The Colorado conference argues in the introduction to its committee's guidelines that "the need for fair treatment" appears to be an important reason people cite for joining the AAUP, and "perceptions that the AAUP is not sufficiently responsive" to individual faculty members' complaints of violations of their rights "account for why many members leave the organization." The introduction states that many members of the AAUP do not realize that the national organization's Committee A is focused on protecting principles, rather than individual faculty members, and selects which cases to investigate based on the broader points it needs to make. The state-level committee exists to help fill the gap in faculty protections by working "to promote fairness in the treatment of individual faculty members," the document says.

Myron C. Hulen, an emeritus professor of tax law at Colorado State University and a member of the Colorado Conference who played a central role in establishing the state faculty-rights committee, said in an interview this month that the committee is mindful that it lacks the training and legal support provided the national Committee A's members, and is careful not to overreach in conducting an investigation. "If it is done right, it is a good idea," he said. "If it is not done well, it can backfire on us."

The committee so far has issued three reports. One dealt with the case of Sharolyn Anderson, a geographer at the University of Denver who was denied tenure in 2011 in a manner the committee determined to be "arbitrary and capricious." The others focused on the cases of two faculty members at the University of Colorado at Boulder: Phil Mitchell, an adjunct history instructor whose contract was not renewed in 2007 after he complained that his academic department was trying to oust him for his conservative views; and Mr. Churchill, the leftist professor fired for alleged academic misconduct in the midst of a media firestorm over remarks he had made about the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Rocky Start

Dissatisfaction with how the AAUP handled the case of Mr. Churchill, who continues to challenge his dismissal before the Colorado Supreme Court, played a key role in the Colorado conference's decision to undertake its own investigation.

The national organization was deeply divided on the matter. Although Mr. Nelson, its president, made public statements in defense of Mr. Churchill and his academic-freedom rights, Committee A decided not to investigate his case. It argued that it could not undertake an investigation without a formal complaint from him, which it had never received, and some its members supported, or at least were reluctant to second-guess, the various faculty panels at the University of Colorado that found him guilty of academic misconduct.

The report on Mr. Churchill's dismissal that the Colorado committee ended up issuing strongly argued that the University of Colorado violated his academic freedom.

Tensions between the Colorado Conference and the national office over the handling of his case remained evident during the panel discussion held Wednesday. Mr. Benjamin, the former AAUP general secretary, argued that the AAUP would have undercut its own position that administrators need to listen to faculty members if it had rejected conclusions of the university faculty panels that found Mr. Churchill guilty of misconduct. Mr. Hulen of Colorado State University argued, however, that the faculty panels which passed judgment on Mr. Churchill were stacked with people who had little expertise in his field or had long been critical of his work.

The national AAUP "blew it" in Mr. Churchill's case, Mr. Reichman, the organization's incoming vice president, said. He said the Colorado Conference "belatedly saved us from looking like wimps."

Those on hand for the panel discussion also strongly debated whether state conferences should be doing the sort of "quasi-judicial" work performed by investigative committees. Mr. Benjamin argued that such activities are inappropriate, given the state committees' lack of resources and training. In an interview prior to the conference, Matthew W. Finkin, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a consultant to Committee A, took a similar position, arguing that "every case tests the credibility of the association."

But panel member John K. Wilson, who writes extensively about academic freedom and runs the Web site College Freedom, argued that the AAUP "is an advocate pretending to be quasi-judicial" in issuing its reports. He characterized the establishment of investigatory committees that can respond quickly to violations of academic freedom as an important option for state conferences. "I do not view the AAUP as a hierarchal organization where people at the top command everyone else on what they can or cannot do," he said.

David Linton, the president of the AAUP's New York State Conference, argued from the audience: "We are an advocacy organization, and nobody in the world is going to think a Committee A investigation is, ultimately, neutral."


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