[Marxism] 'Tenured radical' tries to revive professors group

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 17 11:38:46 MDT 2008

(I admit to feeling pessimistic about Cary Nelson being able to revive 
AAUP. From what I have seen, tenured professors--even those with Marxist 
credentials--could care less about what happens to adjuncts. Many are 
close to retirement, having gone into the academy in the aftermath of 
the 60s radicalization, and don't really want to be bothered with 
building a trade union that they don't think they need--at least in 
narrow selfish terms. All in all, the fucking rightwing shits who run 
the universities, especially the big state universities and the 
community colleges, won't be satisfied until 90 percent of all teachers 
are adjuncts. They'll hold on to 10 percent tenured for public relations.)


'Tenured radical' tries to revive professors group
By Justin Pope, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In his professorial attire and flowing, Zeus-like beard, 
Cary Nelson would look right at home behind a lectern, expounding on 
obscure poets. He even resembles one of the leading influences on his 
scholarship — Karl Marx.

For decades, this self-described "tenured radical" has been satirizing 
academia and criticizing the "corporatization" of universities. Now, the 
man dubbed "scary Cary" by former graduate students for his 
pull-no-punches style has a kind of corporate role himself.

But he's hardly selling out.

As president of the American Association of University Professors, the 
62-year-old gadfly and erudite literary theorist is trying to breathe 
new life into a group with a complicated dual role: speaking out on 
behalf of academic freedom, while also representing faculty at some 
colleges in contract talks.

The association's core issues are front and center these days. Colleges 
are increasingly relying on part-time faculty, who have less job 
security and protection if they speak out on controversial subjects. But 
at such a critical time, the association has been hobbled by declining 
membership, staff turmoil and financial dysfunction.

Some bristle at Nelson's imperious presence and sharp, sometimes brutal 
honesty. But others are convinced it's just what's needed to revive the 

"I think the real danger is nobody knows the AAUP is there," says 
Princeton University's Stanley Katz. "It may well be a little noise and 
bluster is much less a problem than ennui."

Nelson knows he has his work cut out for him. In 2005, the association's 
membership office "basically disintegrated," in Nelson's words, and 
until recently the group couldn't complete a 2006 financial audit.

"It's been quite a mess to clean up and we're still working on it," said 
Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 
who had been active in the group for years before becoming president in 
2006. He has overseen major changes in the professional staff and pushed 
a structural reorganization intended to better reflect the association's 
two very different roles.

Nelson, trained in literary theory and highbrow arguments at academic 
conferences, finds himself knee-deep in fundraising and projects 
involving things like accounting software.

In a forthcoming book of essays paying tribute to Nelson, scholar 
Michael Berube notes the irony that this "Ginsbergian wild man" has 
become an "organization man."

But he means it as a compliment. Nelson says that's what the 
organization needs at a time when its founding mission of protecting 
faculty's rights to teach and publish as they see fit is under threat again.

The growing number of part-time faculty "are frightened that if they 
dare to teach something controversial in their colleges, the easiest way 
their dean will deal with it is to say we don't need troublemakers, and 
they're gone," Nelson said in an interview in Washington, where he 
spends extended periods on association matters "They don't even need to 
say it. They just need to think it and then not issue a contract next year."

The association's origins date to the early 20th century and an academic 
freedom dispute — the firing of a Stanford professor at the behest of 
Jane Stanford, who with her husband donated the money to start the 
university. The group's guidelines on academic freedom and tenure have 
become a widely accepted standard. It fields more than 1,000 violation 
complaints per year, many from nonmembers, and though it has no official 
power, the group publicly shames institutions it believes violate the 

It's also issued reports criticizing colleges in New Orleans for how 
they handled downsizing after Hurricane Katrina, and supporting speaking 
invitations by universities to controversial figures.

But along the way, the association has taken on other roles that have 
muddled its identity.

In the 1970s, it got involved in collective bargaining for college and 
university faculty. The idea was to concretely advance faculty rights, 
but it caused political rifts.

Membership, which hit 100,000 in 1970, bottomed out at 39,000 in 1989 
(it's currently about 47,000). Nelson says the group didn't even have 
e-mail addresses to tell current and prospective members about its work. 
There were 170 different classes of membership — and predictable 
bookkeeping foul-ups, infuriating to members, about who had paid dues.

The membership director and general secretary — the top full-time 
staffer — quarreled. The budget deficit was over $370,000 last year — 
largely because of nonrecurring costs to fix the problems.

All along, Nelson insists, the association continued to do admirable 
work on academic freedom. But he is adamant the group needs a major 
reorganization. One reason is legal restrictions on its activities under 
the current set up. Last month, members approved a division into three 
affiliated groups: a professional association, a union and a foundation.

The changes, scheduled to take effect in 2010, passed overwhelmingly, 
and should make it easier for the group to flex its muscles. Still, 
Nelson does have critics.

It doesn't help that several of his 25 books are critiques of academic 
culture that skewer not only administrators but fellow professors.

Partly, it's humorous fun-poking at academia (one of Nelson's lines is 
when he wants something accomplished in his department, he argues 
against it). But more seriously they reflect his outrage at many 
contemporary professors' tolerance of the status quo. From their tenured 
perches, Nelson believes many have lost their sense of common cause with 
the college teaching profession.

Other critics find the association's fundraising efforts gauche, while 
some graduate students are concerned the campaign against using adjunct 
faculty will leave them with no jobs at all.

The association still has outside critics, too, like Anne Neal of the 
American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who believe the organization is 
too concerned with protecting faculty teaching rights at all costs, even 
if students don't hear all viewpoints. She argues for more emphasis on 
faculty accountability and responsibility.

"The AAUP itself needs to become more clear on what academic freedom 
means," she said. "It's not anything goes."

But even Nelson critics haven't questioned his commitment — and not just 
through his writings and long-standing service to the group. He was 
arrested in 2006 at a rally for New York University graduate students 
seeking union recognition, and has taken on the likes of David Horowitz, 
the right-wing critic whom Nelson, in a 2007 debate, called a "pit bull 
who feels sorry for himself."

"Not everybody loves Cary Nelson, but I think the vast majority of 
people respect Cary Nelson," said Cat Warren, who has served as the 
association's North Carolina chapter president and has known Nelson 
since graduate school.

She admires Nelson, though she disagrees with some of his decisions.

"The degree to which a gentler, kinder Cary Nelson would be able to herd 
the flock I think is probably a myth," she said. "Faculty don't herd well."

To succeed, Nelson will need to sell the group membership to a younger 
generation of faculty who barely know the group, and are typically more 
focussed on issues in their own fields than in the professoriate at large.

Princeton's Katz, who recently rejoined the association after a long 
absence, said a measure of Nelson's success will be his ability to 
attract more people like him who care about academic freedom but had 
left the group when it became more of a labor union. (Asked how many 
Princeton faculty belong to the group, Katz answered "I'd be surprised 
if there are six.")

Ernst Benjamin, recruited by Nelson last year as general secretary, says 
Nelson's tendencies as a "born rebel" sometimes run up against the 
constraints of running an organization. But he insists the energy he 
provides is also essential.

"It's like poetry, isn't it?" Benjamin said, comparing Nelson's AAUP and 
scholarly work. "You have to have creativity and you have to have 

And Benjamin said anyone who had produced 25 books, as Nelson has, "has 
to have some discipline."

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