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