Blogs > Cliopatria > The AAUP Strikes Out (Again)

Feb 20, 2006 10:48 pm

The AAUP Strikes Out (Again)

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for the AAUP. First, the organization was forced to postpone a conference on academic boycotts after distributing literature from a journal that traffics in Holocaust denial. Then, the body’s immediate past chair of Committee A, Joan Scott, suggested that academics who criticized the conference for its apparent anti-Israel bias violated (an unspecified) AAUP “procedure.” Today, the group’s Committee on Graduate and Professional Students came out with the long-expected denunciation of NYU’s opposition to a graduate student union.

It’s unsurprising, of course, that the AAUP, an academic union itself, favors establishing more academic unions. But claiming that NYU’s policy violates “academic freedom” stretches the concept beyond recognition, and calls into question whether Joan Scott isn’t the only AAUP officer who seems unclear on academic freedom’s meaning. The report’s reasoning does not befit the AAUP’s (rapidly eroding) status as the conscience of the academy.

The committee made five principal arguments to justify its position:

1.) NYU’s action violated the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since “among the fundamental rights enshrined in that document was the right to unionize,” to wit, Article 23: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests." By this logic, if kindergarten students—who are, after all, a subset of “everyone”—voted to unionize, the local public school would be compelled to recognize the union.

2.) Graduate employee unions are “appropriate to the Academy,” given that the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, Rutgers University, the University of Toronto, and the University of California system all have graduate student unions; and the AAUP supports their establishment. Hundreds of graduate programs exist in the country. And because a small fraction of these programs (none of which are at private schools) have unions, NYU should do so?

3.) NYU’s actions violated AAUP policies, chiefly the 1970 guidelines, which declares that"graduate student assistants are to be informed in writing of the terms and conditions of their appointment and, in the event of proposed dismissal, are to be afforded access to a duly constituted hearing committee”; and the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which identifies procedures for"the dismissal for cause of a teacher previous to the expiration of a term appointment." (Quotes from the AAUP committee report.) Both of these clauses use the word “dismissal.” Even though many graduate students refused to teach during the fall 2005 term, none were “dismissed.” Quite the opposite: NYU continued to pay them for not working. True, those who would not promise to actually show up and teach their classes were not hired for the spring 2006 term—hardly an unreasonable position from the University’s standpoint. Not hiring someone, however, is not the same as “dismissing” them.

4.) A majority of NYU graduate students voted in favor of forming a union. If a majority of NYU graduate students voted in favor of abolishing the institution’s language requirement and NYU refused to do so, would the institution still be guilty of violating AAUP policies?

5.) “The Wagner Act of 1935 gave employees the right to bargain collectively through ‘representatives of their own choosing.’” I realize that the AAUP represents an academy that seems to believe it’s perfectly acceptable for today’s college students to receive no instruction in the political and institutional history of their own country from people trained in the field. But the last time I looked, the Wagner Act established the NLRB to adjudicate disputes under the measure, and in this case, the NLRB held in favor of NYU. The AAUP might not have liked the NLRB’s ruling, but it’s hard for me to see how an AAUP committee could claim with a straight face that the Wagner Act justifies the report’s conclusions.

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