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 AAUP’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 AAUP 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 AAUP.
“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 AAUP’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 AAUP 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 AAUP’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 AAUP 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 AAUP matters “They don’t even need to say it. They just need to think it and then not issue a contract next year.”
SAAUP’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, AAUP publicly shames institutions it believes violate the guidelines.
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 AAUP 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 AAUP 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 AAUP 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 AAUP’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 AAUP 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 AAUP. 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 AAUP’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 AAUP 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 AAUP 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 AAUP, 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 discipline.”
And Benjamin said anyone who had produced 25 books, as Nelson has, “has to have some discipline.”