Faculty Representation at Whitman: The AAUP

Chris Hankin, News Editor

Whitman’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors is steeped in history. The national organization was founded in 1915, and within a year, Whitman became one of the first institutions of higher education to create a local organization. Revitalized under new leadership in the fall of 2016, the chapter works to advocate for faculty in multiple arenas. Their work has become especially pertinent as Whitman struggles through a series of complex institutional issues, such as changes in the student to faculty ratio. The history of the AAUP at Whitman offers a window into the trials and tribulations of higher education nationally throughout the 20th century.

The national purpose of the AAUP, as cited in their mission statement, is to “advance academic freedom and shared governance; to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education; to promote the economic security of faculty, academic professionals, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and all those engaged in teaching and research in higher education; to help the higher education community organize to make our goals a reality; and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good.”

Chapter Secretary-Treasurer and Baker Ferguson Chair of Politics and Leadership Timothy Kaufman-Osborn has assembled a thorough history of the chapter’s work. In it, he describes Whitman’s “Tenure War” during the late 1940s and early 1950s, which culminated in the College’s current Tenure policy. The Chapter is also credited with fighting for academic freedom and shared governance, and advocating on behalf of faculty for issues like sabbatical and parental leave.

Sixty years after its founding, however, the Chapter dissipated. The last mention of chapter activity came November 6, 1978. Between 1978 and 2016 no meetings were held. All this changed on March 10, 2016. One-hundred years after its initial creation, Whitman’s chapter reconvened for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Chair of the Astronomy Department and AAUP Chapter President Andrea Dobson was an AAUP member at large before the reconstitution of the Chapter in 2016. “Part of the reason that I accepted the position of president is the same as why I was chair of the faculty and I was chair of our division. I think that it matters that faculty participate in the shared governance of the institution,” said Dobson.

Dobson explained the Whitman Chapter’s goals. “To defend and promote academic freedom, shared governance, and economic security [for faculty members]. [The AAUP] advocates for an improved faculty governance structure and try to get more faculty involved in our meetings.”

The reasons behind the Chapter dissipating in 1978 are murky, but Dobson thinks that part of the explanation may lie in the changing value of Higher Education. “Higher education was not under attack [in 1978] or seen as somehow the enemy. Higher education was, I think, at that time more valued nationally.” Though the mission of the AAUP is still broadly respected across institutions of Higher Education, the shifting local and national context influenced Whitman’s AAUP Chapter.

In the wake of the 2016 election, the Chapter’s resurgence can be seen as a response to both local and national trends. Paul Garrett, Professor of Politics and AAUP Chapter Vice President, Shampa Biswas expanded on some of the local motivations.

“I think two moments that have been really important for me personally were the decision to put the Global Studies Program on suspension … as well as the more recent [decision] to move to a ten-to-one student to faculty ratio over a fixed time period,” Biswas said.

She continued, “Those were both important moments that definitely fortify my sense of why having an AAUP chapter at a place like this is really important in order to advocate for faculty governance … both [of those] decisions were made with little to no faculty consultation.”

These instances help to shed light on more gradual changes in higher education at Whitman and across the country. “There is good reason to believe that shared governance is also undergoing significant challenges at this moment in time,” Kaufman-Osborn said.

“Perhaps the most significant [challenge] is the wholesale conversion of tenure-track faculty positions to contingent appointments, especially part-time, over the course of the past half century … Absent the freedom from retaliation that attends tenure, with good reason, faculty members are far less likely to insist on their role in institutional governance, especially when that involves criticizing senior administrators and/or governing board members. Given this national context, and given that there is no reason to think that Whitman is entirely insulated from that context, we concluded that it was time to refound the chapter.”

For Kaufman-Osborn, protecting shared governance as well as academic freedom are the seminal responsibilities of the AAUP. “Here’s a good way to think about the purpose of the AAUP: The mission of higher education is to teach students and to advance the frontiers of knowledge. The AAUP is defined by its commitment to certain principles that are essential to the capacity of higher education to fulfill that mission.”