c/o Twitter @MargotDWeiss

c/o Twitter @MargotDWeiss

A group of Wesleyan educators relaunched the University’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) following nearly three decades of inactivity. After agreeing to a set of bylaws in December 2021, the Wesleyan AAUP was recognized by the National AAUP in June 2022, who sent the Wesleyan Chapter charter in July 2022. This marked the official recognition of the Wesleyan Chapter of the AAUP. The group announced their official relaunch on Twitter on August 25, 2022, before holding a relaunch event on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Russell House.

The AAUP is an organization dedicated to promoting principles of equal treatment and benefits for faculty, which it does at individual universities by supporting chapters. These chapters can either be unions, or they can opt for advocacy chapters. The Wesleyan AAUP is an advocacy chapter that hopes to further the AAUP’s goals of shared governance and academic freedom. 

“The mission of the [AAUP] 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, postdoctoral 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,” the National AAUP’s mission statement reads.

The chapter’s co-presidents are Associate Professor of English and American Studies Matthew Garrett and Associate Professor of Mathematics Christopher Rasmussen; the secretary is Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology, Queer Studies, and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Margot Weiss; and the treasurer is Professor of Letters and German Studies Ulrich Plass. Other members of the executive committee include Professor of Philosophy, Science in Society, and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Lori Gruen; Associate Professor of Economics and Latin American Studies Melanie Khamis; and Associate Professor of English Lily Saint.

The Executive Committee has decided to answer [The Argus’ inquiries] collectively, in our usual spirit of collegiality and solidarity,” the Wesleyan Chapter of the AAUP wrote in an email to The Argus. “All of the Wesleyan AAUP chapter’s work is collective work…. The chapter as a whole, and the executive committee in particular, work within a horizontal and egalitarian structure.” 

The Wesleyan AAUP started organizing in October 2021, at which point only four out of over 400 Wesleyan faculty were members. Today, the Wesleyan Chapter represents roughly 25% of Wesleyan instructors. 

A Wesleyan Chapter of the AAUP has been founded twice before in response to changes within the University’s faculty over the last century, once in 1915 and once in 1974. Unlike previous incarnations of the Wesleyan Chapter, the current organization intends to focus on expanding rights and benefits for faculty, especially for non-tenure-track professors, and increasing faculty influence in University-wide decision-making processes. 

“Responding to these nation-wide trends, Wesleyan University’s advocacy chapter is campaigning to establish full contractual rights and benefits for all faculty, establish minimum pay for contingent faculty, expand the grid of tenure-track appointments, hire and retain faculty of color, close the gender pay gap, strengthen faculty responsibility for all areas of the curriculum, and secure Wesleyan’s distinctive teacher-scholar model,” the Wesleyan Chapter stated in an August press release.

In addition to these primary goals, the chapter also aims to improve working conditions for all faculty through what it calls sidequests. These include creating a Universal Syllabus Statement on masking and calling for the reinstitution of the COVID-19 dashboard and a student booster clinic

“All of that work is part of the chapter’s larger effort to reignite the habit of working together for the common good of all faculty and students, to ensure that Wesleyan is not only one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the country, but also a fair, transparent, and inclusive place of employment,” the Wesleyan Chapter wrote.

Since the start of the semester, the University has reinstated the COVID-19 dashboard and announced a student booster clinic that will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 19 in Beckham Hall.

According to the chapter’s organizers, a majority of professors at the University are not tenured. The Wesleyan Chapter seeks to improve the University’s low tenure rate—which was recently brought up in the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s meeting with President Michael Roth ’78—and extend protection to faculty with less secure employment. 

“Fewer than half of Wesleyan’s professors are tenured—a lower rate than all of our peer institutions, except for Tufts and Trinity,” the Wesleyan Chapter wrote. “The erosion of tenure protections means that an ever-larger portion of Wesleyan faculty is precariously employed.”

For many faculty, tenure represents a degree of academic and professional freedom not offered by a non-tenured position. It allows a professor the ability to research, teach on, or examine controversial subjects or topics that the University might frown on. It also offers permanence of contract, as a tenured professor can be terminated only under extraordinary circumstances.

Currently, at the University, it is nearly impossible for a professor who is not on the tenure track to get on it. As it stands, professors of the practice, visiting assistant professors, teaching fellows, artists and writers in residence, distinguished writers, and adjunct professors have almost no ability to become tenure-track professors. This process, if requested by a non-tenure-track professor’s department, would require the University to post a tenure-track position as available, fielding applicants from across the country—of which a current non-tenure-track professor could be one—and selecting them as a candidate, although this rarely occurs. 

Additionally, the University has over 400 faculty members at the moment. As of 2017, only 238 individuals were tenured or on the tenure track. Part of this issue, Roth said in the WSA meeting on Sunday, Oct. 9, has to do with the over-enrollment of the class of 2025, requiring more class sections and thus more professors.

“There are a fair number of visitors right now, more than usual because of this big class,” Roth said. “[If] we would need to add five math classes, or three economics classes, or 67 psychology classes, you can’t just run tenure-track searches in a timely way. So I think some of this is episodic.”

This pattern of adding more non-tenure-track professors expands past the University, however, as Wesleyan is one of many colleges following a nationwide trend favoring non-tenure-track faculty employment. Roth speculated that this is a more structural issue in the WSA meeting, specifically mentioning the creation of the Professor of the Practice position.

“We’ve added more tenure-track faculty in the last 15 years than I think in any other period of the University’s history since the good old rich days of the sixties,” Roth said. “We also created the Professor of the Practice position…. Last year, we made a significant adjustment to the salaries of professors of the practice…. So we raised the salaries of people—some of whom hadn’t asked for it—because they could not get a tenure-track job and/or they have other reasons to have to be in this area.”

Tenure comes with a number of benefits for faculty. Although professors of the practice were introduced as long-term faculty members, they and other non-tenure-track professors lack the academic freedom of professors with tenure. This includes the ability to choose which classes to teach and what research to conduct, without the University being able to prevent them from exploring controversial topics, such as research on the University itself.

Our One Faculty platform aims to achieve full rights and benefits for all faculty,” the Wesleyan Chapter wrote. “[Non-tenure track professors] regularly teach more classes than professors on the tenure track, while being paid considerably less, without the protection of tenure.… Decisions about contract renewal, contract length, salary, promotion, and sabbatical are determined on an ad-hoc basis by administrators. Often faculty with the same positions are paid widely different salaries.”

The Wesleyan Chapter also noted that shared governance—the idea that decision-making processes that affect the University should include faculty in addition to trustees and administrators—is what makes their relaunching so vital, as it provides a way for faculty to communicate regardless of campus divisions and varying positions. The Wesleyan Chapter includes professors from a wide variety of academic departments, including professors from all general education divisions in the executive board.

“We believe that the work of redressing the degradation of faculty labor starts on the inside, by including everyone equally in the decision-making processes that shape the university,” the Wesleyan Chapter wrote. “Faculty have primary responsibility over all educational matters, as well as hiring, reappointment, and promotion. Faculty should also have a central role in planning, budgeting, facilities, salaries, and the selection of administrators…because of our academic expertise.”

President of the National AAUP Dr. Irene Mulvey PhD ’82 noted that the Wesleyan AAUP Chapter is being reborn at a time when faculty organizing at universities is on an upward trend.

“We are seeing a remarkable uptick in faculty organizing…at all kinds of institutions—two-year, four-year, public, private—[and] unions are viewed more favorably than they have been in decades,” Mulvey said. “We’re seeing that in the AAUP too, in terms of faculty organizing so that they have a say in their employment conditions, but…it’s more than just employment conditions…. The faculty have an extremely important role to play in the shared governance of an institution.”

This is not the first time that professors at Wesleyan have established an AAUP chapter. University faculty first established a chapter in 1921, in the wake of the firing of Professor of Economics and Social Science Willard Fisher, who had taught at the University for twenty years. The stated reason for his firing was because of his suggestion, made at the “Get Together Club” in Hartford, that temporarily closing churches on Sundays would illuminate other equally valid outlets for religion. 

“[Fisher’s] dismissal underscored unanswered questions about the reach of academic freedom: Did it only concern the freedoms of research, teaching, and learning, or did it also concern the freedom to speak freely off-campus, as a private citizen?” Wesleyan AAUP writes in “The AAUP and Faculty Organizing at Wesleyan: Historical Lessons.”

The administration’s dismissal of Fisher was a catalyst for the founding of the National AAUP in the same year, which formed around the core issue that professors without tenure lack academic freedom. Wesleyan faculty established the first campus chapter in 1921 and organized around issues of tenure, standardized hiring, and control over curriculum until a lack of membership rendered the chapter inactive in the 1960s.

In 1974, the Wesleyan Chapter was re-founded, this time to address financial duress and deteriorating working conditions, similar to the current chapter. Younger faculty felt excluded from the running of the University, and University tenure rates were low.

There was also a cost-of-living crisis, made worse by cutting retirement benefits in half, despite vehement faculty opposition,” the Wesleyan Chapter wrote. “The current decline in real income [wages that increase at a rate consistent with the inflation rate], exacerbated by a pay freeze during the first year of the pandemic, is…not so dissimilar from the situation back then.”

However, the Wesleyan Chapter noted key differences in the campus political atmosphere that make organizing more difficult now.

“The level of political awareness for affairs on and off campus was much higher than now,” the Wesleyan Chapter wrote.

To illustrate this point, the chapter referenced a December 2021 faculty meeting in which the Compensation and Benefits Committee proposed a resolution calling for the administration to address the recent erosion of salaries, among other things. The resolution passed 161-1-1, but the administration still failed to address it. The chapter saw the faculty’s response to the administration’s ineffectiveness as muted compared to what it might have been in the past.

“Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, such a situation would have triggered a new faculty drive towards unionization,” the Wesleyan Chapter wrote. “The current situation requires more subtle and patient forms of activism.”

The Wesleyan Chapter’s reach impressed Mulvey, who is excited to see all the work that it will accomplish in the future.

“From the perspective of [the] National AAUP, it’s amazing what this chapter has done in a short time,” Mulvey said. “The fact that the Wesleyan faculty has gotten such high numbers of members so quickly, I don’t think it’s [going to] stop…. I think that really says something about the need for a collective faculty voice on campus and the desire for faculty to make sure they have [a] voice.”

Roth declined to comment on the AAUP.


Sam Hilton contributed reporting and can be reached at shilton@wesleyan.edu.

Elias Mansell contributed reporting and can be reached at emansell@wesleyan.edu.

Kat Struhar can be reached at kstruhar@wesleyan.edu.

Sam Hoppe can be reached at shoppe@wesleyan.edu.

Jasper Chattra can be reached at jchattra@wesleyan.edu.


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