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The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is a faculty organization independent of the University of Michigan administration working to promote shared governance of the university since its inception as a chapter on the Ann Arbor campus in 1915. In 2010, the Ann Arbor AAUP chapter at the University was dissolved due to a dwindling number of active members. But things took a turn at the Jan. 11 Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) meeting, when SACUA representative Kentaro Toyama and LSA professor June Howard proposed the reestablishment of the University’s AAUP chapter to strengthen faculty voices.

The AAUP is considered a nonprofit membership association with over 400 chapters across the country. As a national institution, the AAUP began in New York in 1915 with the primary goal of defending academic freedom for its members. The U-M Senate Assembly handbook defines “academic freedom” as having four main facets: freedom of research and publications, freedom of teaching, freedom of internal criticism and freedom of participation in public debate. 

Toyama said the reinstatement of the AAUP chapter at the University comes after increased activism from many faculty members calling for more active conversations with the University administration, particularly after community concerns over the U-M COVID-19 policies went unheard during the pandemic.

“Even today, we remain very concerned that the most vulnerable members are still not being given the flexibility that we think they deserve,” Toyama said. “We are hoping again for a model of shared governance where different perspectives will be discussed in a conversation with the administration.”

While other shared faculty governance organizations such as SACUA or the Faculty Senate Assembly exist on campus to work with administration on behalf of faculty, Toyama said the AAUP has more freedom to express perspectives the University might not always agree with because they are independent of the University. 

“The faculty senate bodies have to be somewhat careful of their relationship with the administration because it’s like they’re married, so they can’t completely destroy that relationship,” Toyama said. “The AAUP is really an independent body … In some cases, we might be willing to push on the administration further than SACUA might be willing to.” 

Valerie Traub, secretary of the Ann Arbor AAUP and professor of English and women’s and gender studies, said that another key difference between AAUP and other faculty government organizations is that AAUP is part of a national organization. Traub said being connected to the national organization is an asset to AAUP members at the University because it allows the U-M members access to resources from the larger platform.

“The AAUP being a national organization also has resources and a lot of information and expertise that we can draw on as we identify a problem (in academic freedom),” Traub says. “They tend to write statements and release them to the media, so they have a kind of national platform that (we) can use …  if we felt that our rights were being violated.” 

Jerry Sanders, a professor of biology and a current member of the AAUP chapter on the Flint campus, said that he believes that there is a lack of understanding of academic freedom in University affairs across all campuses. 

“We’ve lost an understanding of what academic freedom is,” Sanders said. “Once you lose that, you lose checks (and balances) on the administration … You don’t have oversight.”

Traub said she specifically hopes that the U-M chapter of AAUP can increase discussion about academic freedom on campus.

“A personal goal of mine would be to foster more informed and nuanced discussions of the meaning of academic freedom, because that word gets bandied around a lot,” Traub said. “We as a community have to work through what we think we mean by it, and I would look forward to our chapter being able to foster those conversations.”

The main priority for the U-M Ann Arbor AAUP chapter is the ongoing search for the next University President, Traub also said. After former University President Mark Schlissel was fired by the Board of Regents in January, Interim University President Mary Sue Coleman was offered a six-month contract. The regents hope to select the next University president over the summer. 

Toyama also said the U-M chapter of AAUP is working to ensure that the selection process is public and encourage the administration to consider perspectives from a diverse range of demographics and campus groups. The Presidential Search Committee has hosted multiple community listening sessions in recent weeks to gather community feedback, which included a focus on carbon neutrality and sexual assault accountability.  The U-M Flint and Ann Arbor chapters of AAUP emphasized this sentiment in an open letter that was sent to the Presidential Search Committee in February. 

“More and more, there’s a trend towards these searches becoming confidential, where the first time anybody hears about a candidate, the person has already been selected,” Toyama said. “This severely limits the ability of different groups on campus to interact with the candidates before a final person is chosen.”

Traub said she was dissatisfied when the University announced their selection process for choosing the next provost in November 2021 after current Provost Susan Collins announced that she would be stepping down. At the time, Schlissel appointed himself the chair of the selection committee while he was also in charge of making the final decision about which candidate would be chosen. Traub said she hopes the selection committee for the next president will comprise a group of members of the campus community to encourage input from alternative perspectives. 

“We’re also going to be pressing for broader representation of different kinds of groups of people on the search itself,” Traub said. “The more people that you have in a room making a decision, the more perspectives you have, the better the decision is going to be.”

Sanders said that similar to the AAUP at the University’s Ann Arbor campus, the AAUP chapter at U-M Flint is also starting back up again after low membership disbanded them in 2021. As of February 2022, there is again enough interest on Flint’s campus to restart its chapter, Sanders said. While they have goals specific to their own campus, members of the AAUP chapter at U-M Flint are excited to collaborate with the Ann Arbor chapter on the search for a new president. 

“I think as a campus, we should push for the finalist in the search to come to the U-M Flint campus and do a public presentation where all stakeholders can interact with them and see how they behave to evaluate them,” Sanders said. “That evaluation should have an impact on who is selected, as opposed to just being window dressing.”

Outside of the presidential search, members of both the U-M Ann Arbor and Flint AAUP chapters said they are excited to continue expanding their membership and look forward to tackling more issues that concern faculty members, including increasing collaboration among campus organizations and strengthening sexual misconduct policies.

Daily Staff Reporter Isabella Kassa can be reached at ikassa@umich.edu.