Saturday, November 15, 2008

An Open Letter to Cary Nelson, AAUP President

"Cary Nelson, AAUP President" writes:
We invite you to join nearly 48,000 faculty colleagues in the AAUP—with a special introductory rate for new members.

Dear Cary,

I appreciate your invitation to join the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization with a long and useful history within academia. I have also appreciated your own work over many years and have gotten a lot out of your book Manifesto of a Tenured Radical. However, it is hard to get excited about joining the AAUP right now when you, as its president, recently made a public attack against me and the other idealistic and progressive faculty members working at Antioch University.

As I said in my recent response to your public attack on Antioch University in your September commentary on the website of Teachers College Record, I very much understand and share your heartbreak at the suspension of operations at Antioch College, a remarkable liberal arts college that has been struggling to stay afloat financially in the face of declining enrollments for over two decades--even with the help of annual subsidies from the five adult education campuses around the country that make up the rest of Antioch University. You are right that Antioch College has long represented something rare and precious within US higher education. Everything you say about Antioch College's "long-standing commitment to promoting social justice" and "educating students to be critical participants in a democracy" is true. You and I see absolutely eye-to-eye on this.

Like you, my own commitment to the ideals of Antioch College is also deeply personal. While I was not able to attend Antioch College as you did, my father, uncle, and many dear family friends all graduated from Antioch College and all of them have told me stories about their amazing time at the College. I was even accepted to go to Antioch College back in 1973--a plan that was only interrupted by my becoming a teenage dad and needing to go to work to support my new family. However, I have loved the vision, history, and innovative accomplishments of this groundbreaking institution of higher learning since I was in my early teens and first visited the campus with my dad.

You should know that it was therefore incredibly meaningful to me when, back in 1993, I was in a position to be accepted into the master's program in Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England's campus in Keene, New Hampshire. This life changing educational opportunity was only possible for me because of Antioch New England's special non-BA admissions process that recognized that not everyone with academic potential has had the privilege to attend a four-year undergraduate program. For them, the combination of my two years of printing trade school, my many years of volunteer activist work and being a trade union shop steward, as well as my recent paid work as an editor at South End Press warranted offering me the chance to go to graduate school. I seized this rare educational opportunity with gratitude and ran with it.

It was at Antioch New England that I completed an individualized environmental studies master's program in "Green Economics and Environmental Activism." It was here that I went on to complete my doctorate in environmental studies by creating a curriculum action research project to design a professional graduate program focused on educating environmental activists in an era of corporate globalization. The administration and faculty of Antioch New England then let me create this program--the only one of its kind in the nation--at their campus. For the last six years, I've had the good fortune to direct Antioch New England's Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program--a dynamic, but controversial program where we educate talented people seeking to become more effective public interest advocates and grassroots organizers working on issues of environmental sustainability, social justice, and the democratic control of corporations.

You can probably understand then why I was astonished to read your many unsupported and unfounded accusations against the five remaining campuses of Antioch University--that we do not "possess anything resembling traditional academic freedom," that we do not share Antioch College's mission "to produce informed and critical citizens who are ready to take up the struggle to make a better world," and that we "are effectively versions of the University of Phoenix." I think you owe me and the other faculty members at Antioch University an apology before you invite us to join the AAUP.

On the back of my business card, just like the other staff and faculty at Antioch New England, is the statement that our innovative graduate and certificate programs "reflect our dedication to activism, social justice, community service, and sustainability." Does this sound like the University of Phoenix to you? Similarly, every single academic department at Antioch New England has discussed and endorsed the Earth Charter, which calls all of us as faculty to support, respect, and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, grassroots democracy, nonviolent action, and a peaceful foreign policy. Is this also true at the University of Phoenix?

Your public criticism of Antioch University's graduate campuses also ignores the quality and idealism of our students. For example, just this semester, Antioch New England students joined thousands of student organizers across the country and launched a campus Power Vote pledge campaign. Power Vote is a nonpartisan, voter education campaign sponsored by the Energy Action Coalition, which pushes an agenda supporting climate protection, alternative energy, a massive green jobs program to lift people out of poverty, and an end to US resource wars for oil. This student effort at Antioch New England was heartily endorsed by David Caruso, the President of Antioch New England, and unanimously endorsed by our Faculty Senate. Today, Antioch New England is listed among the top five student pledge-getters in Power Vote's entire national effort (by percent of school size). I also just checked the Power Vote website and there is not a single record of any students at the University of Phoenix organizing a Power Vote campaign among their students, faculty, and staff.

Anyway, I do understand that you are emotionally upset and justifiably heartbroken about the suspension of operations at Antioch College. I share many of your concerns and feelings about that. Yet, particularly because of your position as the head of the American Association of University Professors, I hope in the future that you will refrain from taking out your frustrations on the idealistic and hardworking faculty, students, and staff at the five Antioch University campuses that are still alive and kicking--and working against the tide to embody a meaningful and viable approach to progressive higher education in the 21st century.

Good organizing practice would suggest that you shouldn't publicly insult and disparage the people you are trying to recruit into your organization. Anyway, I wanted to let you know why I am reluctant to join your organization under the current circumstances. I currently doubt that you could fairly represent my interests as a progressive educator working within the contested terrain of American higher education.

All my best,
Steve Chase


At 3:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that Nelson's full commentary is not available for review to place his quoted criticisms in context. It would be informative to see Nelson's full Teachers College Record piece so hopefully you can post that soon.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger STEVE CHASE said...

Unfortunately, I don't have the rights to do that. However, anyone can sign up for free to have full access to the Teachers College Record website.



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