Kirstein on AAUP Structural Issues and N.E.I.U. Boyle Tenure Case

John Wilson, an editor of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Academe blog invited me to comment on the John Boyle tenure denial case at Northeastern Illinois University.  I attempt to use the cooperation between national and in this case the Illinois-state level Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure as a template for further joint efforts and a call to institute some structural reforms. A rather erudite comment by”professor at large” appeared that amplified the commentary on the issue of national and state conference relations. However, since I only post or link on-the-record attributions, I leave it to my dear reader to check it out on the Academe blog. This is the text of my article on the blog:

One of the unresolved structural problems within the AAUP is the relationship between State Conferences’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the national academic freedom office.

In Illinois, we have one of the more active Conference Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure in the nation. It is in Illinois where the Norman Finkelstein tenure travesty occurred. It is here where Mehrene Larudee, Namita Goswami, Loretta Capeheart and the DePaul Three were involved in nationally covered cases where academic freedom, due process and faculty autonomy were eviscerated.

The Committee A of the Illinois Conference consists of five members. Walter J. Kendall, professor of law at John Marshall Law School, Loretta Capeheart, associate professor of justice at Northeastern Illinois University, Matthew Abraham, associate professor of writing, rhetoric, and discourse at DePaul University and John Wilson, an editor of this blog and noted author. Previously we did not have the cooperation and the constructive engagement with national that would optimize the defense of faculty rights in Illinois. I have spoken and lobbied with mixed success on the great divide between the gatekeepers at national and the subaltern conferences attempting dutifully to implement the AAUP documents and suggested best practices on many recalcitrant campuses in the Land of Lincoln. Indeed, we are ground zero in the academic freedom wars in the United States.

Yet a dramatic change occurred in the John Boyle tenure case at Northeastern Illinois University. Some of my initial conversations with Hank Reichman, chair of Committee A and First Vice President of AAUP, were very productive and the key in unlocking the Gordian knot with the national office. It was also the Illinois Committee A’s initial investigation and subsequent report that contributed to the national office’s strikingly collegial and heroic engagement in this matter.

Today the AAUP has released its report, “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Northeastern Illinois University.” The report graciously cites the Illinois Conference Committee A report and efforts to protect John Boyle’s academic freedom and academic due process on several pages. Yet the individual not mentioned in its pages who deserved the most credit in this rapprochement is Associate General Secretary Jordan Kurland. It was Kurland who I met with in Washington, D.C. seeking AAUP intervention. It was Kurland who recognized that a great injustice had occurred when a linguistics professor, John Boyle, was denied tenure despite unanimous support from his department, department chair, school dean, and university personnel committee. Jordan recognized that the Illinois Conference Committee A report had raised significant violations of academic freedom and substantive due process at N.E.I.U.

It was his energy and organizational skill that led to the composition of the investigating committee under the intelligent and gifted leadership of Professor Rebecca J. Williams, University of Central Arkansas, and the path that has taken us to this moment. The Boyle case, I hope, augurs well that a new day of cooperation between national and state conferences in academic freedom and tenure cases is at hand. It creates greater resolve; it raises the spirit of those fighting for faculty rights and the preservation of freedom on our campuses. It maximizes the efficiency of the Association and, not to be provocative, challenges the increasingly corporatization of the Association as was so poignantly elucidated in Cary Nelson, No University is an Island.

Yet I do not know if this remarkable collaboration between one conference and national, as wondrous and exciting as it is, is merely an interlude or a systemic change that is revealing a new age of national-state conference cooperation in aggressively pursuing faculty persecution cases across the beleaguered academy. It is essential that AAUP develop a new appeals process when a conference construes that a national-office decision not to intervene in an academic freedom or shared governance case is inappropriate. The gatekeeper syndrome within the national academic freedom office has been long standing: in part due to staff preeminence in handling such matters, in part due to a turf war between professional staff and faculty in the hinterland and resulting from limited resources that significantly circumscribe the number of cases that can be investigated.

The current appeals procedure is broken, obsolete and risible. It appears in a seven line, three-word conclusion of a “Report of Committee A, 1978-1979.” There is no Rebook articulated procedure. It states that a state conference may notify the “general secretary” of a dispute and the “general secretary” should designate a single Committee A current or prior member to “review the matter and advise.” If for no other reason than the recent elimination of the politburo-sounding name of “general secretary” to the more prosaic “executive director,” change is necessary. Any appeals process worthy of the name should contain specific deadlines and timeframes. Justice too long delayed, is justice denied!

The responsibility and duties of the Committee A person are not defined. I am also concerned about a buddy system where an executive director could appoint someone without any input from the conference or a non-staff person. I am also concerned about the lack of presidential involvement. Since conferences consist of post-secondary faculty members in a dispute with staff, faculty should be engaged in every step of the process including a final decision whether an investigation should occur. That would be the president’s role in my opinion and not the “general secretary” to determine if an academic freedom case should be undertaken. Whatever reforms can be addressed, ideological or procedural differences between staff and the conference Committee A in various states needs to be adjudicated in a manner that is clear, thorough and impartial.

In short, the tenure-denial case of John Boyle is an egregious violation of academic freedom and basic justice. It cynically demonstrated unbridled administration power wielded in an arbitrary and relentless manner. In its conclusion, the AAUP report states: “The Northeastern Illinois University administration, in denying tenure to Assistant Professor John P. Boyle, violated principles of academic freedom as enunciated in the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and derivative Association documents.” This corroborates the Illinois Conference Report.

Today’s report affirms that the denial of tenure violated the Statement on Procedural Standards in the Renewal or Nonrenewal of Faculty Appointments. It supported our own findings that the administration arbitrarily and capriciously used collegiality as a cynical tool to deny Dr. Boyle tenure: “The administration, by questioning Professor Boyle’s collegiality in denying him tenure, disregarded the admonitions in the statement On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation.” The AAUP also found that President Sharon Hahs’s reversal of multiple units’ unanimous support of tenure was in direct contravention of the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. Specifically, “that the reasons for rejecting an affirmative faculty recommendation be ‘compelling’ and ‘stated in detail.’”

The process that led to an AAUP formal investigation of Professor Boyle’s denial of tenure is an example of how the national academic freedom office and a state conference can work in a collaborative and extremely effective manner. However, without systemic reform of the inchoate appeals process, I am afraid the joy of the moment, despite the suffering that a tenure-denial case means to the probationary-faculty member, may be transitory in which legitimate investigations and possible censures are suppressed and persecuted faculty are simply forgotten.

Peter N. Kirstein, Vice President Illinois AAUP, and Chair Illinois Conference Committee A, Professor of History, Saint Xavier University

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