Some Thoughts on Increasing AAUP Membership

Cary Nelson

FOR THOSE AWARE of AAUP history, it is no secret that we have less than half the number of members we had in 1970. As a result, we have fewer resources to do the work we need to do and perhaps somewhat less professional and political clout. Our annual dues are also higher than they should be, at least for younger and lower-paid full-time faculty. Reduced membership has been one of the forces driving modest but steady annual dues increases.

Some argue that the decision to help chapters organize for collective bargaining offended some traditional members and led them to let their memberships lapse in the 1970s. A more likely source of membership loss at the time is among members whose campuses affiliated with major national unions; many of those faculty likely dropped their AAUP memberships once they began paying union dues. Over the last quarter century, however, our membership losses have fallen instead in two other categories--retirements and nonrenewals, the latter especially among new members who do not renew in their second year.

Through all this time the quality of our product--our publications, our position papers, our multiple defenses of academic freedom, our organizing drives--has remained very high. Our policy statements remain the gold standard in higher education, and we have impressively responded persuasively and in depth to the new issues that arise continually, from electronic communication to intellectual property rights.

The campuses that use our recommendations to articulate their own policies benefit from them immensely. Yet how widespread is knowledge of our work? One blunt way to begin answering this question is to pose a few blunt questions: How many nonmembers have read any of our recent policy statements? How many nonmembers have ever read a full Committee A report? How many nonmembers have read the 1940 statement on academic freedom and tenure? How many nonmembers have read widely in the Redbook? How many nonmembers have been aware of our recent stands on public issues? How many nonmembers read Academe regularly?

I have little doubt that the answers to all these questions would be pretty much the same: depressingly few. The truth is that detailed knowledge of our activities is limited to a subset of our members. And even members often have no idea of how the organization works or how it is structured. How many members understand the committee system and how it is used to develop policy? How many members are familiar with the state conference system? How many members could name major staff members and elected leaders?

We work for the whole profession, yet most faculty have no real idea what we do, beyond vague awareness that we censure a limited number of institutions. There is a simple way of summarizing this: we are very good at everything except communicating with our constituency, the professoriate. The quality of our efforts to communicate--most notably in Academe and Footnotes--is very high, but their effectiveness at informing nonmember faculty falls far short of what is needed.

The impact that failed communication has on new and potential members is frankly catastrophic. Every time we try to recruit a new member we are approaching someone who most likely has no idea who we are and what we do. If we succeed in getting a person to join, he or she will most likely feel after a year that the enthusiastic experience of recruitment has not been adequately reinforced. Unless the local chapter is very active, when a new member is faced with a private decision to write a renewal check it may not feel like much of a priority. Worse still, other voluntary professional organizations often do a much better job of staying in regular contact with members and providing them with easy ways of participating in activities. The example of is striking by comparison, as many AAUP members have noted. But even disciplinary organizations frequently communicate with all members by email, something which we still are unable to do.

It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that successfully informing the entire professoriate about who we are and what we do would go a long way toward building a solid base of potential members. I believe that knowledge would have to be transmitted gradually and regularly supplemented and reinforced. Doing this by mail would be impossibly expensive. As I have suggested before, it could be done by email.

Chapters and state conferences could take responsibility for building email trees, since most faculty can communicate by email with either their department or with the entire campus faculty. It would give both chapters and conferences obvious benefit by reinforcing the value of national membership and giving them a way to communicate with all campus faculty. Most locals already communicate with AAUP members by email, but this would establish a campus-wide network. The national office would thus maintain not the entire network but only the first level of the tree, which might consist of one person on each campus, a potential email list of no more than 3,000. Local chapters would have to maintain the next-to-last level--the people distributing the message. But the final distribution list is typically maintained by college or university staff.

I have in mind sending perhaps two emails per month, not enough to make people feel burdened, but enough over a year and a half to make people far better informed about our history and current projects. Some emails would alert people to pending congressional action--as we already do--and invite their input. Other emails would give people links to classic AAUP Redbook entries and Committee A reports. In all cases the email itself would be limited to a one-screen summary, with a link to a longer document as appropriate. Not everyone would read these emails, but thousands of people would. Some would read them irregularly. Sitting down to read a full issue of a magazine is a more serious commitment than reading a one-screen email. We need to provide both if we are to succeed.

The national office staff would maintain a complete email list for members, who should receive an additional two emails per month, meaning that members would receive a total of 4 emails a month. The new Academe editor would like to be in contact with members between issues by email--a great idea--which this would make possible. It is not acceptable for the AAUP to be the only major professional organization that cannot function this way.

My own recommendation is that emails to nonmembers be limited to one clear topic only. That seems the best way to get a message across. The aim, after all, is to conduct a major national educational project. Members, on the other hand, could receive emails with several topics.

Recruiting more members also means being more realistic about what less active chapters are likely to do. I have urged before--and the Executive Committee has endorsed--exploration of the possibility of producing a recruitment film to be distributed on a DVD. The film would have three linked purposes: to help educate faculty about the AAUP by reinforcing, supplementing, and synthesizing the messages sent out on the email network; to prepare faculty to recruit members on their own campus; and to serve as a direct recruitment device when watched by individuals or shown to groups. A good quality home digital DVD camera will now produce first-rate image and sound quality with either natural or indoor lighting. Bulky cameras and professional sound and lighting equipment are no longer necessary. Professional editing is required, and that cost is significant, but I believe the DVD would pay for itself through new member dues. Produced in quantity, a single DVD costs less than a dollar.

The great advantage of a DVD is that people just have to plug it in and watch. We have produced terrific recruitment brochures, but they obviously have to be brief, since an effort to read them is still required. A 40-minute DVD can include interesting visuals, live testimony from faculty and local chapters we have helped--like those we've heard at annual meetings--and special segments designed for different types of campuses--small liberal arts colleges, CB chapters, and large research universities. WMU already has its own recruitment DVD. Surely the national can produce one. We would give the DVD away to new faculty members, but perhaps only after asking each of them whether they would agree to watch it.

In many cases a visit or call from a local member would still be required to close the deal, but the job would a lot easier if that colleague had been exposed to both the informational emails and the DVD. But membership mailings would also be more effective in the wake of these new techniques. The reality is that recruitment needs to be partially automated. And then the experience of membership needs to be deepened and reinforced. There is no question that an active local chapter can turn membership around on its own, but we cannot rely on that technique alone to rebuild and sustain membership, especially at large campuses.

It is often said that the more careerist and disciplinary oriented professoriate of the last few decades--the very period in which our membership has declined--is less likely to join an organization based on principles and ideals, rather than personal benefit. Yet there are many hundreds of ACLU members in the Champaign-Urbana area where I live. What's more, every membership drive at the campuses I know best--large midwestern universities--has found faculty more than willing to join the AAUP on the basis of an idealistic appeal. While faculty are self-interested, they are also susceptible to appeals based on principle. There is a core of belief and idealism in the professoriate that can be reached. But we must adapt to changing technology and be realistic about attention spans if we are to tap into it.

Time, however, is short. The large number of ongoing faculty retirements is an increasing threat to our numbers. Yet a significant number of new faculty are being hired to replace them. The time to reach out to these new faculty is now, not after they have become set in their ways. The next few years thus presents a real opportunity for membership recruitment. If we do not take advantage of it, we will be weaker than we are. If we do take advantage of it we can grow stronger. I believe we can succeed if the leadership and the staff can reach consensus and move forward.

The Assembly of State Conferences and the Collective Bargaining Congress have already begun to consider this proposal. The national staff has made several suggestions. I welcome additional comments and suggestions from all our members.