CARY NELSON

REFLECTIONS ON CARY NELSON'S AAUP PRESIDENCY

Marc Bousquet, “On This Rock,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 6, 2012.

Cary Nelson completes his third consecutive term as AAUP president next week. No one serving in that role has accomplished so much with so little against a mountain of obstacles that would have sent
weaker personalities scurrying back to their carrels and laboratory benches. During his tenure, he
averted near-certain financial collapse, calmed near-annual rebellions from the union affiliates, appeased traditionalists, weathered the unionization of the staff, oversaw the departure of two general secretaries, rode out nearly-continuous irrational litigation, renovated an appallingly dysfunctional membership
operation, herded the cats of Committee A, and brought communications to the very brink of modernization.

He never gave up on his efforts to refashion the organization into an institution that could recruit and
retain graduate students and the majority of faculty without tenure. Because of him, most graduate students and nontenurable faculty pay dues of less than $5 a month.

He embodied stability in a period of volcanic upheaval. At the helm of an organization buffeted by affliction on a Biblical scale, he essentially did the work of a high-performing university president earning a million a year. Nelson’s paycheck? Zilch. That should tell us something. Like a mad prophet, Nelson contributed six years of 80-hour weeks solely for the irrational reward of serving the profession to which, like so many
of us, he’s devoted his life. And that doesn’t count the thousands of hours contributed in advance of the presidency.

You literally cannot buy that kind of service. You have to nurture the conditions of its possibility.

As has been frequently observed, he donated this time costumed as a modern-day professorial version of an Old Testament prophet—beard, hair, and baggy trousers blowing in the wind, tent-like jacket flapping over a shirt sewn from some kind of 18th-century trading cloth. That should tell us something too. That costume—Jerry Garcia at the seminar table, the last free-range academic—stands for a whole spectrum
of our collective freedoms under fire.

With his bodily mass and equally outsized character, Nelson often surprised new acquaintances with his gentle personal presence. Charismatic, generous, sane, and cool even when personally attacked, it sometimes seemed over the past several years that he held AAUP together almost single-handedly.

Whether it was the “right” wing of traditionalist opposition led by perennial opponent Tom Guild or the “left” wing represented by the constant chafing at the bit of the big-state union constituencies, Nelson kept intramural rivalries from tearing the organization apart under almost unimaginable stresses.

If you’re wondering how to honor Nelson for his decades of service to the profession, I can tell you on good authority what would make him most happy. Join AAUP. (I think I mentioned the part about $5 a
month.)

Put on your loudest shirt and join the battle to re-create the professional conditions that inspire folks like Nelson to work overtime for decades at bartenders’ wages. Every year, hundreds of appeals for help come to AAUP chapters and the national office. Every year, that number rises. Against a rising tide of managerialism, unfreedom, and credential-mongering stands Cary Nelson. And you, if you care to join.

Michael Bérubé, “Cary Nelson: An Appreciation,” Academe, September-October 2012.

I was elected to the national Council of the AAUP in 2005, just as Cary Nelson was running for the presidency. My first year on the Council was intensely dismaying. Academic freedom was under threat,
the culture wars had been reheated in the aftermath of September 11, and David Horowitz was urging state legislatures to pass his “Academic Bill of Rights” to combat what he considered leftist indoctrination
in the classroom. Tenure was being eroded by the overuse and exploitation of faculty hired off the tenure track. But the Council wasn’t talking about academic freedom or the mission of the AAUP more generally. It was arguing about redrawing its ten voting districts. It was about to start arguing about the restructuring
of the Association as a whole. And it was totally unaware that the Association was on the brink of financial collapse after years of severe mismanagement.

Cary Nelson inherited a hell of a mess. No sooner did he take office than he found himself meeting with other elected officers and senior staff, desperately trying to find a way to keep the AAUP in business—and doing so amid a barrage of criticism, much of it coming from people who were ignorant of the gravity of the moment. It was a most vexing situation, more than enough to try the patience of the saintliest among us.

Now, I am under no illusions about Cary’s management style. He has never been mistaken for a saint; he
is not known for his diplomatic skills, and he rarely fails to trumpet his disdain for the assortment of fools, knaves, and sociopaths who make academic politics so distinctly unpleasant. But make no mistake: during his presidency, Cary worked doggedly, tirelessly, selflessly, and brilliantly to save the AAUP from disaster.

Cary’s accomplishments are many. He modernized the Association’s communications, insisting that we could gather hundreds of thousands of faculty e-mail addresses and use them to inform both members
and nonmembers of our doings; he oversaw our overdue restructuring; he worked together with new
staff members in the finance and membership departments, as well as with his fellow officers, to bring the Association back to financial health; he founded the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom; he transformed the annual meeting from a meandering snoozefest into an exciting conference with real intellectual substance; he proposed and oversaw the restructuring of the AAUP’s byzantine dues system and successfully urged the Council to approve a new, progressive dues structure; and he somehow managed to stump for an expansion of non-collective-bargaining “advocacy” chapters while leading the fight for collective bargaining rights for all faculty members and graduate students. It was amazing to be a part of Cary’s six-year presidency, even though the role I played in it was very small. I have never seen anyone run any organization with a greater sense of mission, or seen anyone hold to that mission despite such strenuous opposition.

What Cary accomplished as AAUP president is extraordinary—and unprecedented. (One hopes that no president will ever have to rack up similar accomplishments again; saving the Association from collapse really should be a onetime affair.) And along the way, to my astonishment, I even saw Cary practice diplomacy—as when he deftly handled my innocent question about the cancellation of a controversial conference while sitting at the same table as the person who had made the conference controversial in
the first place. He was precisely the right guy in the right place at the right time, and I can only hope that
the Association will always be led by people who know enough to be grateful for Cary’s work.