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Faculty Form AAUP Chapter, Decry ‘Structural Problems’ in Harvard’s Governance

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A group of Harvard faculty formed a chapter of the American Association of University Professors on Wednesday, the latest move by professors to organize in support of shared goals following a year of heightened faculty activism at the University.

The chapter’s creation comes after a year of student protest, leadership turnover, and political pressure forced Harvard’s leaders to make consequential choices — whose outcomes left many faculty feeling shut out of the University’s decision-making process. In response, faculty have informally lobbied top administrators and pushed for a greater formal role in governance.

The AAUP — which has more than 500 local chapters — includes faculty, lecturers, researchers, and graduate students. Although Harvard’s chapter is not a collective bargaining unit, the AAUP is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and advocates for scholars’ labor interests.

History professor Kirsten A. Weld, one of the chapter’s co-presidents, wrote in an email that the “interconnected crises of this past academic year” demonstrated a need to reconsider the University’s governance practices.

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“These crises threw into sharp relief some major structural problems with how our university is run: the unaccountability and secrecy of its governing boards, the absence of meaningful faculty governance, a growing mutual mistrust between faculty and administrators, the contested role of donors in shaping university policy,” Weld wrote.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment for this article.

The newly-formed AAUP chapter will join a crowded landscape of faculty groups seeking to leverage their influence with University leadership.

Both Weld and Harvard Law School professor Ryan D. Doerfler, the other chapter co-president, are helping lead the effort to establish a University-wide faculty senate, which recently gained the backing of three Harvard faculties. And the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, launched last year, has lobbied members of the Harvard Corporation and penned op-eds in support of academic freedom and a policy of institutional neutrality.

Meanwhile, members of the FAS squared off with the University’s leaders in May when the faculty voted to add 13 seniors — who had been blocked from graduating because of their participation in the pro-Palestine Harvard Yard encampment — back onto the list of recommended degree recipients.

The FAS vote was overturned by the Corporation in a last-minute reversal, a striking rebuke on a matter where the faculty’s recommendations usually go uncontested. In a press release announcing its formation, the Harvard AAUP chapter slammed the decision as overreach.

“Any commitment to shared governance has been mostly abandoned, with members of the Harvard Corporation substituting their judgment for that of the faculty on core academic issues,” the press release read.

The AAUP chapter will be governed by a six-member executive committee, helmed by the two co-presidents. History and African and African American Studies professor Walter Johnson, who formerly served as the faculty advisor to the Palestine Solidarity Committee, will be the chapter’s vice president.

Currently, the chapter’s leadership consists of some of the most outspoken progressive voices on Harvard’s faculty, including Johnson, Weld, and Harvard Law School professor Nikolas E. Bowie — many of whom have spoken in support of pro-Palestine student protesters and their right to speech. In their press release, the AAUP praised student protesters’ “courage” during the encampment as a step toward “collective governance on campus.”

But Doerfler wrote in an email that, as Harvard’s AAUP chapter gears up for a membership drive, the group aims to “recruit and organize faculty broadly” rather than “expressing the views of a handful of like minded individuals.”

“Harvard-AAUP needs to grow and build credibility among educators on campus before it can speak effectively on their behalf on contentious issues,” he added.

The AAUP chapter also comes on the heels of a watershed moment for campus labor organizing — and it will join a busy union scene. Harvard’s graduate students voted to unionize in 2020; since then, the HGSU-UAW has negotiated two contracts with the University. In April, Harvard’s non-tenure-track faculty voted to unionize as well.

“We very much look forward to communicating and working with the union locals representing graduate workers and other non-tenure-track faculty, whose members are welcome and encouraged to participate in the AAUP chapter,” Weld wrote.

Elsewhere, AAUP chapters have placed pressure on university administrators over their handling of political scrutiny and student protests. Columbia University’ s AAUP chapter condemned its president, Nemat T. “Minouche” Shafik, for her crackdown on pro-Palestine protesters.

The group also criticized her performance at a congressional hearing in April, where she signaled she would be willing to remove a professor from an administrative post over a controversial pro-Palestine article he wrote.

After Shafik authorized a police sweep of a building occupied by student protesters, Columbia’s AAUP chapter called for a vote of no confidence in Shafik. Less than two weeks later, Columbia’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a no-confidence resolution that was introduced by members of the AAUP chapter’s executive committee.

In the press release, the Harvard AAUP’s founders described the group’s formation as a response to attacks on higher education by “donors, politicians, and provocateurs.”

As examples, the press release cited book bans, laws restricting the teaching of controversial material, and “disingenuous meddling by Congressional subcommittees” — a reference to the ongoing congressional investigation of Harvard over its handling of campus antisemitism.

“If it was once possible to imagine Harvard as being relatively insulated from such dynamics, it is no longer,” the press release read.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15

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