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In the Line of Duty

The outgoing president of the American Association of University
Professors, Dr. Jane Buck, weighs in on the importance of tenure,
shared governance at Black colleges and the future of AAUP.

By Patricia Valdata

Dr. Jane Buck
Title: Outgoing President, American Association of University Professors
Professional: Professor of Psychology, Delaware State University, 1969-1998
Education: B.A., Political Science; M.A., Economics; M.Ed., Educational Psychology; Ph.D., Behavioral Sciences — University of Delaware

Dr. Jane Buck, who spent almost her entire career teaching psychology at Delaware State University, the only historically Black college in Delaware, is the outgoing president of the American Association of University Professors.

Growing up in a family of civil rights activists in Reading, Pa., it seems appropriate that Buck conclude her presidency with a show of civic disobedience. In April, she and incoming AAUP President Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, were arrested after demonstrating in support of striking graduate assistants at New York University. Buck and Nelson, along with 55 graduate and undergraduate students from the university, spent several hours in jail.

In a recent conversation with Diverse, Buck reflects on her teaching career and on leaving the office she has held for six years.

DI: You spent your career at Delaware State University. What led you to an HBCU?
JB: Leroy Allen, former president of Cheyney [State University], when I was working on my Ph.D. said, “You know, Jane, I think you’d be great at Del State. I think you would be good for each other.” Well, I may be embellishing this a little, but this is what I remember about it. He said, “You put on your best interview dress and you get in your car and you drive to Dover and you introduce yourself to the president and say, “‘Here I am, I’m available.’” And I said, “I can’t do that,” and this part I do remember as being absolutely one of those flash-bulb memories: He said, “Jane, do you trust me?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I was president of a historically Black institution. I know what I’m talking about. Do what I tell you.” So I put on my best interview dress, I got in my ancient car and I drove to Dover and I talked to the secretary and said, “I’d like to talk to the president.”

DI: When did you get actively involved with AAUP?
JB: A very important part of my career was collective bargaining. I had a member of the board of trustees tell me privately that it was very difficult to deal with the collective bargaining thrust because they were used to being so involved in the management of the institution that they would come in and count the bed linens in the dormitories! The board of trustees unilaterally, without notice, changed the rules for promotion and tenure. And that’s the point at which we decided to try to organize. We were certified for collective bargaining in 1977 by the state labor relations board. The vote for bargaining was better than 2 to 1. The administration refused to bargain with us for two years, so we didn’t start to bargain until 1979. Our first contract was effective in 1980.

DI: The AAUP has censured a lot of HBCUs. What are the factors involved?
JB: I’m not sure how to quantify “a lot.” I guess relative to their numbers it does seem like a lot. There’s a tradition of rather authoritarian administrations at the HBCUs. Given the history of the HBCUs, [that] they were essentially founded for the express purpose of segregation, they have been historically under the gun.

DI: You talked about those issues when you became president of AAUP. Has the situation at HBCUs improved during your presidency, or have things gotten worse?
JB: I think things are worse. One of the major issues, and one that I know Cary Nelson will continue and perhaps be even more militant than I, is the issue of contingent faculty, both part-time and full-time.

DI: What are your hopes or fears for the future of AAUP? Do you see any threats to the organization or its work?
JB: I think there are two major threats, and I think they’re overlapping. And that’s the corporatization — the influence of large companies — and contingent academic labor. I bought into the notion initially that the primary driving force behind this phenomenon was financial. I’m more and more convinced that it has less to do with money than with power. Because contingent labor is powerless.

DI: What has been the reaction to your and Cary’s arrest?
JB: We’ve been getting virtually nothing but incredibly positive feedback from former members and new members. One young graduate student who has been critical of our behavior in the past said he’s never been prouder of being a member. I’ve had congratulations from as far away as Hungary. The very, very few negative comments, from what I gather, are from people outside of academe.

DI: Some institutions have come up with alternatives to tenure tracks that are supposedly equal in value. What do you think of that?
JB: Unprintable! Most of the ones that I’m familiar with are ways of circumventing tenure. I can imagine, and perhaps they exist, systems where it really is tenure by another name. Tenure is absolutely essential to academia. There can be no academic freedom without tenure. If you don’t have tenure, you’re vulnerable to being fired for what you say. Without tenure, you know what happens? You’re vulnerable to the opinions of hormonally challenged 18-year-olds who aren’t stupid, who know, “Give me an A, or I’ll give you a bad evaluation.”

DI: What do you say to the argument that once professors get tenure they stop working so hard?
JB: Oh, that’s [expletive]. You can quote me on that. That is one of those ridiculous canards. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but for every professor you can name who stopped working, I can name many who are more productive because they’re now free to pursue their research interest; they’re not worrying about student evaluations and they’re now free to give their best.

DI: What are your hopes for Cary Nelson’s presidency?
JB: I hope he will be able to increase membership. I hope he can raise a significant amount of money for us, and I think he can. He has a reputation as a scholar that will stand him in very good stead. And I think he will continue the spirit of activism. He’s very inventive; he has a way of looking at problems from a few degrees away from the typical viewpoint. He’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I think he’s the best possible person to be AAUP president for this era.

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