When the Administration Takes Over the Departments

New Jersey’s Kean University is planning to institute a controversial new academic structure. The university has presented a draft proposal , its second, to replace the traditional arrangement of academic departments with schools headed by “executive directors” appointed by the president. Initiatives to eliminate such departments as philosophy and social work are already in the hopper, “but this plan would kill even large departments like English and biology, dividing faculty members into new organizational structures they played no role in creating.”
Not surprisingly, Kean’s proposal is sending shock waves through the faculty at Kean and elsewhere. It constitutes a serious challenge to long-standing notions of academic freedom and university life. Among other things, academic freedom entails a significant degree of shared faculty governance, which includes some meaningful say over the organization of teaching and curriculum matters. Kean’s proposal “will allow the upper administration to exert increased control over faculty work lives,” said physics professor James Castiglione, who is also the president of the Kean Federation of Teachers. “That’s what this whole thing is about. This whole thing is about control.”
Defenders maintain that the reform is necessary to save money, but debate rages over the financial consequences of the plan and the costs of reorganization. While cutting 38 department chair positions will save money, the plan also calls for creating eighteen “executive directors” to oversee the new arrangement. Faculty leaders contest the university’s broader claims regarding its financial situation, while university officials stress that the university anticipates a $17.7 million deficit next year. “To suggest that Kean University, for whatever motive, is somehow immune from New Jersey’s severe budget crisis is irresponsible and not in line with economic reality,” a university spokesman told Inside Higher Ed.
Few of us are in a position to determine the truth regarding Kean University’s financial straits. That said, the very existence of the case reflects fundamental changes in the political and economic environment of higher education that are well worth considering. Universities are facing perhaps unprecedented financial pressures in the brave new world of mountainous debt, and something must give. But is the reshaping of higher education a promising step or an occasion to mournfully sing “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie?”

Though the post-World War II golden age of higher education began to erode in the later 1960s and the 1970s, it was revived somewhat during the economic booms of the 1990s and earlier 2000s, as private sources of money replaced depleted state funds. But now the golden goose is on life support. New Jersey and many other states represent American versions of latter-day Greece. Like the country that gave birth to the Western intellectual tradition, these high-tax states are deeply in debt, and have no choice but to get their fiscal houses in order. In the domains of primary and secondary education, for example, school districts throughout New Jersey lost big in recent referenda that asked taxpayers for more money. And other programs quiver under Damocles’ budget sword.
Those disposed to believe that we can continue to live by the standards of the Golden Age should read the seminal work by Carmen N. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, This Time Is Different: A Panoramic View of Eight Centuries of Financial Crisis. Every society that has besotted itself with outsized debt burdens over the past eight centuries has had to pay the piper with serious financial reform, and there is no reason to believe that our era is different.
State and private institutions of higher learning are responding to the decline of state and private support by raising tuition and various student fees. These measures have helped to sustain the conditions that supported the traditional model of university structure. But universities are now running into the wall of the new world of debt, of which student debt stands out as a poster case example. The Wall Street Journal reported in September 4 2009 that student debt increased 25% during the 2008-09 academic year alone—the largest increase on record. Students are borrowing dramatically more to pay for college, accelerating a trend that has wide-ranging implications for a generation of young people,” the reporter wrote. (“Students Borrow More than Ever for College: Heavy Debt Loads Mean Many Young People Can’t Live Life They Expected.”)
As higher education’s costs continue to head northward (regularly exceeding the rate of inflation), the sources of income—public and private—have declined. Other institutions in American society have had to make painful adjustments to forces of economics (that dismal science) stemming from globalization and the Age of Debt. We have already seen the closure of such institutions as Antioch College, which had priced itself out of viability. In the new era, higher education finds itself competing with other institutions for dollars in a game that is becoming increasingly zero-sum.
In his recent book, No University Is an Island, Carey Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, depicts the negative effects this process is having on the climate of higher education, which is growing increasingly demoralized. To prosper intellectually, higher education requires a culture of thoughtfulness and intellectual individualism that is not always compatible with market forces and corporate bureaucratization.
Despite its flaws, departmental autonomy is one structural devise that helps to preserve the intellectual independence of faculty from external administrative pressure. (To be sure, the rise of political correctness among faculty members has already damaged intellectual individualism from a different direction.) But the viability of such a culture and structure is increasingly challenged by the market and economic forces that are reshaping our world.
Nelson traced the entrenchment of two tiers of academic appointment: the tenure track for the fortunate academic few, juxtaposed with adjunct status for the growing number of pedagogical aspirants who enjoy considerably less pay, benefits, and job protection. The politics at Kean University could foreshadow a similar splintering of universities into two types of administrative structure. More “elite” institutions will no doubt strive to hang onto the traditional arrangement centered on departments that enjoy meaningful measures of autonomy, while other institutions could succumb to the types of arrangements proffered at Kean. Traditional education reflecting the pedagogy of the Golden Age will remain available to those who can afford it, while the rest of us might have to settle for the new model. One thinks of a wealthy neighborhood in a Rust Belt town surrounded by increasingly impoverished areas.
Critics of higher education might cheer the decline of traditional academic privilege. (And the denizens of higher education have way too often given their critics the rope with which to hang themselves.) But there are also reasons to mourn the decline of the special place that higher education carved for itself, a place that in many ways reflected the American power and influence of an increasingly bygone era.
The ultimate question, of course, is the impact of such change on students. The answer is blowing in the wind. Some maintain that faculty members can still disseminate the necessary knowledge and information regardless of the culture of higher education. Others counter that education involves more than this, that a culture of faculty and departmental independence fosters a more intellectual environment that enhances the educational experience. We appear about to put these competing theories to a test.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

One thought on “When the Administration Takes Over the Departments”

  1. When I was a college student, I noticed a distinct lack of consistency between the academic departments from which I took classes. I thought departmental structure and autonomy were more for the faculty than the students. In fact, students were not the priority. We were just furniture in the classrooms. I hope that this model at Kean works better.

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