Why ACTA Is Needed

In a perfect world, the two most important organizations in higher education would have no need to exist. Since colleges and universities would respect academic freedom and the First Amendment rather than attempt to suppress unpleasant speech, FIRE could shut its doors. And since the professoriate would feature an impressive array of pedagogical and ideological diversity rather than operating amidst the stultifying effects of groupthink, trustees wouldn’t need to check and balance the tyranny of the faculty majority. The organization that most consistently has urged this role for trustees, ACTA, could then turn its attention to other matters.

But, of course, we don’t have a perfect academy–far from it. As a result, those interested in academic quality, now more than ever, need FIRE and ACTA. Recent events at CUNY have provided the latest reminder of the importance of ACTA and its agenda.

I’ve written previously about Pathways, a general-education policy
adopted by the CUNY Trustees to deal with the twin problems of
intra-CUNY transfers and the fact that CUNY’s seventeen community and
senior colleges had very different gen-ed programs. While people of good
faith can and do disagree on Pathway’s merits, it seems to me it’s
likely to lead to most CUNY students receiving a better overall
education (and I’m hardly the only person who so believes). Moreover,
given their record of the past decade-plus at CUNY, Chancellor Matthew
Goldstein and the Board of Trustees have earned the benefit of the doubt
on issues of quality.

The PSC, the CUNY faculty union that has opposed every major
administration initiative since the current leadership seized control in
2000, has instead opted to use Pathways to crusade against Trustee
oversight. In a pro-PSC e-mail that (oddly) was sent over a list-serv
reserved for academic matters dealing with the doctoral faculty, union
chief Barbara Bowen wildly asserted that “the Pathways resolution was
passed by the Board of Trustees in violation of its own Bylaws,” and
therefore violated “academic freedom.”

Bowen didn’t explain how Pathways violated the Bylaws. Perhaps that’s
because it didn’t violate the Bylaws. Section 8.5 of the Bylaws asserts
that the faculty have responsibility for the curriculum “subject to
guidelines, if any, as established by the board.”

This isn’t the first occasion in which faculty ostensibly concerned
with Pathways have in fact focused on neutering the Board of Trustees.
Section 5.1 of the CUNY Bylaws holds that “an amendment to the bylaws
may be adopted at any regular or special meeting of the board [of
trustees] succeeding the regular or special meeting at which it was
proposed.” Yet last spring, many departments at Brooklyn (including,
unfortunately, my own) passed a resolution demanding that “there shall
no amendments to any language in the CUNY Bylaws . . . pertaining to
faculty responsibility for curriculum”–as if the faculty have the
authority to order around the two bodies that have power to amend the
Bylaws, the state legislature and the Trustees.

The consistent desire among Pathways opponents, it seems, is to
eliminate the checks and balances provided by the Trustees, and instead
establish a system in which the faculty majority can act any way that it
desires. Given the checkered record of the university’s two elected
faculty organizations–the PSC and the University Faculty Senate–this
“tyranny of the majority” would be disastrous.

Ironically, even as the PSC has been advancing this preposterous
claim of neutering the trustees’ power so as to uphold quality to neuter
the trustees’ power, union activists at my own campus have championed a
move that almost certainly weaken the quality of a Brooklyn degree. An
apparent attempt reduce the heavy faculty workload has yielded
proposals to increase the credit allocation for courses (CUNY bases its
teaching load on credits, not courses, taught) so that faculty would be
required to teach fewer courses. In turn, the new credit scheme, if
adopted college-wide, would mean that students would take anywhere from
five to ten fewer courses to graduate.

A case can be made for this concept on the grounds that the school’s
current teaching load makes it difficult to retain quality instructors.
But union activists have offered a far different “quality” claim. In
what amounts to ill-concealed paternalism, they have reasoned that
Brooklyn students simply have too many responsibilities to fulfill a course-load that students who grow up in homes with “white picket fences”
easily could handle. This Orwellian “less is more” claim implies that
the college’s students would be better off graduating with less exposure
to the talented faculty the PSC supposedly represents.

A central obligation of trustees is safeguarding an institution’s
fiduciary responsibilities. At a public university like CUNY, that
responsibility includes both wisely using taxpayer dollars and
representing the university before the state legislature. Imagine how
the “less is more” argument would play out before the GOP-controlled
State Senate: the PSC would travel to Albany, requesting more taxpayer
dollars to hire more new faculty, while simultaneously claiming that
CUNY students would receive a better education by taking fewer courses
from these same faculty. Any legislator with half a brain would respond
to such a proposal by replying that if CUNY students can learn more by
taking fewer classes, then the university obviously doesn’t need more
public funds to hire new professors.

And so, yet again, the administration and trustees will need to step
in–if not to reject the Brooklyn proposals, then at least to provide the
public and the state legislature with a rationale that passes the laugh

CUNY represents an extreme example, in that its administration and
Board is unusually competent and its faculty is unusually off-the-wall.
But its record provides a reminder of why we need robust boards of
trustees, and why organizations like ACTA, sadly, will continue to have a
full agenda.

KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the
CUNY Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is
co-author, with Stuart Taylor Jr., of
“Until Proven Innocent.”


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

    View all posts

2 thoughts on “Why ACTA Is Needed

  1. I totally agree (as usual!) with Maura: I feel that this year’s Open Access Week had a fresh urgency and that as a result OA is going to be at the very forefront of my mind all year long. And while we can’t have OA events every week, we can make OA part of our daily language and encounters. We can make it clear when we’re finding something because it’s OA, and we can make it clear what’s going on when we’re not finding something. We can make sure that students understand that the articles in our databases aren’t free and won’t be available to them when they graduate. We can repeat and repeat and repeat the health consequences of not having universally OA medical literature. We can talk to administrators and faculty leadership about the connection between OA and CUNY’s mission and the importance of recognizing the added value of OA faculty contributions. We can and should talk talk talk whenever and wherever appropriate. However, we should also focus. If we only have 5 minutes to slip in an OA message, what’s the most important message for faculty? For administrators? For faculty governance bodies? For students? Let’s get them outraged about the problems. And then let’s get them focused on the solutions.

  2. The basic duty of trustees is 1) fiduciary and 2) hiring competent senior administrators. My institution’s trustees have sanctioned demonstrably irresponsible borrowing, tolerated annual athletic deficits well into seven figures, maneuvered unqualified proteges into senior and not-so-senior administrative positions, and doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on a couple of abysmally failed professional majors with the most highly paid, worst, laziest faculty on campus.
    I’m glad to hear that someone has competent trustees, though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *