The ills besetting higher education in recent years – ballooning tuitions, kangaroo disciplinary tribunals, speech codes and other violations of academic freedom, expanding bureaucracies, invasions of student and faculty privacy, lowered academic standards, and others – are on virtuallyeveryone’s minds. However, these problems are not mutually exclusiveand severable; rather, theyare manifestations of a larger downward spiral at the majority of liberal arts colleges and universities.
Yet the root cause of these problems in the academy has received scant notice. Driving this institutional decline isthe massive transfer of power from teachers to administrators, which is a phenomenon I have observed over the course of my career as a lawyer who represents students and teachers. Unless the trend is recognized and reversed, higher education – one of the nation’smost successful economic and cultural machines – will inevitably decline.
No Faculty Consultation
In the latest development in the devolution of power to academic administrators, the Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty protested, by unanimous vote at a November 4th faculty meeting, changes made to the faculty’s health benefits without, claim the protesters, adequate facultyconsultation. This condemnation of the administration came just weeks after the October 15th publication of a letter on the Globe’s opinion page issued by 28members of the Harvard Law faculty protesting the university’s new sexual assault policy. The new regime largely removes the investigation (and definition) of sexual harassment and assault from the jurisdiction of each school’s faculty-run administrative board to a newly-created creature of the central administration known as the Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution.
The law professors who protestednoted that the Harvard administration was acting “under pressure imposed by the federal government, which has threatened to withhold funds for universities not complying with its idea of appropriate sexual harassment policy.” The fact that such a massive change in governing policy – putting such limits on faculty powers in the face of Harvard’s 378-year history of faculty governance – could be imposed on Harvard Law School and the entire university without faculty consultation startled signatories from all ends of the political spectrum.This move was particularly mind-boggling considering that the university’sadministration hasone of the nation’s leading law faculties at its fingertips. (If Harvard really wanted to fight the Washington bureaucrats, it surely has the brains and brawn to do so.)
A Break from Tradition
The law professors’ criticism of this administrative overreach barely scratches the surface of a central problem that has led colleges and universities throughout the country to inflict massive changes in college and university culture. In their opening paragraphs, the professors write, “We also find the process by which this policy was decided and imposed on all parts of the university inconsistent with the finest traditions of Harvard University, of faculty governance, and of academic freedom.”Often under pressure of federal bureaucrats, but invariably via the leadership of central bureaucracies, schools have slowly taken power away from teachers. Harvard’s practice of consultation with its faculty is better than at many universities, but it’s a shadow of what it used to be.
This gradual takeover, nationally, of higher education by bureaucrats at the expense of faculty power is evident in several ways and is much to the detriment of our students’ educational experience. Although studies show that the ideal operating ratio is about three tenure-track faculty members for every one administrator, by 2008, administrators actually outnumbered faculty two to one. This skewed structure is only worsening, as even recession has not spurred the cuts necessary to keep tuition costs affordable. Universities now have campus police forces that could easily pass for any big city police force, and indeed some campus police departments have bulked up by accepting retired military equipment. (See Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces for more on this phenomenon.)A recent scandal at the University of Massachusetts grew out of the campus police actually turning an opiate-addicted student into an informant, rather than directing him to treatment. (The student died of an overdose.)
The Business Model
Universities, meanwhile, have adopted growth goals and corporate interestspreviously reserved for profit-making businesses. Yale has opened a branch in authoritarian Singapore, where academic freedom problems abound, but where students can afford to pay. Previously, American colleges established foreign outposts in centers of learning, such as Paris and Athens. But now the trend, as I’ve written about before, is to follow the money. Just try to sell a t-shirt with the Harvard logo; the university’s intellectual property lawyers will almost certainly go after you for a cut of the action.
Another symptom of the cash-crazed culture of academia is evident in something as ostensibly trivial as the names of campus buildings.Academic buildings used to benamed for great figures in the world of learning; on occasion, a building would be named after a major donor. But just within the past few years Harvard has re-named its Holyoke Center, formerly honoringEdward Holyoke – who served as Harvard’s president for 32 years (1689-1769) –in honor of donors whose major claim to fame has been their generosity to the university. Even more recently the university renamed an entire school – its School of Public Health – after the father of a major donor.
The Harvard faculty, and university faculties everywhere, should not be too surprised that the life of the academy nationwide is being taken over by bureaucrats, and that the values and practices of the marketplace now reign supreme. They, and we, allowed it to happen by failing to see the early warning signs. Whether it will be possible to restore our colleges as places of learning, rather than bureaucracies dedicated to establishing fiefdoms of money and power, is anyone’s guess. But at Harvardand elsewhere, one can only hope that faculties will follow the lead of the 28 law school professors and become exercised over something other than the incursions into faculty medical benefits.