As a former journalist who joined academe, I was often struck by the obscurity of administration-faculty communication. Murkiness prevailed, along with the absence of clear subjects and verbs, and worse: the absence of clear meaning and intention. “Say what you mean and mean what you say” was more like “say it sort of like you mean and maybe mean what you say more or less without really saying anything.”
Why the need for obfuscation in running American colleges and universities? That higher education in a democratic society isn’t an isolated priesthood should be obvious, but it’s apparently not obvious to the academic culture that perpetuates these language crimes. The rest of us have too much at stake to permit higher education to get away with murkiness.
In a business as complicated as higher education, with several layers of authority often competing for power and control, communicative incompetence leads inexorably to a breakdown of the system itself — hence the need for books such as “Locus of Authority,” by William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton, and Eugene M.Tobin, former president of Hamilton College.
Vagueness and Doubt
Higher education’s problems with “shared governance,” particularly the appropriate roles and responsibilities of faculty, is the subject of Bowen and Tobin’s book. The phrase itself is emblematic of higher education’s language problem. The authors themselves question whether the phrase is even helpful in public discussion — its vagueness the very reason for their doubts. The authors are leading figures in higher education and are clearly aware that, ultimately, the public must understand why this seemingly obscure subject is important. Indeed, it’s evident that the authors struggle to convey their argument with the forceful clarity required for public understanding.
“At one point in our research were were inclined to drop references to shared governance altogether and to argue for avoiding use of the phrase,” the authors write. “We were troubled by the vagueness of the concept, the lack of even rough agreement as to what it meant, and the inclinations to use the phrase in sloganeering efforts of various kinds.”
Although the authors chose, in the end, to accept the term shared governance as “here to stay,” in the same breath they add that the phrase “cannot, however, be expected to settle most issues of consequence having to do with the precise definition of faculty roles (the subject of their book!) — it remains too amorphous, and subject to too many interpretations, to serve that purpose.”
Hence, Bowen and Tobin reluctantly chose obscurity over clarity, apparently for the sake of habit in the higher education priesthood. It’s no wonder, then, that American higher education is often viewed as undecipherable and out of touch with the American mainstream.
Hard and Soft Power
Whether a symptom or cause of its ongoing language problem, modern higher education is in the throes of a power struggle. The conflict is between longstanding, legally designated authority — what I would call the “hard” power of trustees and their appointed administrators — and the “soft power” of the faculty. Undeniably, faculty are the heart of the academic enterprise. If higher education’s central public purpose is the discovery, creation and dissemination of knowledge, that purpose alone bestows the faculty with an undeniable claim to power — despite the absence of explicit ownership rights provided under state laws.
Historically, Bowen and Tobin point out, faculty power within higher education has ebbed and flowed, largely depending on their market power at the time. In Colonial times, for example, the earliest American colleges struggled merely to find capable teachers. Course offerings were minimal and faculty were treated as lowly tutors and hired hands.
Eventually higher education grew up, fueled by population, demography and national wealth. By the early 20th Century, the fundamental power structure of colleges and universities, which would last for the next 100 years, solidified. The so-called “Golden Age” of American higher education emerged after World War II, characterized by phenomenal surge in high school graduates (the Baby Boom) and the revolutionary shift in national education policy, holding that equal opportunity to higher education should be available to all U.S. citizens, regardless of economic or social background. That policy shift produced the GI Bill and unprecedented percentages of high school graduates seeking higher education.
Bowen and Tobin argue that those halcyon days of the Golden Age are over, a result of diminished market power of the Ph.D. class, the rise in adjunct and non-tenured academic labor and last, but not least, the Digital Age itself.
And that brings us to the title that actually describes this book: “Rethinking Faculty Power in the Age of Online Learning.” Of course, Bowen and Tobin, could never get away with such a blunt description of their work, however more apt than the politically correct, milquetoast language of their peerage. To their credit, recognizing that a moment of clarity was necessary for their argument to be actually heard, the authors become admittedly more direct 173 pages into the book, in the penultimate chapter.
“To be absolutely blunt, it is time for individual faculty to give up, cheerfully and not grudgingly, any claim to sole authority over teaching methods of all kinds,” they write.
Through the Golden Age, academic standards, content, teaching methods and so on became the uncontested terrain of the professoriate and their academic departments. But “Locus of Authority” argues that the digital age has altered this landscape to such a profound degree that universities can no longer cede to faculty the ultimate authority on the methods used to convey knowledge.
They cite numerous examples of institutions in which long-held assumptions and habits of faculty control over teaching methods thwarted systemwide efforts to create online programs of a sufficient scale. This list includes the University of California’s failed effort at adding a virtual eleventh “Global Campus” to the existing brick and mortar ten campus system. On the other hand, the authors praise CUNY’s “Pathways Initiative,” which overcame “paralyzing” local campus rules to establish system-wide reforms that increased completion rates and lessened the amount of time students took to earn their degrees.
With the tools of digital technology at hand, it’s no longer feasible to separate teaching methods from such vexing issues as college costs, productivity, efficiency, student access, equity, stratification and even graduation rates, Bowen and Tobin argue.
“Our purpose right now is simply to emphasize that the technological advances underpinning online learning argue against compartmentalized decision-making and lead inexorably to the need for collaborative approaches,” they write. “In short, these technological advances compel us to argue for a form of ‘shared governance’ that blends multiple perspectives and takes full advantage of faculty expertise — but that leaves final authority for most of these complex matters with administration and trustees.” (my emphasis.)
“Locus of Authority” falls short in offering some realistic scenarios and mechanisms for just how their vision of a more “horizontal” decision-making structure would work, claiming that specific ingredients of this modernized view of shared governance need working out on a case by case basis. But the devil is in the details, isn’t it? Indeed, some critics would argue that the authors’ modernized vision of faculties’ rights and responsibilities amounts to just one more shot across the bow in a battle to diminish the faculty’s value in the whole enterprise.
In his recent book, “The Fall of the Faculty,” Benjamin Ginsberg argues, for instance, that administrative hordes are overrunning universities with useless layers of bureaucracy that have scant bearing on the higher education’s main job of teaching and learning. In an interview with Inside Higher Education, Ginsberg said this “administrative blight” was the result of “ambitious presidents and provosts” seeking ways of “enhancing their own power.”
I doubt that personal ambition and power grabbing account for even a small share of the large growth in administrative personnel in recent years. Other more fundamental factors are at play, including institutional ambitions to enhance prestige in the academic arms race, resulting in excessive spending on all the (non-instructional) elements that are perceived to be prestigious, including star faculty and big-budget capital programs. I should note that governing bodies themselves, not administrators per se, often endorse and encourage these costly efforts at prestige building.
Nevertheless, faculty’s fear of administrative excess is real, and unfortunately, “Locus of Authority” does not adequately address these fears — except to broadly suggest that faculty should always have a place at the table. The “proverbial bottom line,” the authors contend, is that faculty shouldn’t have the authority to veto system-wide efforts that might infringe on professors’ traditional roles as experts in the production and dissemination of knowledge.
And yet, they suggest, higher education’s teaching and knowledge experts should be present and accounted for while trustees and administrators devalue faculty expertise before the faculty’s very eyes. Faculty do have reason to fear that their fundamental role in higher education, as experts in teaching and learning, is being devalued. And talk of encroaching even further on the faculty’s role, such as what we find in “Locus of Authority,” is likely to inflame their distrust in governing boards and administrators.
Although “Locus of Authority” addresses the difficult issues of power and control within the university, I wonder if their perspective is skewed by an overemphasis on online teaching. The authors have a special stake in this topic. Bowen is author of the recent book, “Higher Education in the Digital Age,” which, like “Locus of Authority,” was sponsored in part by ITHAKA, a non-profit organization devoted to exploring how digital technologies can be blended into higher education to address such larger problems as access, equity and educational outcomes.
A Third Way
I would suggest that “Locus of Authority” is emblematic a technocratic mindset that begins with a technological solution — online learning — and then tries to find ways to employ the technological solution to reform higher education, with or without faculty support. That’s exactly the kind of mindset that leads to mistrust, messy communication and to, ultimately, systems that seem incapable of true reform.
But perhaps there is a third way. I’m referring to a way that starts with real leadership at the top of the food chain, in this case, the duly appointed governing boards.
In a 2013 essay in Trusteeship, a magazine published the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, former Harvard president Derek Bok argues for exactly this approach. Bok, who collaborated with Bowen on “The Shape of the River,” one of the most noteworthy books on higher education in recent years, suggests that higher education institutions must first accept responsibility for making little or no progress in addressing the two most pressing problems of higher education in the larger society: persistently low rates of college completion and disturbing inconsistencies in the quality of undergraduate education.
While these failures are well known and understood, the behavior of both faculty and administrators suggest that they are either blissfully ignorant of these problems or that they function in a broken system that seems inherently incapable of addressing them. The crux of the problem, Bok suggests, is an absence of leadership at the top, resulting in an ineffectual system of shared neglect, not in a purposeful system of “shared governance.”
“The persistent failure of so many institutions to do more to address the major problems facing higher education today seems to suggest a weakness in the governance of many colleges and universities,” Bok writes. “While responsibility for this neglect rests primarily with academic leaders and their faculties, boards must surely accept some of the blame.”
Too often, he suggests, trustees have relinquished their authority and responsibility to ambitious presidents and administrators who define their jobs as maximizing institutional reputation and prestige.
“Few boards have been notably successful in helping to shape the goals and priorities of their institution,” he writes. “All too often, board members have acquiesced in a vision of the future that concentrates on expansion, on tangible objectives such as new buildings and new degree programs. Above all, they have focused on a conventional view of progress that attaches more importance to raising the SAT scores of entering students than to increasing what they learn after they enroll—a view that pays less attention to improving the quality of what their institution already does than it does to climbing the ladder of conventional prestige.”
Thus, the real problem of “shared governance” isn’t that colleges and universities have a cornucopia of fantastic new teaching technology going to waste because of faculty naysayers. The failure of governance starts with boards of trustees, not with intransigent professors.
If colleges and universities were to seriously focus on the most pressing problems of higher education that would actually serve some public interest, then active, better informed boards of trustees must convey that message to administrators and faculty. Trustees must hire and fire presidents according to how well they execute their jobs in solving the problems that they’ve been appointed to solve.
Bok suggests than when publicly accountable trustees clearly convey the university’s mission to solving problems that matter to their communities, then administrators and faculty are likely to overcome turf battles and institutional inertia. It’s not the trustees’ job to solve the problems of higher education, but to employ the right people who can and will do so.
Administrators and faculty might find, for example, that online learning is not a panacea, but one of several important elements in addressing the problems of deteriorating academic quality, grade inflation, and low graduation rates. As another example, trustees of a regional research university might find that solving the most pressing problems would mean to stop trying to compete with large national universities for research funding, and devote more resources to teaching and learning.
“Once board members decide that genuine shortcomings exist,” Bok writes, “there is much that they can and should do, consistent with their limited role, to ensure that the administration and the faculty devote careful attention to the issues.”
When viewed through the lens of leadership, of real people communicating clearly and sincerely in an attempt solve real problems, higher education’s language problem will go away. And with that, silly academic speak and terms like “shared governance” will be seen for what they are–a useless annoyance to the job at hand.