There are two absolutely minimal essential resources for universities to exist: faculty, who provide the most important services educational institutions provide, and students, who are the customers that universities traditionally serve as part, and sometimes nearly all, of their mission. Yet at many schools, the faculty constitutes only a modest minority (perhaps one-fourth or so) of the employees, and fewer resources are spent on instructing students than providing diverse other services, ranging from serious academic research to staging ball-throwing contests, running hospitals, or providing food and lodging.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has had a long history of involvement in securing an important role for faculty in universities, calling for “shared governance,” accepting that the governing board typically legally “owns” the school. In a 1966 statement by the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), and the AAUP, it was agreed that “no important institutional decision is to be made without the participation of the governing board, the administration, and the faculty” and that the faculty has “prime responsibility” for decisions relating to such academic matters as faculty appointments and promotions, curriculum, and even “those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.”
In a new investigative report, the AAUP laments the decline in the faculty role in university governance. The pandemic threw some schools into financial crisis and provided administrations the rationale to bypass traditional shared governance procedures, using so-called “force majeure” provisions in contracts and collective bargaining agreements to argue that extremely precarious financial conditions necessitated changes without the usual concurrence of the faculty. The AAUP in a 40-page report looked in detail at eight schools. The sample of schools examined was very small and geographically skewed (most schools were in two states, New York and Ohio, that together make up just 10 percent of the American population), and more importantly, included only one public institution, the University of Akron, in a nation where a majority of university students attend public schools. In general, the AAUP found the spirit and letter of shared governance was often largely ignored, or at least severely compromised.
To one who has spent over 50 years teaching at American universities and who has been on literally hundreds of campuses (including several for more than cursory visits), I think there is no question that the role of the faculty in running universities has markedly diminished. When I first started teaching at my mid-quality state university, we had university- or college-wide faculty meetings in which we tried to resolve issues of the day. No more. My university’s Faculty Senate is a shadow of its former self. At the very top of the reputational pyramid of universities, faculty clout is sometimes still significant (for example, after a faculty no-confidence vote in 2006, Harvard’s President Larry Summers left that position). More commonly, however, faculty are viewed as hired hands, only a small notch in importance above the custodians and secretaries in determining the pace and pattern of the institution’s development.
The decline in faculty clout was illustrated most dramatically at the school that U.S. News says is America’s premier university: Princeton. A prominent tenured classics professor and internationally recognized scholar, Joshua Katz, also winner of several awards for teaching, was recently fired by the Princeton governing board on the recommendation of President Christopher Eisgruber because he strongly and publicly disagreed with a campus group’s demand that the university suppress views sharply diverging from woke progressive notions of race, gender, etc. No formal hearing was held among faculty peers. No faculty recommendation was made to de-tenure Katz. No cross examination of witnesses was allowed. Nonetheless, channeling King Louis XIV, “King” Eisgruber talked his board into finding Katz guilty of a 15-year-old transgression that had previously been adjudicated. He resorted to double jeopardy and kangaroo Star Chamber justice in which faculty shared governance processes were ignored, as was Princeton’s alleged adherence to the Chicago Principles supporting free expression. No First Amendment protections at Princeton!
There are some good economic reasons behind the demise in faculty power and control. In the middle of the last century, faculty were scarce and enrollments were booming. Administrations had to be nice to faculty or they would go elsewhere. Schools ignored the faculty at their peril. Today, enrollments have been falling for a decade and we have huge surpluses of Ph.D. wannabe scholars in many academic fields—professors are, figuratively, a dime a dozen.
The faculty themselves are partly responsible for this. Under faculty pressure, more universities after about 1965 started giving Ph.D. degrees, allowing faculty to teach graduate level classes rather than boring undergraduate survey courses. The supply of faculty grew even as demand leveled off and then declined. Administrators, facing a financial liability of supporting expensive faculty with low teaching loads, started hiring more adjuncts and teaching assistants, lowering the primacy of tenured faculty. Trying to appear progressive and saintly, many faculty initially favored expanding administrative staff, and early “affirmative action” involving classifying people by race and gender evolved into today’s costly army of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” apparatchiks, who often override faculty wishes and diminish academic integrity while enforcing woke ideology.
Additionally, governments have contributed mightily to the prostitution of academic values and freedom of expression in numerous ways, including the unintended consequences of the federal student loan programs raising tuition fees, thereby financing much of the new anti-academic collegiate bureaucracy. Increasingly successful efforts of the U.S. Department of Education to centralize American education, including universities, reducing their distinctive competitive flavor allowing for true intellectual diversity, is another factor in the erosion of shared governance and the concomitant decline in public support for our institutions of higher learning.
Image: Joshua Jen, Public Domain