Who Owns the Universities? Who Runs Them?

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.

[Related: “Why I’m Leaving the University”]

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


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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6 thoughts on “Who Owns the Universities? Who Runs Them?

  1. I would suggest looking at how faculty pay increased over the past 60 years, along with the ability to go elsewhere mid-career without having to restart the tenure process.

  2. Well, judge for yourself. Are the universities better off for the decline of faculty influence? Are the administrators doing a better job at running things? In my view, clearly not.

  3. Faculty are responsible for their diminished influence. Beginning in the 90s we witnessed an explosion in pseudo-intellectual fields such as african-american studies, womens studies, family and consumer “sciences” and grievance studies programs. These so-called academic disciplines produced graduates who were largely unemployable except for faculty positions in these same fields.

    This led to a natural degredation in the prestige of being called a professor. Instead of scholarly work and teaching, time was spent on social justice issues further degrading the role and influence of faculty. Universities, as the author correctly points out, turned to adjunct faculty to teach what tenured professors used to teach. (In my department, nearly half of the faculty are adjuncts now; tenured faculty largely just teach graduate courses.) Moreover, the emphasis on social justice by too many faculty has just emboldened the DEI bureaucracies. Now, they have assumed a leading role in university governance.

    This situation is only going to change when these pseudo-intellectal “disciplines” are purged and there is a renewed emphasis on tenured faculty teaching undergraduate courses in the remaining academic fields. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon. That said, decreased enrollments in colleges at all levels is becoming the norm which may ultimately restore some sanity.

    1. Patti — would the tenured faculty accept vows of poverty?

      The flip side of faculty governance is that it essentially is a commune. Faculty had a say BECAUSE all of their money — salary & pension — was tied up in the success of the institution.

      A law partnership may be a better example than commune, but faculty in the 1950s had a say because their personal economic future was tied to that of the institution.

      1. Not sure where you get your information from Dr. Ed, but it’s not the 1950s anymore.

        Faculty nowadays don’t get their pensions from their institution. In my state faculty at public universities have the option of accepting a state employee pension or they can enroll in TIAA-CREF. Neither one is tied to the success of the institution.

        Tenure track faculty in STEM do not accept anything close to a vow of poverty. In my field (engineering) an assistant professor tenure track in my department starts at better than $90,000. Bear in mind, that’s a 9-month salary. The lowest salary at my university (assist prof., tenure track) is $37,000 in the social sciences and again, that’s a 9-month salary. Granted, you haven’t hit the lottery but neither are you taking a vow of poverty.

        Adjunct faculty make a few thousand dollars to teach one course, but so what? It’s not even their main—let alone only—source of income. All of the adjunct faculty in my department are employed full time in local industry.

        Maybe in the old days the law partnership analogy held. Not today.

      2. Patti —
        Let me clarify — the senior professor CIRCA 1955 *had* taken a vow of poverty by today’s standards. UMass appears to pay better than your institution: https://www.bostonherald.com/2022/01/03/complete-university-of-massachusetts-payroll-for-2021/

        CREF didn’t exist until 1952, I’m not sure if professors were initially eligible for Social Security, and public IHEs were small until the 1960s.

        There were no faculty unions…

        Circa 1955, Faculty Senates were run by professors who had been there for 35-40 years and whose careers had been intertwined with that of the institution during the lean years of the Depression & WWII.

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