The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance

Today’s Inside Higher Ed features an article about shared governance that focuses on a new book by Larry G. Gerber, Professor Emeritus of History at Auburn University, entitled The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance: Professionalization and the Modern American University. Gerber is a talented and distinguished historian and a longtime AAUP activist and leader, having served for many years as Chair of the AAUP Committee on College and University Governance and as AAUP Vice-President.  We went to grad school together at Berkeley, and a while back Larry graciously shared with me portions of the manuscript that Johns Hopkins University Press has now published.  It’s an essential read.

Rise and Decline is a serious history of shared governance in America, which argues that its development was a lengthy and difficult process.  But the book’s broader message is clear: we can’t take shared governance for granted.  As both ideal and practice, shared governance emerged only painfully and became standard practice only in the mid-twentieth century, and then not everywhere.  In recent decades, Gerber demonstrates, both the ideal and the practice have eroded dangerously under pressure from the growing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty and the increasingly corporate approach to management embraced more and more frequently by administrators and trustees.

“Key questions for the future are whether current challenges to the practice of shared governance will only intensify and whether such challenges will affect the quality and purpose of American higher education,” Gerber writes. “It remains to be seen whether American colleges and universities will be able to continue to pursue a broad approach to the purposes of higher education in an increasingly market-driven environment or to retain their position of global preeminence if the system of governance that helped make that broadly conceived mission and preeminence possible is fundamentally altered.”

In its publicity for the book Hopkins Press quotes Benjamin Ginsberg, author of The Fall of the Faculty, another must-read for higher education activists, as follows:  “Even the end of the world needs a historian, and with this book, Larry Gerber has made himself the official historian of the end of the academic world.”

Gerber’s book, it is true, does not always foster optimism.  As he warns, “In the coming years, if current trends continue, the global preeminence of American colleges and universities is at risk.”  But the end of the world is not yet upon us and, as Gerber told Inside Higher Ed, this fight ain’t over ’til it’s over:

In an email interview, Gerber said he was “not overly optimistic” that the decline of faculty governance could be reversed. But he said that organizations that are fighting the fight, such as the AAUP, deserve support.

“In order to maintain the quality of American higher education, I believe we must put greater pressure on administrations and legislators to reverse the trends toward the greater use of faculty on contingent appointments and toward deprofessionalization more generally,” he said.

Echoing arguments he makes in his book, Gerber noted that the “faculty must also do a much better job of inculcating the values of professionalism (including the importance of governance activities) in those who are just joining the professoriate. I would like to see graduate programs do a better job of teaching prospective faculty members what the responsibilities of the profession are.”

Administrators also should do more to recognize and reward “effective governance service,” he said.

Hopefully, he said, “I think at some point the argument that deprofessionalizing the faculty undermines the quality of education that colleges and universities provide our students may take hold and help turn public opinion against what is now happening.”

Gerber’s book is a welcome contribution to making that argument.  Its appearance on the eve of AAUP’s centennial and as we approach the 50th anniversary of AAUP’s 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities is most welcome.

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