Usual Suspects Saying the Usual Things: Critiquing the Schmidt Report

This week the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a right-leaning group founded by Lynne Cheney (aka Darth Vader’s wife) released a report endorsed by a group of twenty-three trustees, administrators, and a handful of largely conservative faculty from elite institutions, headed by Benno Schmidt, former President of Yale University and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY), entitled “Governance for a New Era.”  The report argues: “There is no doubt that leadership of higher education is out of balance. Trustees should take a more active role in reviewing and benchmarking the work of faculty and administrators and monitoring outcomes.”  With respect to faculty control of curriculum, it contends there is “evidence that self-interest and personal ideologies can drive departmental directions rather than the interest of the students and preparation of citizens.”

Today Inside Higher Education released a podcast in which Schmidt, IHE editor Scott Jaschik, and I discussed the report and some of its arguments.  I encourage readers to listen to it.  However, the question-and-answer conversational approach of the program did not permit a more thorough critique, so I would like to offer one here.

The first thing to say about this report is simply that there is really absolutely nothing new in it.  Here we have, I think, a classic case of what Paul Krugman has called “the usual suspects saying the usual things.”  Although Schmidt contends the report does not necessarily reflect ACTA’s views, it largely regurgitates tired arguments that group has been making ever since its foundation in 1995.  To be sure, a few of the arguments are worthy of support.  The report’s call for trustees to “withstand pressure to grow athletics programs that are a net drain on resources” is certainly welcome.  And what faculty member would disagree with Schmidt’s call “for boards everywhere to consider carefully whether search firms really add value?”

But the report’s overall aggressive advocacy of increased trustee intervention in academic decision-making is at best unrealistic and potentially highly dangerous. Take, for instance, two recent incidents. At the University of Virginia, partly at the instigation of ACTA leader Anne Neal, the chair of the institution’s Board of Visitors, Helen Dragas, sought to remove the president seemingly because she appeared to be too cooperative with faculty and too disinclined to engage in “creative disruption.”  (See AAUP’s investigative report on the Virginia crisis.)  The effort failed largely because of a revolt by faculty, students, and alumni, including major donors.  At the University of Texas, trustee efforts to remove the president of the flagship Austin campus have created academic and political turmoil, and just this week led Moody’s to downgrade the university’s credit rating.  Surely such experiences should lead academics to be cautious at minimum about outside efforts to encourage greater trustee “involvement.”

On the one hand, the report suggests that “data from the National Science Foundation on the income of graduates in particular majors can provide important insight for prioritizing academic programs.”  At the same time, however, the report urges “disciplinary diversity,” with special attention to “coursework on the Founders, the American Revolution and the Constitution.”  The report also urges trustees to support a “coherent and rigorous general education program.”  These goals may well be contradictory, however, since experience suggests that boards of trustees are in practice all too eager to eliminate humanities programs and curtail general education in the interest of devoting more resources to “career-oriented” and “profitable” or “income-producing” degrees.

At CUNY, the institution whose board Schmidt chairs, the trustees imposed a stripped-down and dumbed-down general education program called “Pathways.”  The program reduces general education to a bare minimum, compelling the elimination of foreign language study, reduction of time spent on writing instruction, and removal of lab sessions from science classes.   The effort has been opposed by both the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), an AAUP affiliate union that represents CUNY faculty, and the CUNY Academic Senate.  In a referendum, 92% of CUNY faculty expressed “no confidence” in the program.  Yet Schmidt and his fellow trustees persist.  Clearly Schmidt’s understanding of a “coherent and rigorous” general education is one that, to quote the PSC, is “really a narrower, administration-imposed curriculum that seeks to graduate more students, faster, at a lower cost—a curriculum that accommodates to underinvestment.”

The report’s dubious claim to support “coherent and rigorous” general education is undermined as well by its failure to address the transfer issue.  According to one study, a third of students transfer at least once before earning a bachelor’s degree.  Hence, if general education is to be effective (much less “coherent”) it must be conceived in ways that are transferable.  Many students begin their education at community colleges, the largest and most rapidly growing segment of higher education.  Yet I didn’t see a single reference to community colleges in the report, nor is there anyone among its authors directly connected with a community college.  There actually isn’t much representation either from M.A. and B.A.-granting non-research-oriented public four-year schools.  It would appear that this is a report prepared by a self-appointed selection of the academic “haves” who would impose their will on the rest of us.

The report also propounds an unusual and extremely dangerous view of academic freedom.  “Academic freedom is the single most important value informing the academic enterprise, and governance for a new era requires trustees to protect it,” the report declares.  So far, so good.  However, almost immediately the report begins to redefine academic freedom as “a two-way street: the freedom of the teacher to teach and the freedom of the student to learn.”   According to the report, “Trustees and administrators have, for the most part, done a good job of protecting the academic freedom of faculty.  But they have often failed to guard the academic freedom of students.”

This turns reality upside-down.   The fact of the matter is that ever since the AAUP first defined academic freedom nearly 100 years ago, the greatest threats to the principle have come precisely from trustees and administrators.  The examples are legion and even a cursory reading of AAUP’s investigative reports over the years provides ample evidence.  Take one recent example: the effort last year by the Kansas Board of Regents to regulate social media use, widely condemned by faculty in the state, the AAUP, the ACLU and others as a frontal assault on both academic freedom and basic First Amendment rights.  Or take the recent actions by the University of Illinois trustees with respect to the reappointment of part-time faculty member James Kilgore and the withdrawal of a job offer to Steven Salaita, in both instances apparently owing to the controversial nature of their politics.  These instances surely suggest that trustees are more likely to threaten academic freedom than they are to defend it.

Reading this report one would think that the real threat to academic freedom lies in efforts by (mainly liberal) professors to limit “student academic freedom.”  According to the report, trustees should “intercede when students … are unfairly treated because of their political, religious, or social beliefs and practices” and should put in place “grievance policies which allow for students to speak out without fear of reprisal when they believe that the institution is failing to protect the students’ freedom to learn.”  The AAUP has vigorously defended student rights at least since it joined with several other organizations in 1967 to produce the “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students.”  Indeed, this statement remains the most important statement of student rights, parallel in some sense to AAUP’s classic 1915 and 1940 statements on academic freedom of faculty.  But the Schmidt report’s claim that student rights are under assault is little more than a thinly veiled defense of those — like ACTA — who would attack so-called “liberal professors” for allegedly marginalizing conservative opinion on campus.  Such complaints are largely exaggerated and, moreover, are often irrelevant to the classroom, where students do not always have the right to pick and choose which information and ideas they choose to accept.  For example, a religious student certainly should have the right to believe and to advocate on campus that the Bible‘s account of creation is literal truth.  But that student is not entitled to receive full credit on a Geology exam for contending that the Earth is but 6,000 years old.

According to the report, “faculty cannot be the last and determining voice regarding academic value, academic quality, and academic strategy.”  Instead, “it is lay trustees — with considerable life and community experience — who can bring the big picture to bear in determining what graduates will need. . .”  Really?!  And what, one might ask, qualifies these “lay trustees,” most of whom are wealthy businessmen or political appointees, to play such a role?  The arrogance here is mind-boggling.  Is this not yet another case of rich people — the 1% — claiming for themselves the right to meddle in the affairs of everyone else, with little to no justification?  In reality, most trustees know little or nothing about education, much less about the myriad disciplines that comprise the modern university.  And while ACTA and Schmidt would have them devote more time and effort to learning about the institutions they ostensibly manage — a not-unworthy goal — few will succeed in becoming much more than dabblers.  Ultimately, it is the faculty that best understands the academic mission.  We don’t always agree with each other about that mission, which is fine, and we can’t claim to be correct all the time.  But I would match the faculty’s record against that of university trustees any day.

Finally, it would be remiss not to note what may be the single most remarkable feature of this report:  its curious silence about what is perhaps the most troubling development in higher education and arguably the gravest threat to academic freedom today, the increasing reliance on temporary and part-time instructors.  Nowhere do the authors recognize the gross unfairness of a situation in which nearly half the teaching faculty must survive from term to term with inadequate compensation and degraded working conditions (which, as is often said, are also student learning conditions).  Nor do they recognize the increasing number of reports and studies demonstrating how these conditions negatively impact student learning and retention.  Reading this report one would never recognize that this issue, perhaps above all others, is what is currently roiling the academy and may well be one of the main reasons that, in the report’s own words, “the future of higher education as an element of America’s global leadership . . . is in jeopardy.”  And that is, perhaps, the most powerful indication that this is not a report that will be helpful in addressing the challenges we in higher education must address.

4 thoughts on “Usual Suspects Saying the Usual Things: Critiquing the Schmidt Report

  1. Their head nod to the public 4 year comprehensive university is the inclusion of Frank Brogan, Chancellor of the PA State System of Higher Education (where I teach), on the team. Brogan’s qualifications to run a university system apparently are: (1) serving as Lt Governor of Florida under Jeb Bush; (2) having taught 2nd grade, I think, for a few years 30 years ago; and (3) having successfully (by which I mean the place didn’t go bankrupt) administered a university in Florida, a position to which he was appointed as a junket (see #1).

    Also, regarding their take on academic freedom, don’t forget ACTA was the “think tank” [sic] that provided David Horowitz the intellectual [sic] cover for his anti-faculty crusade in the early/mid-2000s. This isn’t new from them either. Same old sad song.

  2. I have done several posts very specifically focused on the Far Right’s very determined attempts to co-opt Progressive rhetoric. They basically assert that they are, in fact, supportive of much the same broad goals that Progressives are advocating, but that Progressives fail in not going far enough beyond their ideologically limited, timeworn, myopic, and now completely empty strategies–in not adopting the “right” strategies to actually achieve their ostensible aims. Going “far enough” then involves adopting the very Far Right positions to which Progressives are adamantly opposed. It is a slick trick if you are addressing people who are ideologically compliant or who are only half paying attention. It reflects a broader cynicism about public discourse and a deep disdain for meaningful debate and the fundamental principles of meaningful argument. It is a political and cultural point of view that presents facile truisms and self-confirming convictions as if they were tested truths. Rand Paul is, in fact, very aggressively adopting this rhetorical strategy as his defining note of his pursuit of the 2016 Republican nomination. Likewise, Paul Ryan tried to employ it to convince the media that his tirelessly repackaged austerity budget contains something fresh, something beyond the same tired ideas that have informed Far Right policy proposals for at least the last fifty or sixty years, and undoubtedly much longer than that.

  3. Pingback: Reichman in the CUNY PSC “Clarion” | The Academe Blog

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