Last Friday, the Colorado Conference of the AAUP (for which I serve as co-President) held a one-day meeting at Fort Lewis College in Durango devoted to the topic of shared governance. Our thinking behind planning this gathering was that Colorado higher education seemed to be going crazy. So many weird things had been happening at schools all over the state, that it seemed like a good idea that we all get together and compare notes.
Our keynote speaker was former AAUP General Secretary and Director for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, Gary Rhoades. One of the key points of Gary’s message to us was that we are not alone. Trends throughout higher education over the last thirty years have made just about everyone in this sector feel scared, threatened or exasperated – and sometimes all three of these things at the same time. Of course we all know about the increased use of adjunct faculty and the huge explosion of administrators nationwide, but Gary also mentioned other lesser-known developments. For example, he noted that the rise of online education has made IT departments in schools across the country separate power sources on university campuses (unique from faculty or administrators) and the fact that many administrators have increased their reliance on university attorneys in recent years.
Listening to Gary, I realized that this idea of us not being alone also works on a much more local level. For example, most professors were probably appalled when they heard that the Kansas Board of Regents had enacted a social media policy for professors that could get anyone in that state fired for expressing their constitutionally-protected opinions on Twitter or Facebook, yet at least some administrators at the two states represented at our conference (Colorado and New Mexico) heard about that policy and said to themselves, “That’s a great idea!” As a result, similar proposals are coming down the pike at a campus-wide level.
For those of us who experience such depressing developments at our schools, it is tempting to assume that our campuses are at the forefront of the kinds of trends that Gary described. Maybe we are. Maybe we aren’t. In either case, knowing that we are not alone can serve as a kind of therapy, especially if it helps put the situation on our respective campuses in better perspective. More importantly, these kinds of conversations can serve as a sounding board to develop strategies to resist unwelcome changes.
Few of us can be sure whether or not our campus is really the canary in the higher education coal mine. However, better mine safety everywhere eventually benefits everyone with a pick and shovel. The more we professors talk to each other, both on social media and off, the better off we’ll all be when bad ideas surface that may someday affect us all.