College and University Governance

This is a guest post by Larry G. Gerber, a contributor to the recent January-February issue of Academe. Gerber is professor emeritus of history at Auburn University. He is the author of several books, including most recently The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance: Professionalization and the Modern American University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Gerber is a past vice president of the AAUP and a former chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance.

I was pleased to be asked to contribute an essay focusing on governance to the Academe issue celebrating the AAUP’s one hundredth anniversary.  Although the AAUP has been most strongly associated with the defense of academic freedom, efforts to establish appropriate standards for faculty involvement in college and university governance have been central to the Association since its founding one hundred years ago.  As the AAUP’s 1994 statement On the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom puts it, the two are “inextricably linked,” so that neither can be sustained without the other.

In my Academe article, and in my recently published book, The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance, I argue that what we have come to call “shared governance,” in which faculty assume “primary responsibility” for academic decision making, even as governing boards retain ultimate legal authority for their institutions, was a long-developing product of the growing professionalization of the American professoriate in the century after the end of the Civil War.  As specialized expertise became more and more central to the carrying out of the mission of American colleges and universities, institutions of higher learning needed to rely more heavily on their highly trained faculty members to make judgments about academic matters relating to teaching and research. The quality of American higher education dramatically increased beginning in the last part of the nineteenth century as the professoriate became more professionalized and more involved in governance.  Expertise and a recognition of the professoriate’s professional rights and responsibilities were the basis for the relatively new trend toward greater faculty involvement in governance that began with the rise of the modern American university.

The greatest threat in recent years both to shared governance as articulated in the general principles of the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities (jointly formulated by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards), and to academic freedom, has been the dangerous trend toward the deprofessionalization of the faculty.  The increasing use of faculty on contingent appointments and the accompanying tendency to unbundle faculty work, even to the point of trying to separate the formulation of course content from actual instruction, undermine the professional status of faculty by treating faculty members as mere “employees” who are at the beck and call of those in charge of “managing” our colleges and universities.

The AAUP’s support for the principles and practices of shared governance are not only a necessary element in its continuing defense of academic freedom, but also, more broadly in any effort to maintain the quality of American higher education.  If academic decision making continues to be shifted away from those who have extensive academic training and who are themselves doing the teaching and research that are central to the mission of institutions of higher education and toward those who view themselves more as managers than as academics, it is hard to see how the quality of our colleges and universities will not be degraded.

Note: A fuller discussion of this topic may be found in the January-February issue of Academe in “College and University Governance”, an essay by Larry G. Gerber.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.