Current Hurdles to Academic Freedom and Shared Governance

The following is the text of my keynote address at “Hurdles on the Horizon: Governance & Student Success in the Connecticut State College & University System,” a conference organized by the Faculty Advisory Committee to the CSCU Board of Regents for Higher Education at Manchester Community College on April 10, 2015.

Let me begin by thanking the Faculty Advisory Committee for inviting me to deliver this talk at such an important and well-attended event. And let me thank them even more for scheduling this conference in April rather than in January or February, at which time leaving sunny, albeit parched, California might have been near-traumatic! It’s especially pleasant to address a meeting that includes faculty from the Connecticut State University, or CSU, since I come to you from another CSU, the California State University. Both CSU’s are public systems so I will confine my remarks this morning largely to the situation of public colleges and universities, although much of what I have to say is applicable as well to private institutions. The missions of our two CSU systems are, I believe, quite similar, and so too are the challenges and problems we face, the hurdles we must overcome.

Today I want to address a few of those hurdles, which present new and sobering challenges to two of our most hallowed and longstanding principles: academic freedom and shared governance. But, first, what do we mean by these terms? When we speak of academic freedom we speak of four basic elements, articulated in the 1940 Joint Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities):  freedom in research and in the publication of its results; freedom in the classroom; freedom to comment upon and dissent from university policies and practices; and lastly the freedom of faculty members, as citizens, to speak upon matters of public concern, whether such matters are related to their professional expertise or not, what we’ve come to call “extramural expression.”

When we speak of shared governance we speak of those principles enunciated in the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities issued by the AAUP and the Association of Governing Boards, which states, with respect to the authority of the faculty, that

The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process. On these matters the power of review or final decision lodged in the governing board or delegated by it to the president should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances, and for reasons communicated to the faculty.

These principles have always been contested. Even as the list of institutions and associations endorsing the two statements has grown, violations of their principles continues, including at institutions claiming to adhere to them. But today, these principles, our principles, are under assault in new and troubling ways, sometimes under the very banner of “student success” that is so central not only to the themes of this conference, but to all our work in higher education everywhere. I submit that to truly ensure student success we must ensure academic freedom and shared governance. And in that light the hurdles we must overcome in defending academic freedom and shared governance are themselves hurdles to student success.

What are some of these hurdles? The most obvious one is money. Today public higher education is being systematically defunded. I won’t bore you with the statistics — they’re easily available and you no doubt know this from your own experience. But the essence of the matter is simple: across the country state support for higher education has been declining even as the demand for higher education, by percentage of the population—and, in particular, by percentage of the traditional college-age population—has been increasing. In the early 1980s, reductions in state support may not have been in real revenues but, instead, in the sizes of the increases that the institutions had requested, but since the early 1990s, and certainly since the 2008 recession, the cuts have been in real dollars, and they’ve most often been steep ones.

The implications of this phenomenon for academic freedom and shared governance are multiple and profound. First, the decline in public support has accelerated trends toward privatization and corporatization. Foremost, there is the privatization of cost. Perceived less and less as a public good, education is increasingly seen as a commodity to be paid for by its consumer, the student, via higher tuition and fees, financed often through federally guaranteed student loans at interest rates well above market. Moreover, the more students are viewed as “customers” and “consumers,” the greater the pressures to accommodate to their immediate desires, however narrow and short-sighted these may be. And not just the desires of any students, but those of the students most capable of paying. Hence increasingly colleges and universities compete for the “best” students by offering all sorts of inducements, from recreation centers and climbing walls to luxurious dormitories to winning — if costly — athletic teams.

Research too is being privatized, as universities increasingly seek arrangements with private interests to fund activities once supported by government. And here research universities themselves seek to become more “entrepreneurial,” claiming the right to control what has historically been the faculty’s intellectual property. In its landmark decision in Stanford v. Roche, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that faculty rights to patents and other intellectual property belong to the faculty, unless specifically signed over to the university. In response, many research universities are compelling faculty members to sign over these rights in advance, as either a condition of university support for research or even as a condition of employment itself. In short, they have begun to act as if they were private firms whose employees produce works made for hire.

Private donors also understandably seek returns on their investments. They want to have a say in how their money is used. An obvious example, of course, is the effort by the Koch brothers and others to fund centers for the promotion of their own views of the capitalist economy, but there are many other examples — drug companies who seek control over the products of faculty research, for just one. The proliferation of externally funded “centers” catering to the needs of business or other outside forces is a growing and often troubling phenomenon. So too is the growing reliance on outside money to fund capital projects, whose maintenance may then become a burden on a shrinking state budget.

But there is also the corporatization of governance. The phenomenon of trustees and politicians who claim that colleges and universities should be run more like businesses is no doubt quite a venerable one. But as financial pressures swell, such calls are mounting, and increasingly they come as well from our own administrations. Ever more often we are told that shared governance is too slow, too outdated, and that only hierarchical structures of decision-making taken from business — or more accurately taken from cramped and outdated notions of how successful businesses actually operate — are suitable in today’s world.

One might think that fiscal pressures would compel colleges and universities to get “lean and mean.” I won’t speak about mean (although in some cases, I definitely could), but surely few higher education administrations today can rightfully be deemed lean. One of the great ironies of our time is that as resources devoted to higher education have shrunk, the higher education administrative bureaucracy has grown, often explosively.  As the political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg has put it, with only a small amount of exaggeration, “universities are filled with armies of functionaries – the vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings….” In such a context one does well to ask how we can even think about “sharing” governance, since the expansion of this bureaucracy has simultaneously so centralized and yet so dispersed authority that cooperative and collegial governance becomes difficult if not unworkable.

But even as new inefficiencies emerge from the growing administrative bloat, many trustees, donors, and politicians regularly register their continued impatience with the allegedly sluggish and unproductive processes of shared governance, which they blame mainly on the supposed selfish recalcitrance of the faculty. It is their belief that faculty cannot be partners in change but only obstacles to it. This is, perhaps, to be expected. But what is increasingly distressing is the growing willingness of too many alleged educational leaders, our administrators and increasingly erstwhile partners, to join the chorus.

So, for instance, just this past academic year at the University of Southern Maine the administration decided to close four academic programs and reduce the number of faculty members by means of early retirement offers and retrenchment, thereby terminating the appointments of sixty of the 250 full-time faculty members and eliminating, reducing, or consolidating numerous academic programs. The claim, of course, was financial hardship and efficient service to the community, but a close investigation of university finances reveals nothing of the sort.

More important for our concerns, however, is that none of the decisions taken at the time were done with the participation of the faculty. It is therefore hardly surprising that, despite claims to the contrary, the program restructuring initiated at Southern Maine displayed little rhyme nor reason. In one of just two states where French is a legal second language, the university chose to eliminate French faculty! But most mystifying was its elimination of a program in Applied Medical Studies, despite the pleas of numerous local businesses that benefited from the program. So much for the claim that the goal was to become a career-oriented “metropolitan” university.

The AAUP will in the next few weeks be releasing a lengthy and detailed investigative report on the University of Southern Maine’s actions, which I highlight here in part because of its regional relevance. I hope that you will read this chilling story when it is released. But I wish I could say that its conclusions will be novel. We have previously issued reports on numerous other institutions, public and private, where similar events have occurred, one especially egregious example of which was National Louis University, a private institution in Chicago, which in 2012 terminated the appointments of 63 full-time faculty members with no due process and in flagrant opposition to the will of elected faculty representatives. We will also soon be reporting on similar events at Felician College, a small Catholic institution in New Jersey, which recently sent dismissal notices to sixteen full-time faculty members.

At Southern Maine, National Louis, and Felician, administrators were guided in part by the work of one Dr. Robert Dickeson, a well-established critic of the professorate and opponent of tenure, whose 2010 book, Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance, has been used by a number of administrations to restructure academic programs and terminate faculty positions. It may be worthwhile to digress for a moment to tell you a bit about this man, if only to prepare you in case anyone here in Connecticut takes a fancy to his work, as my own provost did a few years ago, much to his embarrassment after I circulated a memo about Dickeson’s history.

Robert Dickeson is a career administrator with little to no teaching or scholarly experience who first developed his ideas on program prioritization at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in the early 1980s. As a result of his efforts there, 47 faculty members, 39 of whom were tenured professors, including five of nine tenured faculty members in the Department of Anthropology, were fired without cause or due process, prompting an AAUP investigation and, in June 1984, the placement of UNC on the AAUP List of Censured Institutions. Dickeson claimed that the terminations were compelled by “program exigency” and financial considerations. Yet less than a year after the terminations went into effect, UNC ran a full-page ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education soliciting applications for 28 new faculty positions. UNC was removed from the AAUP List of Censured Institutions in 1992, but only after Dickeson’s departure permitted the adoption of new policies, recommended by AAUP, governing the termination of faculty appointments for reasons of financial exigency, and after those faculty who were dismissed won various forms of redress, including, it seems, some substantial monetary settlements, which ironically created real financial challenges for UNC. But the impact on faculty morale and institutional quality of Dickeson’s tenure persisted for some time after. Indeed, some of my AAUP colleagues in Colorado claim the effects are still felt today.

It would be foolish, even nonsensical, to deny the need for careful and forward-looking planning. Our world is changing rapidly and clearly institutions of higher education need to change as well. But change will only be effective if it is thoughtfully planned, and if the planning process involves from the start the full participation of those most knowledgeable and most impacted, the faculty.

Privatization’s emphasis on the student as “consumer” or “customer” may have another detrimental impact on academic freedom and shared governance. Colleges and universities have always been places designed to make people uncomfortable. Education can and should be joyful, but it must also be challenging, difficult, and sometimes unsettling. Yet increasingly now we hear that alongside the faculty’s right to academic freedom stands the right of students not to be “offended” or unduly disturbed by material or ideas they encounter in and out of class. To be sure, colleges and universities must protect their students from genuine threats, and the freedom of students to question and to dissent is as important as the freedom to do so of their instructors. But current demands that syllabi include “trigger warnings,” and that the university community adhere to some arbitrary standard of so-called “civil” discourse — products, I would argue, of the consumerist culture of the market — are out of place and threaten not only academic freedom but the academy’s fundamental purpose and mission.

Perhaps the most notorious example is the case of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In case there are some in the audience who have not heard of the Salaita case, let me very quickly summarize the basics. Professor Salaita was hired to a tenured position at UIUC and was set to begin his employment last summer when the administration and trustees became aware of a series of highly controversial “tweets” he had produced concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because his appointment was still formally subject to trustee approval, it was withdrawn at the last minute. From the beginning the AAUP has treated this as a case of “summary dismissal” and denial of appropriate due process. For us the issue has never been the content of Salaita’s message. One may, I must stress, consider the contents of his tweets to be juvenile, irresponsible, and repulsive and still defend Salaita’s right as a faculty member to produce them. I therefore will make no specific reference to what he said, except to acknowledge that they were highly emotional and divisive – and to some deeply offensive.

We are currently completing a thorough investigative report on the Salaita case to be published shortly that will deal in some depth with various aspects of the controversy. For now, however, I want to comment on just one of these: the issue of students. In justifying her dismissal of Prof. Salaita, the UIUC Chancellor declared:

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals. . . .

Of course, concerns raised by extramural speech about the probable classroom conduct of a faculty member can relate to that faculty member’s fitness. Controversial or offensive public comments, however, can hardly be considered as establishing clearly by themselves such unfitness, in particular when actual evidence of classroom conduct was not considered.

Indeed, I would argue that the whole notion of a “hostile learning environment” invoked in the Salaita case and many times elsewhere assumes that students have a right not to have their most cherished beliefs challenged. This assumption contradicts the central purpose of higher education, which is to challenge students to think hard about their own perspectives, whatever those might be.

One additional, but critically important, product of corporatization has been the explosive growth in the numbers of faculty hired on supposedly “temporary,” frequently part-time, contingent contracts. Today a majority of teaching in American institutions of higher education is performed by such faculty members. By Fall 2011, an estimated 71% of all faculty positions were off the tenure track. In community colleges, 70% of faculty positions were part-time, and 45% of full-time positions were off the tenure track.

In 2003, the AAUP issued a statement on Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession, which declared:

Because faculty tenure is the only secure protection for academic freedom in teaching, research, and service, the declining percentage of tenured faculty means that academic freedom is at risk. . . . Currently, neither peer review nor academic due process operates adequately to secure academic freedom for most contingent faculty members.

It has always been the AAUP’s position that full-time faculty members should be appointed only either as probationary to tenure or, after a maximum of seven years, with tenure. With respect to full-time faculty, therefore, we recognize only such appointments and consider anyone who has been teaching full-time at an institution for seven years or more as entitled to the protections of tenure, as defined by the AAUP, no matter what the faculty member’s title may be or what the university claims.

Therefore, two days ago, we published an investigation of the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, one of the nation’s preeminent medical research institutions, which offers only what it calls “term tenure,” a system whereby faculty members are provided with renewable long-term contracts instead of tenure. We find fault with the administration not only for its lack of a proper tenure system but for its recent nonrenewal of two faculty members, one with twelve and one with thirty years of service, without proper cause or due process.

But even where a proper tenure system exists, fewer faculty today are hired under the terms of that system and growing numbers are hired outside its protections, both full-time and part-time, on short-term contracts, often of just one year or even less, for year upon year upon year. Moreover, the vast majority of non-tenure-track faculty, part- and full-time, do not have professional careers outside of the academy, and most teach basic core courses rather than narrow specialties. To be sure, at some institutions, especially where there are effective collective bargaining agreements, such faculty may enjoy many, even all, the protections of tenure without the name, but such institutions are sadly the exception.

This proliferation of contingent appointments presents an imposing hurdle to both shared governance and academic freedom. With respect to governance, too frequently faculty on such appointments are denied access to participation in institutions like faculty senates or even department committees. In some disciplines — take composition instruction, for just one example — the overwhelming majority of teaching is done by such faculty, yet they have virtually no input into the content and curriculum of the programs in which they teach.

Faculty work cannot be sliced cleanly into component parts without losing the important connections that make up the entirety. The work of the faculty comprises an integrated whole; segmenting that work threatens the quality of higher education, undermines educational decision-making, undercuts academic freedom, and imposes an unacceptable cost in student learning. Therefore, teaching faculty need to participate in governance, whether they are on the tenure track or not.

It is important, I think, to also stress here that the explosive growth of hiring off the tenure track — both full-time and part-time — presents a hurdle not only to academic freedom and shared governance (not to mention as well to the economic security of those faculty whose often meager livelihoods may hang by the most flimsy of threads), but to student success. As early as 1986, AAUP’s Committee A wrote in a report “On Full-Time Non-Tenure Track Appointments,”

We question whether the intellectual mission of a college or university is well served when the institution asserts that certain basic courses are indispensable for a liberal education but then assigns responsibility for those courses to faulty members who are deemed replaceable and unnecessary to the institution.

Top-down governance systems; the growth of external influence by donors, politicians, and businesses; the explosive expansion of contingent appointments and consequent decay of the tenure system — these phenomena present hurdles to shared governance and academic freedom that are all, to some degree, products of an externally imposed process of privatization and corporatization. But there is a final hurdle that I want to speak about in concluding these remarks. And that hurdle is us — the faculty.

One hundred years ago faculty members, largely privileged and from elite institutions, gathered in New York City to form the AAUP. They defined for themselves and future generations not only the principles of academic freedom but the fundamental concerns and standards of our profession. They understood viscerally that in unity there is strength. It is a tribute to our profession that the organization they founded has survived, albeit not without its crises and failures.

Today, however, too many faculty take not only the AAUP, but, more important, academic freedom and shared governance for granted. They see these as inviolable inheritances from the past rather than, as they are, imperiled gains that must be won anew in each generation. Let me be clear: there are forces in our society today, powerful forces, who would deprive us of our academic freedom and who would transform our institutions of higher education into engines of profit instead of sources of enlightenment. But these forces pale before the challenge of our colleagues’ own apathy and indifference. Yes, it is true, we are overworked. Yes, it is true, union activism, participation in faculty governance bodies, and simple involvement can be time-consuming, tiresome, and, well, boring. Yes, it is true, we have our divisions: humanists versus scientists, business versus education faculty, part-time versus full-time, young versus old, two-year versus four-year. But if we don’t overcome these differences, if more of us don’t become active, surely we will all suffer. This, I am convinced, is the chief hurdle we must overcome.

Nearly 100 years ago, the American Association of University Professors issued the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.  AAUP principles helped build the largest and most successful system of higher education in the world.   One hundred years later, U.S. institutions of higher learning need a new commitment from faculty, students, and community allies to reclaim the possibilities that have been threatened by corporatization. I call on you to get involved. If you think you’re too busy, find the time. If you’re demoralized, get over it. If you’re indifferent, wake up.

But whatever you do, have a productive and useful conference.

Thank you.

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