The Weak vs. the Wrong, and an Emerging Alternative for Faculty Governance

The following essay by Christopher Newfield, Professor of Literature and American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is reposted with permission from Chris’s and Michael Meranze’s Remaking the University blog. 

Rockefeller & WR Harper 1901 U ChicagoWe’re many years now into the New Normal for public universities. We’ve known for a while that this means permanent budgetary austerity.  We get regular quantifications of the continuing funding problem. Another one, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, calculates that appropriations fell 20 percent per full-time student from 2008-13, and 26 percent for public research universities.

Michael and I have had to use this space to make a couple of further points.  One is that the New Normal directly damages faculty and student welfare.  You can see more material on this in a talk that Michael and I gave at UC Berkeley last fall. It tied budgetary austerity to the the decline in faculty welfare–and to weakening faculty governance, which I’ll be discussing here.

The other point we’ve argued is that senior public university managers and boards have accepted New Normal austerity in practice.  This year, after much stormy drama in Oakland and Sacramento, and a declaration of victory from President Janet Napolitano, UC’s state budget increments remained a quarter of UCOP’s previously-stated need (see Alternative C in the chart).

In addition, the past couple of years have clarified the kind of executive governance that the New Normal assumes.  An early example was the June 2012 Board firing-rehiring of the president of the University of Virginia.  Since then, the heads of university systems and/or flagship campuses in California, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, Iowa and North Carolina have attracted national attention because they do not bridge the professional-managerial divide but represent the managerial side.   The managerial side has a theory of governance I’ll outline, because both faculty and students need to figure out a better response to it.


The theory rests on venerable autocratic practice in private universities, many founded by wealthy magnates who assumed they would be governed like their corporations.  Top-down presidentialism and governing board sovereignty were also adopted by 19th century public universities. They have been reinforced by a movement led by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which was originally co-founded by Lynne Cheney. ACTA’s theory of governance is that the brand and the agenda of a university must be owned by its board of trustees, who are the most–really the only–responsible agents in academia.

During the summer that the University of Illinois was rescinding Steven Salaita’s job, ACTA issued a report called Governance for a New Era.  Its premise was that the unprecedented criticism directed at the country’s higher ed system required much firmer leadership from the top.

Trustees should take a more active role in reviewing and benchmarking the work of faculty and administrators and monitoring outcomes. Too many have seen their role narrowly defined as boosters, cheerleaders, and donors. They should ask the questions that need to be asked and exercise due diligence. They must not be intermittent or passive fiduciaries of a billion dollar industry critical to the preparation of America’s next leaders. Shared governance—which demands an inclusive decision-making process—cannot and must not be an excuse for board inaction at a time when America’s pre-eminent role in higher education is threatened.

ACTA claims that only trustees see the big picture.  “That is why trustees must have the last word when it comes to guarding the central values of American higher education–academic excellence and academic freedom.”  Faculty may opine about their own freedoms, as the University of Wisconsin-Madison Senate recently did in writing restored tenure rights. But the scope of these freedoms, in ACTA theory, should be at the sole discretion of executive boards.

In the ACTA new-era governance model, UIUC’s then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise was not violating shared governance by firing Prof. Salaita, but fulfilling it.  A hundred years ago, the autocratic executive was already Veblen’s nightmare, and autocracy’s statutory bases largely remain in place.  (See the UC Regents’ Standing Order 100 for presidential powers, which cover most management powers that there are, including control of a faculty member’s ability to communicate with a regent).  Specific instances of board authority have been contested, as in the 2014 Kansas twitter controversy that Michael analyzed in the LARB, and in the Salaita lawsuit that was largely validated in its first court test.  But the theory of board power is not being challenged as such.

As they go about their business of maintaining the university’s brand, boards are asked to remember that universities are failing (this was a core thesis of the Spellings Report), that faculty as the traditional core are responsible for those failures, and that faculty will therefore accuse boards of damaging academics in order to deflect blame.   That’s what faculty always say when their interests aren’t being put first, ACTA teaches, so faculty complaints can (and must) be ignored.  Thus it was a kind of badge of honor for the Iowa board to defy the faculty view that semi-retired businessman Bruce Harreld was unqualified to lead the University of Iowa.  The key ACTA innovation is teaching trustees to claim professional authority in serving as the sole voice of their university, which must also be able to override faculty in speaking in the name of students.  (Hence Chancellor Wise’s claim to be protecting them in de-hiring Prof. Salaita).

As though on cue (h/t Ragman), Regina M. Millner, President of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, writes in Trusteeship Magazine, “The important role of governing boards in setting the agenda cannot be overlooked or underestimated.” Part of that role, Ms. Millner makes clear, is accepting fiscal austerity as a driver of positive change.

In Wisconsin, deep cuts in general-fund support for the University of Wisconsin (UW) System have prompted us to reconsider how we can better align our resources to meet the needs and interests of the state and its people. It involves not just doing more with less, but fundamental changes to our planning, procedures, and programs.

Ms. Millner isn’t only not sorry about the politically-imposed cuts to the UW system.  She treats austerity as way to override planning, procedures, and programs that in normal times were controlled by academics.  Again, this direct intervention is, in ACTAworld, what boards are supposed to do.

Executive board rule obviously contradicts basic democratic political theory and the related understandings of political rights. Of course American corporations are not democracies, and over the course of a century and a half they have established a legal framework that supports the various forms of dictatorial or military-style command that we take for granted. “Workplace democracy” remains anathema and at-will firing remains a sign of the U.S.’s proudly anti-democratic workplace–proudly in the sense that our business culture equates suppressing democracy with suppresses inefficiency.

And yet universities have historically injected the rights of professional expertise (though not of democratic citizenship) into command-and-control corporate management practice.  Universities have always represented a third mode of governance that is neither political democracy nor corporate despotism.  It is into this ambiguous zone of limited, ambiguous, academic self-governance–limited like the wi-fi signal that only covers your living room–that ACTA and subtler entities intervene, the better to assimilate university governance to the corporate model.


The claim that university management is increasingly and deliberately unilateral would have been heretical to most faculty a few years ago.  Few executives and board members echo ACTA directly, and most top-down interventions seem driven by external crises. But recent events have shifted faculty perceptions.

One example is the University of Wisconsin.  When Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies bundled budget cuts to the elimination of tenure from state statute, UW system president Ray Cross and Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank seemed to be caught between the pols and their faculty, in the classic bridge position. (For background, see Michael’s overview or my IHE piece).  But over the months of negotiation, many faculty members began to feel that President Cross was trading stronger tenure away–and that perhaps Chancellor Blank was backing him against her own faculty. Many concluded that senior managers’ defenses of professorial status were fronting for expansions of their authority.

The issue blew up again two weeks ago, following the publication of an October 22 email from Chancellor Blank in which she stated that President Cross was not in fact backing the right of faculty to write new campus-based tenure protections.  The press coverage (local here and here and IHE here) and faculty analyses concluded that Board members and top officials were indeed going to impose weaker state standards on faculty rather than support faculty’s professional claims.  Good faculty analyses include Prof. Nick Fleischer’s “UW Tenure: the End” and Prof. Nancy Kendall’s Open Letter to the UW Madison Faculty.   I’ll come back to the Kendall letter below.

Another example comes from California, where the generally deferential UC Academic Senate objected this summer to President Janet Napolitano’s disregard for Senate consultation.  On August 25, 2015, outgoing Senate chair Mary Gilly wrote to “highlight four notable instances from this past year in which we believe the Senate was insufficiently consulted on issues where its advice would have made a positive difference.”   Two of these involved the Office of the President starting academic programs without running the plans by their academics.  The third was the “drastically lowered cap” in the defined benefit portion of the UC Retirement Plan, again imposed “without any Senate consultation.” The fourth was UCOP conveying to the Regents a June 2015 Rand Health Report on UC Health System governance without any Senate comment.

Chair Gilly concluded with the hope that non-consultation was not UCOP’s preference but was thrust upon it by “difficult negotiations with the State government.”  But her letter appears to have been prompted by a more severe comment from the University Committee on Planning and Budget (UCPB), in which the chair of that committee, L. Gary Leal, noted that “the November budget was actively withheld from UCPB until the day before it was presented to the Regents” (emphasis in original).  He listed a series of fundamental budget conditions, including the addition of 5000 students at a discounted general fund rate of $5000 per head, that were never discussed with the faculty.  “Even for the 3% salary increment,” he adds, “where we (and other Senate committees) had very strong recommendations, the actions were quite different and the rationale was not explained or discussed either ahead of time or after the fact.”

Replacing actual with merely formal shared governance isn’t only a matter of bad organizational theory, for it has negative real effects. One has been UCOP’s creation of a task force to change the UC Retirement Plan via the cap on eligible salary noted above and a new Defined Contribution plan (DCP), the latter in direct opposition to the recommendation of the last full review of the pension plan in 2010.  The lack of open discussion about the sources, motives, and goals of these changes has sown confusion and suspicion even among insiders to the process. One writes,

I have been asking UCOP for a copy of the agreement between UC and the governor [that supposedly requires the DCP], and no one can produce it.  No one can also say what its status is or how it relates to the state budget, but campuses are making decisions on 3-year degrees, transfer students, and online education on the deal that, as far as I can tell, no one has ever seen. I had to convince two members of the pension task force that the DCP alternative is not in the state budget.  So UC wanted it in the deal, it did not make it into the deal, and now UCOP is saying it is coming from the state or the governor.

When a few people order major changes to an institution with 450,000 students and staff without consultation, deliberation, or even written documents, it’s a textbook case of oligarchy.  We need to be able to use such words, even as ACTA and the broader management culture define oligarchy as progress.


The traditional Senate response is to invoke consultation protocols and declare their value.  Prof. Leal does this well, noting that “UCPB has, in the past, been an important source of knowledgeable advice to the University administration.” Having been there for most of the 2000s, I can confirm that this is completely true: UCPB got key issues right well before UCOP did, particularly the secular trend of declining public funding and the urgent need to explain it to the public. In a cooperative spirit, Chair Gilly ended by writing, “we look forward to improving communication between UCOP and the Senate and on devising better methods for responding to timelines that are external to UC.”

In reality, the problem is not that the Senate can’t communicate or respond quickly.  Faculty members write grants, teach classes, and give speeches on strict deadlines that we continuously meet. Communicating to deadline is a core faculty competence.  Admin denies this ability only as a pretext for withholding information and avoiding discussion.  The Senate’s appeal to UCOP conscience underplays the extent to which non-consultation is a deliberate strategy.

A non-traditional faculty response appears in the letter by UW-Madison Professor Nancy Kendall that I mentioned earlier. She starts by noting that a group of faculty were right when admin was wrong, particularly on the point “that Act 55 would not simply move existing tenure policy from state legislation into Board of Regents policy.”

She elaborates this later: Chancellor Blank “told us Act 55 wouldn’t fundamentally change tenure or shared governance. She was wrong. She told us that UW-Madison would be able to make its own tenure policy, unencumbered by the System policies foisted on other campuses.  She was wrong.” These statements are important both for establishing the factual record and for modeling faculty treating executives as equals rather than superiors, as members of the same community.

Prof. Kendall goes on to call out attacks on skeptics that labeled them as too extreme for reasonable faculty to work with. These attacks “need to be acknowledged and addressed–through public apologies where warranted, and through acknowledgment from those of us who have benefited from their efforts to educate us.”

Having highlighted the administration’s mistakes, its presumption to stand above the critical community, its efforts to ostracize critics, and the need to reverse that ostracization, Prof. Kendall proposes faculty unity across campuses and status:

We are part of a system, but we have not acted as such, believing ourselves to be insulated by our “special” status as the state’s flagship university. This is elitist, it is morally shameful, and it is political suicide. None of us is more deserving of tenure than our colleagues at every other campus in this system. That is and must be the core of the tenure argument: every faculty member needs tenure in order to be able to teach, conduct research, and communicate our ideas freely, without political or administrative pressure. When some faculty lose tenure, the moral basis for arguing for tenure is undermined. Indeed, instead of throwing faculty at other campuses under the bus, or arguing that tenure is only important to help retain “star” faculty on our campus, we should be working with colleagues across the state to expand tenure protections to employees who currently conduct teaching and research on our campuses without these protections.

Prof. Kendall is calling for faculty solidarity–the clear prerequisite to meaningful influence–by articulating the ethical value of the freedom to teach, learn, and govern. This forms the basis of an alternative, faculty-centered vision of what the university should be.

I share Prof. Kendall’s organizational ethics (I’ve also argued for expanded tenure in the IHE piece linked above).  The related practical point is that she also offers more effective organizational behavior.  The critical self-governance exemplified by the letter cures boardroom blindness by immersing senior managers in the actual life of the institution. It supports the “learning organization’s” proverbial “cross functional teams.” It increases creativity by sharing data and expanding deliberation.  It makes criticism an asset rather than an excuse for shunning people.  It sees freedom and democracy as intrinsic to higher learning.

Nancy Kendall’s open letter seems confrontational, and it is.  But is also a better management theory than the hard-ACTA of its reports or the soft-ACTA of everyday senior managers, both of which hold universities back.

Photo:  John D. Rockefeller and William Rainey Harper (respectively on right-hand side) at the University of Chicago, 1901

One thought on “The Weak vs. the Wrong, and an Emerging Alternative for Faculty Governance

  1. Christopher Newfield argues that senior level managers have accepted the austerity as the “new normal.” This is not surprising given the salaries they are paid. Today the salaries of many university presidents are 5-10 times what the average faculty member makes and senior level administrators stand to earn bonuses and receive other forms of deferred compensation. As a result, they have a lot more to lose if they challenge the neoliberal agenda to stratify and privatize higher education. This is why corporatization of higher education is tied to the defunding of public higher education.

    Trustees represent the corporate elites, the top 1%, and for them to exert more control and move higher education away from being a public good they need loyal servants. So they have created a professional class of administrators who are highly paid and move from campus to campus. Even if they leave disasters in their wake, they seem to have no problem finding new jobs as long as they have been loyal servants and do not challenge the “new normal.”

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