The case for faculty self-governance

As Gerry Canavan has eloquently pointed out, the perpetual crisis mentality of higher ed is an indication that the very large and expensive management class that has taken over universities in recent decades is an utter failure. Well-managed universities should not need significant “flexibility” in their course offerings semester to semester, for example, nor should they be blindsided by demographic trends that were easily predictable decades ahead of time. Gerry notes, of course, that the apparent “failure” of the autonomous administration class actually reflects a success on another level: they want to destroy the traditional university, and using constant crises to force budget cuts is a great way to destroy anything.

The exact form this destruction took was perhaps not predestined, but in retrospect, it was inevitable that putting people without a deep investment in academia into administrative positions would lead to the undermining of traditional academic institutions (such as tenure, etc.). This tendency became exacerbated once administrators began jumping from campus to campus as a routine part of their career path. At that point, your focus is on building the resume to get the next better position, not on the future of your current institution.

It doesn’t require any individual to be a bad person — it’s a structural problem of incentives. And the only way to align incentives appropriately is faculty self-governance. I’m in favor of a very strong system of self-governance, where all academic administrators are appointed out of the regular tenured faculty of the university with limited, renewable terms.

In my ideal system, literally no university would ever do an outside search for dean or provost, ever, and there would be a minimum time served requirement before any new faculty hires could do administrative tasks. This would ensure that all administrators are absolutely tied to the future of their current institution and would be anticipating rejoining the regular faculty in the future. If they screwed over their colleagues, they would have to live among them as a peer for decades to come.

This system would also presumably inculcate broader loyalty to academia as such, pushing against the destruction of the teaching profession via adjunctification, etc., etc. But even if it didn’t have such wide-ranging effects, it would at least keep administrators from actively destroying their own institutions, simply out of self-interest.

Now I know that self-governed faculties are to blame for the rise of the current situation. They chose their short-term interests over the long-term interests of the profession, and we’re all paying the price. The same could be said about labor unions more generally — they sold out and began looking solely inward, allowing a two-tiered system of labor to emerge. But just as something like a union is the only conceivable way to increase workers’ collective bargaining power, so also is something like faculty governance the only way to preserve academia as an autonomous, self-reproducing institution. The only alternative is to hand all the power over to the bosses, and the bosses as a class — no matter how nice or kind-spirited an individual boss might be — only care about enriching themselves and destroying anything that could challenge their power.

15 thoughts on “The case for faculty self-governance

  1. While the problem is felt to be very close on AUFS, the failure of the management class also exerts its malignancy in other areas; health care is one case, though it is not utterly divorced from academia. The management class of ‘managed care’ had first grown alongside, then eventually within the health care delivery system, and it advanced
    upon the assertion of the ineptitude of physicians (and other health care professionals as well) to govern themselves.

    The management class has crept into hospital administration as well, and pits management against patients and health professionals in a purported zeero-sum game (well, it actually has become a zero sum game when the sums are monetary). I suspect that university administrators would find running universities without faculty and students far more rewarding than with them; just as I suspect managers of health care would find their task more rewarding without doctors, nurse and patients.

    The level of absurdity depends on how one calculates ‘reward.’

  2. I’m curious – how do you envision this concept would scale at the community college level? Do you see it functioning much the same way as with universities?

  3. Community college faculty are more likely to be unionized than faculty at universities. As a result, they are already better off in some ways.

  4. To add to that, though, faculty unionization is in some ways the abandonment of self-government. It is essentially saying “we will never be able to achieve self-governance, so we have to band together, dig in, and accept the war being waged against us by administrators.”

  5. Hill, why are community college faculty more likely to be unionized?

    What communities do you have in mind?

    Why are bands digging in not self-governance? Which self is the most important self to govern itself: the collective of faculty who have some shared interest in their joint educational responsibilities, the individual faculty member who works alone in a closed office with a closed classroom with only their own concerns, the entire academic institution combining together physical plant, administrative staff, custodians, and counselors for the students? Does this make sense? There’s lots of selves, which are not the same as human individuals, so who is the self abandoning its own governance, and what prompted you to decide that that self is the most important one who needs to retain its self-governance?

  6. How would you envision University non-faculty staff in such an arrangement? Unionized and bargaining with faculty management? Or a part of the self-governing apparstus in a more direct capacity. I could envision conflicts over running of libraries, for example, that would go beyond benefits and payment issues.

  7. I’m not sure. I was thinking primarily in terms of strictly academic administrators (deans, provosts, etc.). A more participatory model for other administrative staff, which we have at Shimer, could be good as well.

  8. Community college employees, due to being somewhat disconnected from the “prestige economy” that drives faculty at research universities. As a result, they seem to have an easier time seeing themselves as employees. In practice, at least in California, many community college faculty are unionized. The reason I described this as not self-governance is that the formation of a union formalizes an antagonistic relationship between the administration and the faculty. That might be the right thing to do. But under traditional self-governance that Adam describes, there wouldn’t be such a thing as an administrator that wasn’t also a faculty member. Unionization is a perfectly legitimate response, but I think once it happens, there’s no going back short of a full reboot.

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