Higher Education Is Changing, and So Must “Shared Governance”

Those of us in the higher ed reform community have argued for years that the traditional college model is going to experience gale force winds of change. Technological innovations and new economic realities will force colleges to adapt to conditions far different from the “fat years” they enjoyed from the mid-60s through the 90s when money gushed in, enrollments mushroomed, and Americans came to think that getting a B.A. was almost as essential as oxygen.

But throughout much of the higher education establishment, such predictions were for the most part dismissed. One thing that made it easy for the establishment to take a head-in-the-sand stance was that most of the talk about impending revolutionary change came from outsiders like the Pope Center, National Association of Scholars, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

In academia, those critics are all regarded as “right-wing” and perforce not to be regarded seriously. But now some non-right voices are saying many of the same things about change that we “outsiders” have been saying, and it appears that heads will need to be pulled out of the sand.

Two such voices are William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin, both former college presidents (Princeton and Hamilton, respectively) who grasp the crucial fact that the good old days are gone. In their new book, Locus of Authority, they tackle the traditional shared governance system (that is, the division of responsibility between the administration and the faculty).

That system needs to change because it is getting in the way of the flexibility that’s now essential. Bowen and Tobin write, “Almost every contemporary issue facing higher education, from broadening access to achieving better learning outcomes, to increasing productivity and lowering costs, is impeded and frustrated by a hundred-year-old system of governance practices that desperately needs modification.”

A substantial amount of the book is historical, and in the early years of higher education in America, there was no doubt that the locus of authority was not the faculty. Professors did as they were told by the administration. Starting with the formation of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, however, the faculty began claiming a bigger and bigger role in running things; by 1966 the AAUP’s “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities” asserted “sweeping” rights to participate in university governance.

The sentiment among many professors then and now was captured in an exchange that Dwight Eisenhower had with Professor Isidore Rabi, recounted here.

Professor Rabi had been awarded the Nobel Prize and at a ceremony in honor of his achievement, Ike, who was at the time president of Columbia, gave a speech in which he said that it was glad that an employee of the university had won the Nobel. Professor Rabi interrupted, saying, “Excuse me sir, but the faculty are not employees of the university. The faculty are the university.”

What’s wrong with letting those highly educated, devoted people have a major say in how their colleges will operate? However liberal most of them may be politically, when it comes to their jobs, they are very conservative. Those who have succeeded in obtaining faculty positions are not apt to want experimentation or change, unless it means more money, a lower teaching load, or other benefits for them.

And that faculty conservatism often becomes a roadblock when change is needed. When it comes to cost controls, say Bowen and Tobin, most faculty members are averse to even talking about them. When revenues decline, they would rather take (the authors here quote Clark Kerr) a “wait for the sun to shine again” approach.

If the administration should propose changes to almost anything, the faculty tends to close ranks and insists on “studying” the proposal indefinitely. And sometimes, more forceful tactics are necessary, including litigation.

One of the four case studies in the book covers the City University of New York (CUNY), where the faculty and its aggressive union (the Professional Staff Congress) actually took Chancellor Matthew Goldstein to court, trying to block his “Pathways Initiative” which created a new set of general education requirements and transfer guidelines across all of the colleges in the university. Its lawsuit was dismissed since, the court stated, state law clearly gave the administration that authority.

And when online education programs are suggested, the faculty often turns defensive, even intransigent. Bowen and Tobin discuss two much ballyhooed initiatives—University of Illinois’ Global Campus and University of California Online Education—that flopped in large measure because the faculty wanted them to.

Yet another obstructionist tactic that the faculty have resorted to is claiming that they must “have a say” on a wide array of issues because they supposedly implicate “academic freedom.” The authors are great defenders of academic freedom properly understood, but call out the AAUP’s efforts at extending it almost without limit. 

They approvingly quote CUNY general counsel Frederick Schaffer’s point that “there is hardly any aspect of university life on which the AAUP has not expressed an opinion and which, according to the AAUP, is not an aspect of academic freedom.” Among those are the use of arbitration in cases of dismissal, standards for notices of non-reappointment, and permissible grounds for disciplinary action. 

Casting a realistic eye on higher education in 2015, the authors write that although the faculty should have “a seat at the table,” a college’s final decision-making authority “needs to be located unambiguously in the hands of senior administrators with campus, university, and sector-wide perspectives—who can and should be held accountable for their decisions.”

Increasingly, Bowen and Tobin see, “nimbleness” will be a virtue. Colleges and universities that cling to the old shared governance system are apt to suffer or even die. One characteristic of the old system that must go is the idea that certain issues “belong to the faculty.”

No doubt, the authors are correct. In the rapidly changing market for post-secondary education, colleges will have to find better governance systems if they want to remain afloat. 

Locus of Authority has a strong warning against complacency for the higher education community, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like a book that’s “must reading.” The cover is dark gray and the subtitle, “The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education,” isn’t likely to make people think, “This is really important.”

But it is.