Beware of the Faux Middle Ground

By Hans-Joerg Tiede

Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education by William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

The book under review purports to be concerned with the role of the faculty in the governance of institutions of higher education. It isn’t. Or, more precisely, it is really a book that was created under the auspices of a not-for-profit organization, Ithaka, that aims to promote the use of information technologies in higher education, and so it is concerned first and foremost with overcoming perceived faculty resistance to online instruction. Undermining the faculty’s role in institutional governance is thus a rather natural plan of attack.

It is perhaps a testament to the success of the AAUP throughout the last one hundred years that administrators frequently pledge themselves to the principles of academic freedom and shared governance. I have no reason to doubt that most of them are serious in their appreciation of these bedrocks of US higher education, but some administrators have been known to express their wholehearted agreement with these principles just as they are actively destroying them. The authors of this book fall into the second category. Thus, following the authors’ repeated pledges that of course they don’t wish to reduce the faculty’s role in institutional governance, stands the following statement, which is arguably the central thesis of the book: “To be absolutely blunt, it is time for individual faculty to give up, cheerfully and not grudgingly, any claim to sole authority of teaching methods of all kinds.”

My response to this dictum is not cheerful. Neither is this review.

That this book was written by two former university presidents is painfully clear throughout. Their view of the faculty is entirely defined by an administrative perspective. This becomes apparent early on, when the authors disclaim any faculty role in institutional leadership—a function the authors reserve only for presidents, other “key” administrators, and trustees. Why it should be that senates, faculty committees, and their chairs are not to play a role in institutional leadership is not explained but simply asserted. One is left wondering why to read on when the authors claim, in the introduction, that instead of providing leadership, the faculty’s role is to “encourage (and facilitate) the wise exercise of leadership by others or, conversely, throw limitless amounts of sand in the wheels.” Using the same sort of question-begging false dichotomies to describe the role of the faculty, the authors note, “We are persuaded that faculty roles are of prime importance at this juncture—both positively, in terms of the ability to drive badly needed substantive change, and negatively, in terms of the ability to stand in the way of change.”

Of course, if administrators can be assumed to be wise and change can be assumed to be badly needed, then any faculty opposition to administrative proposals is just a matter of throwing sand in the wheels and standing in the way of change. Simply put: to begin a book on the role of the faculty in institutional governance with this point of view is to start at a dead end. It is a dead end the authors never manage to maneuver their way out of.

Central to the authors’ efforts to overcome faculty resistance to online learning is the following question: “We must ask whether it is reasonable to expect a century-old structure of shared governance to enable colleges and universities of all kinds to respond to new demands for more cost-effective student learning.” It is perhaps a sign of how much higher education administration is driven by management fads, as well as fads of other kinds, that simply describing a governance structure as “century-old” is apparently sufficient to call its adequacy into question. But why, then, do the authors not ask, seriously, whether a four-hundred-year-old system of governance that is based on lay governing boards is still adequate? It is a question the founders of the AAUP asked a century ago, and, given the multitude of recent examples that one can marshal of wrongheaded interference by governing boards—the University of Virginia, the University of Illinois, and Sweet Briar College come to mind—it is a question that is not as outlandish as it might appear. Yet, one has to surmise that this question simply does not advance their goal of overcoming faculty resistance to “more cost-effective student learning.”

The book consists of three parts: an overview of the history of governance in US higher education, a programmatic discussion of current issues in governance, and a collection of case studies. As the authors acknowledge, the chapters on the history of governance simply summarize the well-known canon of secondary literature. Any reader interested in this particular aspect of the book would be well advised to read the cited works or Larry Gerber’s recent book The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance (reviewed in the May–June 2015 issue of Academe) instead of the book under review. Even the programmatic second part, which contains much of the material discussed above, is at times lacking in originality and contains stretches that are simply summaries of other work and personal e-mail messages from colleagues who describe certain governance practices on their campuses.

Throughout the book, quotations from former University of California president Clark Kerr are offered like scripture, with a frequency and reverence that crosses the border into hero worship: the index entry for “Kerr” is longer than the index entry for “faculty roles,” the ostensible topic of the book. And perhaps no better example of the authors’ views of the role of the faculty in institutional governance can be found than the case study of the University of California, where the discussion of governance in the 1960s under Kerr over the course of eight pages is almost entirely about Kerr’s actions and hardly ever mentions the faculty at all.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this book is the constant rhetorical assumption of a middle ground that is not borne out by the program the book advocates. Particularly striking here is a footnote on page 6 that describes the positions of Gerber, on the one hand, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), on the other, as extremes between which the authors claim to promote their own, moderate, views. It is simply not credible to consider Gerber’s claim that the corporatization of US higher education has undermined the faculty’s role in governance to be equally far removed from the mainstream as ACTA’s program of encouraging members of governing boards to take a much more active role in the actual management of institutions of higher education. And thus, the authors’ claim really places them far from the middle ground they claim to occupy. As such, the book provides camouflage for a program that undermines the role of the faculty in governance.

Hans-Joerg Tiede is a senior program officer in the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance. His e-mail address is [email protected].