From the Editor: Academic Governance

By Michael DeCesare

The future of traditional academic governance is uncertain.

By traditional, I mean the type described in the jointly formulated 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which asserts the necessity of “shared responsibility” and “joint effort” among an institution’s faculty, administration, and board and specifies the primary responsibilities of each.

The future is uncertain, in part, because fewer board members and presidents seem to believe in joint effort, seeking instead to escape whenever possible from the “inescapable interdependence” described in the statement. The ugly results—sham presidential searches, dissolution of faculty senates, and summary dismissals of faculty—have damaged traditional governance.

We face political and ideological threats, too, most recently in the form of political litmus tests for hiring faculty and state bills to eliminate tenure. Just prior to these abhorrent developments, an enterprising young conservative created the “Professor Watchlist,” a blacklist of faculty who supposedly “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” Political interference in academia has reached the point where it is frighteningly easy to imagine the commander in chief himself meddling in an institution’s governance, perhaps by tweeting “YOU’RE FIRED!!!” at faculty who displease him.

And then there are the well-documented structural and economic factors that continue to weaken academic governance: shamefully low levels of state funding for public universities; overreliance on non-tenure-track faculty; the growing insistence that faculty use academic technology in the conduct of their courses; administrative bloat; and the appointment of individuals with little or no academic experience to chancellorships, presidencies, and other high-level administrative positions. This is not an exhaustive list.

Finally, cultural changes threaten academic governance. There is, for example, a growing belief that job training should be the sole purpose of higher education. If faculty are to impart the habits of mind necessary for citizens to participate in a democracy, we need a central role in the governance of our institutions. But if we are simply to train obedient workers, we do not. A second cultural shift was the replacement of academic government with shared governance, a term that does not appear in the 1966 statement. The faculty lost a great deal with that substitution, for shared suggests that administrators and trustees are entitled to an equal share in all decisions—including those in areas of faculty primacy. Language has a deceptively powerful ability to transform what we perceive and how we think and act.

My hope is that the articles in this special issue can contribute to such a transformation. Susan Jarosi and Avery Kolers describe the ongoing conflict over governance at the University of Louisville. Afshan Jafar and her colleagues argue that governance work at a small college can be a form of faculty activism. Jonathan A. Poritz and Jonathan Rees critique the expanding role of academic technology. Nicole Monnier describes participating in governance as a non-tenure-track faculty member. In a cautionary tale, Andrew Pieper recounts Kennesaw State University’s recent presidential search. And in our online edition, Sine Anahita discusses the effects of Title IX enforcement on governance, while Nina Tamrowski and her colleagues explain the process of institutionalizing faculty governance.

If traditional academic governance is to survive, faculty must continue to resist the trends that threaten it. The contributors to this issue make clear that collective action and political activism will be our most effective weapons.