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From the Editor: The State of Academic Governance

By Michael Ferguson

What is the state of governance now? By most ac­counts, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a crisis for faculty governance, as administrations and boards used the public-health emergency to justify unilateral decisions to close programs, lay off faculty and staff, and change institutional policies. At the eight in­stitutions investigated in the AAUP’s report COVID-19 and Academic Governance and at many other similarly situated colleges and universities, “COVID-19 served as an accelerant, turning the gradual erosion of shared governance . . . into a landslide.”

Beyond this immediate crisis, recent AAUP research has painted a mixed picture of long-term governance trends. Findings from the 2021 AAUP Shared Gov­ernance Survey—presented in this issue and in two previously published reports—document the grim conditions in the pandemic’s wake while also showing that in some areas and on some campuses, at least, faculty influence is not in decline. In this issue’s open­ing feature, Hans-Joerg Tiede discusses the survey’s findings in key AAUP policy areas, including the composition of governance bodies, faculty-board com­munication, and the conduct of presidential searches.

Subsequent articles provide firsthand accounts of governance struggles in these and other areas. Shawn Gilmore, a senior lecturer with an extensive record of governance service, discusses the lack of institutional support and compensation that remains an obstacle to contingent faculty participation in governance at his university and elsewhere. Nicholas Fleisher, recounting the years-long saga of the University of Wisconsin’s presidential search, provides a case study in the problems posed by the politicization of boards and the use of closed searches. Matthew Dean Hindman finds evidence of “the creeping corporatization of higher education” in recent efforts to undermine discipline-based departments at the University of Tulsa. And authors from the Jesuit Higher Education Labor Coalition, focusing on pandemic-era cuts, call out the hypocrisy of leaders who espouse Jesuit values while imposing budget austerity and opposing the labor rights of campus workers.

The last two features in the print edition confront the threat posed by recent attacks on teaching about race. As Rana Jaleel shows in her discussion of the high stakes of these attacks, it makes no difference that opponents of critical race theory appear to have little understanding of the field or its evolution over the past four decades; on the contrary, the term’s obscurity, its openness to manipulation by right-wing politicians and media outlets, is the point. Finally, William Avilés tells of how faculty, staff, and administrators from the Uni­versity of Nebraska recently persuaded a majority of the regents to vote down a board resolution opposing critical race theory. This outcome, in a state as deeply conservative as Nebraska, may be heartening, but it is also a reminder of the dire implications—for norms of governance, for academic freedom, for the teaching of American history itself—of the many similar measures now advancing across the country.

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