Faculty Governance and Special-Interest Centers

New entities challenge the traditional role of the faculty.
By Mary Burgan

In the past decade or so, the practice of faculty governance has become increasingly vexed by the proliferation of specialinterest research and teaching centers sponsored by outside benefactors who expect to be involved in the content and management of programs they pay for. University administrations, strapped for resources and hungry for fame, have found it difficult to turn down any offer of support for teaching and research, even if it comes with ideological mandates. In the current era of budgetary stringency, it is more important than ever for faculty to be alert to ventures that threaten to unbalance core budgetary priorities and erode academic freedom.

Although the AAUP has issued thoughtful guidelines on the need for faculty oversight in the context of outside funding in academe, it has not yet commented extensively on the governance issues involved in the establishment of special-interest centers there. The 2004 Statement on Corporate Funding of Academic Research does outline steps for faculty assessment of possible interference by outside interests, but it concentrates on sponsored research done by individuals more than on sponsored programs. Meanwhile centers, institutes, and schools are regularly proposed by well-meaning friends of the academy who want to sponsor some special program or by ideologues who aim to provide “balance” to redress the imagined biases of higher education. The programs that result tend to be narrowly defined and politically charged. Moreover, their sponsors are likely to assume the kind of ownership that demands a say in all of their operations—setting the curriculum, appointing faculty, granting scholarships, inviting visiting lecturers, and the like.

The strategy of establishing centers to redress a purported blindness to neglected areas of study or a supposed resistance to oppositional ideas is not a new development in higher education; indeed, it has been the basis for the creation of a number of respected academic centers. Since the late 1940s, many new programs, created through faculty approval and ongoing faculty governance, have enriched research and teaching by opening up neglected areas and new methodologies for study. As a matter of fact, the spirit of interdisciplinarity has become a hallmark of the contemporary academy, giving rise to programs and departments everywhere—comparative literature, forensic studies, film studies, religious studies, informatics, environmental studies, and the like. Such interdisciplinary programs have been controversial at times, but when they have been administered carefully and with ample faculty participation, they have become integral parts of many institutions.

Nevertheless, even such established programs may pose problems for faculty governance. For example, the locus of tenure for faculty is a besetting issue for almost every interdisciplinary center discussed in this essay—traditional or newly established. And there is also the continuing problem of funding over the long term. Programs may be initiated with the promise of continuing resources, but all too often the funding priorities of foundations shift, private benefactions prove to be inadequate, or the promised money is never raised. The program then becomes anomalous, and the campus that hosts it is left holding the bag. In pointing to these and other problems for governance in special-interest programs, it seems useful to offer a survey of their varieties in the current academy.

Area Studies

In the days of the cold war, various interdisciplinary units were established in colleges and universities to concentrate research and teaching in geographical regions previously neglected. These “area studies” centers were initially funded by Ford and other foundations and then by the federal government. They were designed both to widen the university’s geographical focus and to train language and culture specialists. Thus Slavic studies, East Asian studies, and Middle Eastern studies found homes on many campuses, commanding the energies of faculty from an array of departments like history, political science, anthropology, and, of course, foreign languages. Although these units were meant to be free of ideology, they often carried the flavor of identity politics, not only because of their focus on U.S. foreign affairs, but also because a number of their faculty had natural links with partisan exile communities.

Most area studies programs started on soft-money grants that had to be renewed at frequent intervals; for this reason, many of their faculty were not granted tenure, and the academic freedom of these faculty was therefore constrained. Non-tenuretrack faculty in these programs also lived under funding anxiety when approaches to international studies shifted. Thus they became a permanent underclass in higher education, often ignored because of the relative obscurity of their programs. In fact, their instability forewarned of the present plight of contingent faculty in the academy. Finally, given the post–September 11 tensions in America, several new questions about area studies have arisen— for example, whether their reliance on outside funding has been affected by world events that imperil their independence.

Minority or Cultural Studies

The civil rights movement of the 1960s and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s pointed to the absence of minority points of view in the academy and opened up a range of unexplored experience and materials in the process. The response in many colleges and universities was to redress the neglect by setting up such programs as women’s, African American, and Hispanic studies. Although these programs claimed disinterest, they also took on advocacy roles, and in some cases served as seedbeds for political activity.

Similarly, other cultural subgroups have begun to lobby for their own centers. In many cases, their funders have been citizens associated with a specific ethnic, religious, or national group. Thus, for example, Notre Dame has the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, complete with resources for endowed professorships, scholarships, and student exchanges at institutions in Ireland. And Brown University has the Catskills Institute—“an organization to promote research and education on the significance of the Catskill Mountains for American Jewish life”—founded by the families of some of the proprietors of resorts in the borscht belt.

Many cultural-identity centers and institutes have defined themselves in ways that suggest that their teaching and research should be instruments for celebrating—rather than critically analyzing—the achievements of one or another of America’s ethnic entities. Such frankly interested efforts can become highly charged in the context of ethnic and regional conflicts. As noted in Academe’s September–October 2007 issue, the clashes between centers for Middle Eastern studies and those for Jewish studies have become the most notable examples of such activism. In late 2004 and 2005, for example, Columbia University was the site of extended controversies about its Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures programs, which were accused by some academic Jewish groups of presenting anti-Semitic views. In 2007, the Hillel center at Brown University became embroiled in Middle Eastern politics when its rabbi allegedly helped to inspire demonstrations against scholarly conferences sponsored by the campus center for Middle Eastern studies. The rabbi denied attempting to interfere with the curricular authority of faculty members, but the entire episode points to concerns about university faculty and staff engaging in political action while representing identity centers in the university.

Named Buildings

The linkage of special areas for study to specific donors has spread beyond disciplinarily defined programs to entire edifices in the academy. Nowadays many professional schools seek financial resources by promising to name one or another of their buildings after a benefactor. Likewise, departments or “pavilions” in academic medical centers may assign research spaces and shift their clinical focus to accommodate a named benefactor’s devotion to a disease du jour. By the same token, museums and performing arts facilities may be “given” to academic departments in the arts and humanities in the name of a patron who wants to sponsor a special collection or a favorite art form. This branding of so many areas of academic specialization can be a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it can help furnish important and needed facilities; on the other, it may displace more essential projects.

Some gifts may be too big to reject, but faculty senates should be engaged in discussing the basis for acceptance, especially through their involvement in budgetary review— a governance role that administrations tend to bypass when bargaining for a new building. Given the weight of any program’s “facts-on the-ground” structures, faculty must demand a meaningful say. Further, individual schools or programs should not be insulated from the general life of the campus. All university centers, named or otherwise, should be made available for ordinary students rather than sequestered in well-appointed public spaces available only to donors or specially approved students and faculty.

Thematic Studies

In view of the proliferation of special departments, centers, institutes, and schools, it is no wonder that critics of and donors to higher education have begun to insist upon a new kind of branding for the study centers they support. Increasingly, they want the center’s name to identify the ideologies to be fostered therein. The Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is an example of such a venture. Proposed by a group of Illinois businesspeople in 2006, the initiative caused controversy that gave rise in 2007 to a model report by an administratively appointed faculty body. The faculty senate accepted the report, agreeing that the terms of the initiative were wanting in the requirements for academic freedom and faculty governance. As a result, the academy was removed from the university proper and taken under the wing of the University of Illinois Foundation as a separate entity. However, as this article goes to press, the continuation of the academy’s relationship to the foundation, which is not subject to the university’s control, is being scrutinized (see the “Report of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Fund” at http://senate.illinois.edu/aclgf_report_of_advisory_committee.pdf). Nevertheless, the materials on its Web site (see, specifically, page 3 of the “Case Statement” for the academy at http://academyoncapitalism.org/pdf/ACLGF_CaseStmnt_JN19.pdf) suggest that this academy has retained aims that are aggressively conservative, with only a slight nod to academic rigor in a codicil to its mission statement.

A more acceptable example of a thematic institute bearing on economics and politics, the University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, was established in 2008 to honor and promulgate the work of a long-term professor of economics at the university. The idea at Chicago came from faculty members in relevant departments. After debate in the faculty senate, these faculty members drew a clear line between Friedman’s policy ideas and his methodology, asserting that “the primary connection between Friedman’s approach and the institute’s is the idea that research ought to be empirically grounded or based in real-world experiments.” All in all, then, the Chicago center has been a model for shared governance in that those who proposed its establishment sought, and received, debate in the faculty senate, and their proposal gained general acceptance from the faculty at large, with oversight by departmental faculty.

Presidential Study Centers

In a less careful effort to define the parameters of a projected study center, President George W. Bush’s proposal for a “Freedom Institute,” to be attached to his presidential library at Southern Methodist University, has raised continuing doubts among the faculty there. Early reports described this institute as devoted to “compassionate conservatism, the spread of freedom and democracy throughout the world, and defeating terrorism.” Such a mission, like that of the Illinois academy, seemed to have been defined in such a way as to restrict critical thinking severely. And so, after considerable controversy on the Dallas campus and long debate in the faculty senate, the president of SMU has tried to assure faculty that matters of academic freedom will be safeguarded through his oversight. Accordingly, the current description of the aims of the George W. Bush Policy Institute is somewhat less restrictive than that of the original Freedom Institute: “Areas of focus will include the promotion of freedom throughout the world, encouraging social entrepreneurship through faith- and community-based organizations, and reforming fundamental institutions of government to keep our country safe and our economy competitive and strong.”

Presidential study centers have usually been attached to presidential libraries, although the Hoover Library is actually in Iowa City and has no institutional attachment to the University of Iowa there. The Hoover Institution at Stanford University is one of the most notable presidential study centers, however, boasting a library collection on twentieth-century American history that has grown up over the years and is a rich source for scholars from many disciplines and points of view. The Hoover Institution is frankly conservative in terms of its mission and appointments of fellows, but it reports to the president of the university and adheres, in general, to principles of academic freedom. Similarly, the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University tends to recruit liberal members but has managed to achieve a reputation for balance in its programs. Although the Carter Center is affiliated with Emory University, its campus is physically removed from the Emory campus in Atlanta, and its governance is designed to separate the university from controversy raised by comments made by the former president. Texas has a full share of presidential centers, including both the Lyndon B. Johnson School for Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and the Bush School of Governance and Public Service on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station. The elder Bush’s center has been less fraught with controversy than his son’s, and there has been no controversy at all surrounding the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. The Clinton Library and School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has raised more controversy about the source of its funding than its programs, and indeed the issue of funding looms large for most of the recently established presidential centers, given political and economic developments in the last several years.

Presidential archives, around which all the presidential research centers revolve, no longer raise many of the problems that once surrounded the Nixon Center, which is not associated with any university. While the archives were controlled by Nixon trustees, there were questions about access to records, censorship in scholarly publication, and one-sided efforts to mold the historical record to justify the administration. The research archives in all of the presidential libraries are now managed by the National Archives and Records Administration. However, the funding for their institutional display is often unclear, lying outside the usual budgetary processes of their home institutions.

I do not believe that faculty governance should seek to denature the political mix of presidential institutes, for such an undertaking would be political in itself. We must admit that no matter how admirable their aims may be, presidential centers will bring the world of politics and partisan ideology into the academy through their mission directives, their staff, and their appointed boards and faculty. The real issue for faculty governance is the assurance of reasonable control by the institution, with clear demarcations between research and advocacy in their founding documents. The procedural standards employed in the assessment of the qualifications for faculty status should be the same as those that obtain for any other individuals being considered for such status. According to the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, “Faculty status and related matters are primarily a faculty responsibility.” It would be a serious departure from generally accepted academic practice were faculty status to be granted to individuals whose qualifications had not been assessed by the faculty. Finally, the faculty should not join the unseemly scramble for special centers that marked the competition for George W. Bush’s library by several Texas schools.

Questions for Governance

While special-interest centers in higher education can deliver tangible benefits to faculty and students, they can also distort priorities in curriculum and research, create imbalances in the overall budget, and force scholars to become involved in pleasing donors rather than pursuing their research and teaching. That is why such centers should always be discussed and monitored by the appropriate faculty governance bodies. Here are some particular issues for faculty monitoring at various levels:

  1. School and Departmental Oversight. Traditional faculty activities like staff appointments, curricular development, and student admissions may be affected by the expectations embedded in special-interest programs. Given the possibility of their distributing professorial chairs, fellowships, study grants, and salary enhancements, such programs may be especially liable to political or ideological exploitation. In these traditional areas, faculty governance must be engaged, at either the faculty senate level or the departmental level.
  2. Maintenance of Priorities. The “service” majors on most campuses have been starved for faculty resources in the past twenty years, resulting in a devastated job market in the humanities, languages, and social studies. Meanwhile, some special programs seem to flourish, increasing the status and compensation for faculty superstars. This situation has exacerbated the growing stratification of higher education, because it places basic instruction in general education at the bottom of the priority list. Too often the governance role of the faculty in debating such priorities has been ignored; faculty must reclaim their right to a say on the effects of special-interest centers on institution-wide resources.
  3. Academic Freedom. One focus of debate in special-interest centers is the issue of balance, and the Association’s 2007 statement Freedom in the Classroom has forcefully addressed whether faculty must always present some “other side” in their classrooms. But that question returns insistently when the research and teaching have been branded as serving special interests that seek to gain the credibility of an academic setting without observing its rules. Here is where faculty governance should be vitally involved.

And finally, there are profound philosophical questions involved in accepting outside support for special interests in higher education. In many instances, the proliferation of such centers has been justified by the argument that more traditional areas of specialization have been no less propelled by the interests— conscious or unconscious—of their professors. Such an argument may invoke crude versions of theories of the sociology of knowledge to justify themselves; proponents have recently made gestures toward Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as justification for their ideological inroads into the academy. If all knowledge is conditioned by perceptual bias, then the university should have no problem with benefactors inserting their own biases into its programs. It is true that a recognition of the power of social contexts in discovery has helped to introduce new approaches into many areas of study and that such recognition has invigorated many of the traditional disciplines in the last hundred years. But nuanced insights from the history of ideas are aids to disinterested research, not excuses for scrapping it as an ideal.

And so faculty governance must have a role in the establishment of special-interest centers for philosophical as well as strategic reasons. The academy should be a marketplace of ideas, but its programs should not be for sale. The over arching question is whether and to what extent the academy should make room for a panoply of particular interests. It is up to the faculty to respond to that question—both individually and in collective governance bodies. In doing so, faculty members must maintain the ideal of disinterested objectivity that has been a value of universities for centuries. The necessary insight that knowledge may be socially and politically conditioned does not lead to the proposition that the academy should become one more source of ideological advocacy in American society.

An abbreviated version of this piece appeared in The Higher Education Advocate: The New Jersey State Conference of AAUP 4 (Fall 2008).

Mary Burgan was general secretary of the AAUP from 1994 to 2004. Her book What Ever Happened to the Faculty? is now available in paperback.



The Burgan Report brings up a critical issue, already identified in the monumental review of the American university system by Jencks and Riesman (1968). This was the dominance over university research and teaching policy that came to be assumed by university faculty after World War II. On the one hand this may seem or be appropriate and reasonable from many perspectives. Certainly, one of the AAUP's central purposes is to preserve academic freedom and avoid arbitrary external influences on academic faculty. However, it  is also undeniable that the expansion of federally-funded peer research grants and parallel support from state universities and private sources created a movement toward disciplinary research groupings that became both isolated from each other, and from the concerns and needs of the larger society. It also exercised influence on teaching curricula in the direction of faculty research interests, rather than considering balanced education for students and the needs of society (especially in tax-supported institutions of higher education). I discuss the origin and ramifications of the above problem in my recent book, claiming that its effect on U.S. society is seriously underrated*.

Some highly visible centers and institutes have been launched to support partisan political or ideological causes, as the AAUP report indicates. But by far the majority of recent center development seems to focus on research and training of students in fields relevant to societal needs. In my own institution examples include transportation policy, peace operations, entrepreneurship, aerospace policy and management, and transnational crime and corruption. The activities of such centers not only address critical needs of society,  often entraining mature students who are already working professionals and want to enhance their knowledge and  skills. Faculty are frequently asked to offer informed opinion on contemporary issues in society in popular print and TV media.   Properly led, such centers promote interchange and cooperation within university units as well as the larger society.
They can attract external funding, not into the increasingly frustrating sphere of intensely competitive basic research grants, like those offered by the National Science Foundation, but into activities that  promote needed development for the nation's growth and the career development of students.

 *The Conflict over Environmental Regulation in the United States: Origin, Outcomes, and Comparisons with the EU and Other Foreign Regions. 321 p. Springer, 2009


 I wish to respond to a point Burgan makes in relationship to the presidential study centers and educational institutions in the article "Faculty Governance and Special-Interest Centers).  She writes: "the Hoover Library is actually in Iowa City and has no institutional attachment to the University of Iowa there."  The first part of this statement is incorrect, because the Hoover Presidential Library is actually located in West Branch, Iowa, a small town separated from Iowa City by 10 miles of cornfields.  Hoover was born in West Branch, which is why the presidential library is located there, and thus has nothing to do with the University of Iowa.  I know this because I grew up in West Branch, where my father worked as an archivist for over 30 years.

J. H.

 I think it is fascinating that AAUP opposes any role for ideology in the humanities and social sciences.  Does this mean that AAUP is ready to declare war on the social justice sections of my fields (Education and Political Science)?   Or is ours a selective approach to ideologies, just targeting those we dislike?

 As a centrist who served the Clinton administration and at Brookings, my biggest disappointment in academia is that we rarely debate the topics of the day, because professors are too insecure to do so, and because we simply lack representation of conservative and neoliberal people and ideas.

One final thought. Should we not judge special centers by whether their faculty do a good job teaching and publishing, that is, by  merit, rather than by who set them up, whose turf they intrude on, or whose ideological ox is gored?  Shouldn't that have been the issue in the Illinois case and others?  A merit based approach might be useful if we expect people outside the Ivory Tower to have any respect for our objectivity.  Just a thought. 

B. M.

This letter responds to your welcome article, "Faculty Governance and Special-Interest Centers." This essay points to serious problems in faculty governance and intellectual participation created by the proliferation of Centers outside of Departments. It is true, as you argue, that these Centers have an often destructively underdefined relation to ordinary University procedures of funding and openness. I have a lot to say on that topic, as I have benefited from non-Departmental Centers and handshake deals that funded them after faculty/student initiative or outside offers sparked administrative interest. Yet I also see the boutiquization of knowledge in US universities--in some response to faculty interest and student demand, as well as to a university's interest in marketing itself as cutting edge in certain fields--as a threat to the public circulation of intellectual work, as it not only distorts mechanisms of resource distribution but affects knowledge distribution itself, drawing boundaries between who is inside and who is outside a given Center's knowledge, resource, and information universe.

In this light, my letter addresses your terribly false representation of what happened at the University of Chicago in relation to the founding of the Milton Friedman Institute. Your writer suggests that the University initiated and followed through on fair and open procedures of consultation with the general faculty. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The public announcement of the MFI (with its anticipated 200 million dollar directed endowment) came as a fait accompli. Before that announcement the Administration cursorily discussed this impending development with the Executive Council of the Faculty Senate (the faculty's elected representative body). Further, early drafts of the MFI founding documents pointed to its potential service to private capitalist interests (as opposed to having a disinterested research commitment); the early documents also foregrounded the MFI's embrace of the association of unregulated markets with democratic freedoms, an association I take to be ideological and not fact.

Shortly after the public announcement, a substantial group of faculty organized against the MFI (see http://www.miltonfriedmancores.org/). I was a member of this group. In response, the administration tinkered with the language of the founding document and the name of the Institute, without changing anything very substantial.  The faculty--not the administration, as your article states--gathered signatures and demanded a meeting of the Faculty Senate to discuss this prospect, which was agreed to by the administration only on the condition that there be no vote of the faculty present at the meeting with regard to support for this initiative. 

It is true that pro-MFI voices promised that the Milton Friedman being honored was merely a fierce intellectual with a ground in the empirical, and not the ideological Milton Friedman of U.S. popular political culture.  Many different kinds of protest to the MFI were raised in response--some political (with regard to Friedman's relation to Pinochet and others), some about the scale of the resources invested in the MFI rather than other departments or centers, some about the franchising of the university's intellectual mission to the interests of private capital; some concerned that a subset of the Economics department had been released from an obligation to undergraduate general education commitments by virtue of new scholarships and recruitment capacities; some asserting that an investment of this scale should be more like the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, open to a wide variety of kinds of project that need think-tank like cultivation.  This is to say that the opposition was diverse and not organized by a single ideology but by many concerns.

In short, this was an example of the interest of a small number of faculty inflated into a major economic initiative and significant restructuring of social sciences funding by the University in a non-consultative, top-down way.  There was nothing exemplary or admirable about the entire procedure, from the early prevarications to the reduction of the Faculty Senate meeting to a pseudo-public sphere where the truth that faculty governance is advisory and not statutory was emblazoned in every sentence.

For the record.

Sincerely yours,

Mary Burgan responds:

I am happy to have my mistake about the location of the Hoover Library corrected,  and I am grateful for all the thoughtful commentary on the issues I have raised.  I am not convinced, however, that my account of the creation of the Friedman center at the University of Chicago is "terribly false."   Having read additional  materials from inside the University, I do see that the establishment of the Center was deeply offensive to some faculty.  But my article was not meant to adjudicate controversy;  it meant to point to contested cases where faculty approval was, at least, sought.  From what I've been able to gather in the MFI case, faculty opinion was divided but not decisively negative,  though  I do realize that faculty assent to special interest centers may be grudging, reluctant, and after-the-fact.  The issue for shared governance is that faculty, in some reasonable venue, have a chance to discuss new interest centers--and that their hosting departments actually want them.  The process will never be perfect, of course, and not only because of scheming faculty entrepreneurs.  Sometimes faculty are not looking deeply enough into  the operations of their own institutions.

I wish to comment re: the topic of Presidential Study Centers, Burgan’s statement “the Hoover Library is actually in Iowa City and has no institutional attachment to the University of Iowa there”, because Burgan is discussing where presidential study centers are in relation to educational institutions.  Actually, the Hoover Presidential Library is in West Branch, Iowa, a town separated from Iowa City from 10 miles of cornfields.  It is in West Branch because that is where Hoover was born, so of course the official presidential library has nothing to do with Iowa City or the University of Iowa.  I know this because I grew up in West Branch where my father worked his entire professional life as an archivist at the presidential library.