Faculty Governance in the New University

A former faculty senate secretary tries to make sense of a changing landscape.
By Leslie Bary

What is the university now? Is the situation for higher education getting better, as we are expected to demonstrate in annual reports, or worse, as budget figures and myriad other indicators tend to suggest?

Our understanding and interpretation of institutional change are colored by how we define our roles as faculty. I have colleagues who remember universities where faculty governance was part of the gestalt; shared governance is my own expectation. Today, the landscape of the entrepreneurial university is still emerging, preserving some attributes of the older institutions and providing simulacra of others.

“Excuse me, sir, but the faculty are not employees of the university. The faculty are the university!” was Isidor Rabi’s fabled objection when Dwight Eisenhower, then president of Columbia University, referred to faculty members as employees. Rabi’s assurance is no longer self-evident. Elliott Krause’s Death of the Guilds (1996), Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynyard’s The McDonaldization of Higher Education (2006), Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University (2008), and Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty (2011) address some of the broader transformations involved. One change is that faculty members, trained to work for the public good and the advancement of a discipline, are now far more commonly understood to be employees working for the interests of “stakeholders.”

The bottom line supersedes professional standards. Faculty members are left wondering not how to maintain dignity or job security, as many would have it, but how to maintain integrity. We criticize online education programs that separate students from their money in exchange for certificates rather than education.

The older language in which we think of our work, the assumptions we bring to our reflections upon it, and our beliefs about its fundamental purpose form an interpretive horizon that can make it difficult to recognize the full outline of what is happening. The transformation of the basic objectives of the university is so radical that one hesitates to believe that the signs could really mean what they clearly do. At the same time, the new university incorporates elements and appearances of the old one and speaks to us in familiar words. We are engaged in research, teaching, and service; we strive for new knowledge.

Without realizing it, we look back, addressing interlocutors of the past. We meet questionable new practices with objections less outdated than Rabi’s to Eisenhower, yet our voices fall without echo, the words missing their mark. We have misjudged the magnitude of the shift currently under way.

John Lombardi’s November 27, 2007, essay for Inside Higher Ed, “Deconstructing Faculty Work,” can help us here. “Deconstructed” work is measured in terms of percentages of effort, as we see each year in our contracts. Lombardi explains how the division of faculty work into discrete elements that are priced and then assigned or hired out has not only driven the vertiginous rise in the use of contingent faculty appointments but also undermined the role of the tenured professor: “Rather than symbolizing the lifetime commitment of individual and institution to the academic work of teaching, research, and service and the freedom to pursue these tasks as our conscience dictated, tenure became a job entitlement that created a container of faculty effort, the content of which would be negotiated with institutions to define each faculty member’s responsibilities within the lifetime security of tenure.” Tenured faculty members have been relieved of the kinds of institutional and professional responsibilities they once had: tenure has been reduced to the job security that the public already imagined it to be. In addition, collegial efforts to include those serving on contingent appointments in governance may weaken and not strengthen the collective position of the faculty. Effort spent to mitigate the working conditions of contingent faculty members but not to create tenure-line positions for them is effort spent in service to corporatization.

We should learn to see clearly where we are, so that we can be effective as we take up once again—yes, take up once again—the “unified” role of the faculty member. We should take up once again the responsibilities deconstructed out of us. We should work to strengthen what is left in the university that is genuine, which is to say everything that is more than a semblance or a marketing maneuver. We should work to preserve the integrity of all institutions of governance.

Faculty members who say they lack administrative talent or are not good at service may not welcome this approach. Those who appreciate freedom of speech in theory but lack interest in it in practice surely will not, nor will those who believe themselves to be privileged beyond all other workers. The installation of the neoliberal model may have advanced farther than we realize, yet there may be time to pull the emergency brake.

I am not suggesting we can or should return to the old days, when the faculty had more power in the university but women removed wedding rings in hopes of being taken seriously at job interviews and people of color were disappeared from PhD programs. I would, however, like us to look squarely at some strengths of the older paradigm before its image passes from memory. We may be able to bring forward integrity we had forgotten. We will need it for tasks large and small—from the preservation of resources from the old institutions to broad work against privatization and corporatization. For it is these movements, more than the economy on its own, that have brought us to the present juncture.

Close Encounters with Corporatization

In Louisiana, where I work, the financial crisis of 2008, together with Governor Bobby Jindal’s aggressive privatization program, led to a decision that state universities would adopt an entrepreneurial model. The state budget cuts were dire, and in an institution like mine, already underfunded, the sense of urgency was clear. At the same time, those of us who had been through Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that had played right into the hands of entrepreneurs who have been able to recreate New Orleans as a theme park, had a strange sense of déjà vu. Again we heard that there was no time to deliberate, and again we were assured that, although there would be changes in operating procedures, the nature of the entity would be maintained. Changes should have gone into place yesterday and the wound is bleeding now.

While it is urgent to keep the institution running, and difficult to do so when a large portion of the budget is drawn from nonrecurring “soft” money, it might have been worth decoupling monetary issues from the necessity of imposing a particular entrepreneurial model. Instead, the insistence on urgency squeezed out general discussion and debate on strategy, as though the institutional shift had been desired independently of any crisis in funding.

In the University of Louisiana system, one of the changes made has been a redefinition of tenure, enabling the release of tenured faculty members in situations of “program reduction” and making the workforce “flexible” in hard economic times. There are numerous other changes, each one minor enough to escape notice on its own; taken together, however, they compose a picture in which decision-making power is increasingly held by administrators or administrative staff.

A Simulacrum of Faculty Governance

In 2011, I was elected secretary of the faculty senate for a two-year term. During the first year this moderately powerful senate functioned in its usual way, which is to say that it did not use the powers it had for significant investigation or activism. It did discuss the possibility of doing so, and we reinvigorated committees. We created an executive committee, which had not existed before, in the interest of supporting the executive officer.

In the second year, under a new executive officer, the senate began to operate in a way that, as I was to discover months later, mirrored to an uncanny degree the functioning of the faculty senate at an institution in another state where the entrepreneurial model had been adopted much earlier. A colleague there wrote: “Our Faculty Senate was turned from a deliberative body to an administrative forum. There are screens showing the senators meeting at three other ASU [Arizona State University] campuses, so meetings are completely in the hands of whoever holds the podium. If there is controversy they show a long PowerPoint so there is no time for questions. We went from faculty governance to ‘shared governance’ to audience.” Our executive committee, which was informally expanded to include select guests, met to plan each senate meeting. Of this group, only I had been elected to a leadership position, although an at-large member was added later. I was also the only person based in liberal arts or sciences, as opposed to the professional schools or the administration, and the only person with a traditional PhD in letters or science. The rest of the principals had other contact during the week related to their administrative roles, allowing for informal planning.

The most important of the projects the executive committee assigned itself was a series of supposedly minor constitutional revisions that the senate ultimately did not accept. They were presented as “clarifications” that had to be made so that future senates would “understand” the constitution; as the senate recognized, they would have effectively gutted the power it had.

At year’s end I wrote an opinion piece on efforts to convert the senate into a simulacrum of governance. I called my essay “On the Value of an Independent Faculty Senate.”

The Value of an Independent Senate

The rhetorical sleight of hand used in the attempt to discredit AAUP principles of academic freedom and tenure as well as to justify the marginalization of faculty senates resembles that used to discredit traditional university education and promote for-profit institutions and massive open online courses (MOOCs). A case in point is the controversy over the use of an edX course from Harvard University, where faculty disapproval of the monetization of free course materials, and criticism of the use of “facilitators” instead of professors, was misrepresented as resistance to well established services such as distance education and a rejection of normal practices such as the sharing of course materials, team teaching, and the use of guest lectures.

As academic blogger Undine indicated in her discussion of a promotional piece on MOOCs from the April 29, 2013, New York Times, the media represent faculty criticism of outsourced education as fear of losing status. The defense of face-to-face teaching is reinterpreted as a lack of care for students “shut out” of traditional courses. The sharing of original insights based on current research is the dull practice of “writing one’s own lectures” or “one-way delivery of content,” while the use of class time to administer a commercial educational product is “student centered” and modern.

Randy Moffett, former president of the University of Louisiana system, suggested in his June 12, 2012, statement on the AAUP’s censure of Northwestern State University and Southeastern Louisiana University that the AAUP is irrelevant and that the joint Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure is outmoded because it was promulgated in 1940. Indeed, it serves the neoliberal paradigm well to reframe academic freedom and other rights as concerns of another century, unconnected to our own. Moffett’s April 2012 assertion that recent changes in system rules on tenure were merely appropriate updating was another instance of the rhetorical sleight of hand that presents major policy shifts as minor mechanical retooling or slow evolution: “While many of our Board rules and policies related to faculty are based on AAUP’s principles of academic freedom and tenure established in 1940, our rules have evolved over time with appropriate constituent input and approval.” During the 2012–13 academic year, when I had occasion to observe the use of similarly soft language in the attempt to “update” the constitution of a faculty senate, the proposed changes, some of which were substantial, were presented not as amendments but as “edits.” There was also discussion of possible future changes to “make the Senate a more effective body,” as one administrator put it.

A pattern of rhetoric emerges from many discussions of education in business and government. This rhetoric is not neutral and does not serve us well; we should not take it as our master. Its hallmarks include a call to revise or abandon allegedly outdated practices such as the deadly “one-way” lecture or principles such as academic freedom, which are time-honored because they are valuable. Yes, our faculty senate is structured to support greater institutional conservatism than might be ideal. Some of the changes proposed, however, might have recreated the senate not as a more agile body but as a more obedient one.

The discussion of possible changes to the structure of the senate was framed in terms of increasing democracy as well as participation and effectiveness. Those seeking to change the constitution suggested that we might limit the number of full professors who could serve on the senate at any given time, institutionalize the number of faculty members now in administrative roles who were voting as senators and chairing senate committees, and radically reduce the total size of the senate.

They also proposed language stipulating that the executive committee meet to plan and “design” each senate meeting, insinuating that senate meetings were not an entirely regular process in university governance and stripping the senate’s independence: “[Senate] meetings will not determine University policy nor shall they undermine the regular processes through which the faculty has input into University affairs. The meetings shall be designed to complement the input through existing channels and to provide an exchange of ideas on broad areas of concern.” The existing constitution defines a clear role for the senate and assumes a far more cooperative and collegial relationship between faculty and administration: “As the only authorized, representative body of the faculty under the administration of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, this Faculty Senate is constituted to promote and implement, consistent with the purposes of the University, maximum participation of the faculty in university governance. In this capacity, the Faculty Senate will assist . . . advise . . . [and] communicate.” Given that the role of the senate had always been advisory, the intention of the additional language was not clear, although its probable effect, especially if enacted in combination with other proposed reforms, was plain enough.

Since the president of the university is president of the senate and all full professors are senators, it was possible to label the old senate structure as patriarchal. The full professors were described more than once as “nonelected members” of the senate. To increase democracy and reduce patriarchy, it was suggested, full professors should stand for election and the ratio of less experienced faculty members on the senate should be increased. At the same time, the size of the senate should be reduced, on the questionable premise that this would result in all members being engaged.

Some suggested that full professors had a disproportionate amount of power relative to the rest of the faculty and were a force for institutional conservatism. No one challenged the assumption that opinion would be divided by rank in broad areas of faculty concern such as research, teaching, and institutional policies, but voting by administrators holding faculty titles was considered unproblematic.

I once took faculty senates and the AAUP for granted, working instead on unionization efforts and in advocacy groups on human rights issues. I never expected that I would need to use my organizational skills to defend something as mainstream as shared governance at universities. I am disturbed, however, when I see how high the average age is at AAUP meetings, and when I hear newer faculty members voice the assumption that the faculty senate is an empty form.

Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the neoliberal model is already so well entrenched that these modestly democratic institutions have lost their purpose. Considering the quality of my colleagues here and elsewhere, and their embodiment of academic values, I doubt this. However, as I increasingly hear faculty members refer to department heads as “bosses,” administration as “management,” and students as “customers” or even “clients,” I would like to articulate some older principles that remain true: the quality of the faculty and the library determine the quality of the university; having tenure means working for the integrity of the university and its academic mission; and the administration serves this mission and supports the faculty in carrying it out.

It is worth keeping firmly in mind that we are not in a period of lean budgets but of structural adjustment, and that economic shock is not the same as natural disaster. As the lure of the austerity model dissipates we can defend our democratic, academic institutions and can thrive despite permanent changes to the way we are funded. Now is the time to increase faculty participation and stand together with colleagues at other institutions.

A New Curriculum

I want to close my door and write. I have tenure, so I can. I may be one of the last rank-and-file faculty members to have such an opportunity. It is a gift I do not wish to dishonor by refusing. Nothing would be more convenient than to decide the game is up, and to cultivate nothing beyond my own garden.

But how shall I define myself, and describe the garden I cultivate? The energy in the adjunct movement, for example, which is organizing as established faculty members take the quietist turn that also tempts me, suggests that corporatization or the complete adoption of the entrepreneurial model may not be the only path ahead. The “hidden curriculum” of corporatization is a lesson about its own inevitability, and this course is still in progress. It may be possible to brake and shift gears.

I would suggest that those of us who have tenure or are on the tenure track take the time to remember and enact a new version of the old faculty role, the role to which tenure in its truer sense corresponded, and that the faculty had before its “deconstruction.” This means taking responsibility now, as opposed to merely lamenting the “fall of the faculty.” I have always favored unionization and solidarity with contingent colleagues, but such solidarity is particularly important now. This does not mean only ensuring marginally decent working conditions or making symbolic, weakly inclusive gestures like offering token representation. It also means standing up to administrators and negotiating hard for FTEs and tenure-track lines. The weaker gestures, while humane and valuable, do not in and of themselves stem—and may even spur—the further erosion of faculty power.

Tempting though it is to decide that all is lost— that the best use of time is in research, teaching, and service at the level of disciplinary organizations, the journals on whose boards we sit, or in social movements outside the university—we should now take active leadership roles on our campuses. We should sit on university-level committees, offer to chair them, revive AAUP chapters, and stand for seats on the faculty senate. Many in the new administrative class have not risen through the faculty ranks and do not have backgrounds in traditional disciplines: they are isolated from these worlds and are, perhaps, peculiarly vulnerable to sales pitches from ed-tech enterprises and political pressure. Many may mean well, and some may even appreciate our assistance in resisting the onslaught coming from entities that truly do not have our best interests, or those of our students, at heart.

We should guard against carelessly relinquishing the formal power we have left, as the faculty senate at my institution nearly did in its constitutional “editing” process last year. This is such an apparently small detail that I wondered at the time at my alarm. But we almost signed the future power of that body away.

Manuel Maples Arce’s 1924 poem “Urbe” (translated below by John Dos Passos) was written in response to a workers’ parade in Mexico City:

Here is my poem
brutal and manifold
of the new city,

Oh city all tense
with cables and exertions
with motors and wings.

In its first edition, it is accompanied by woodblocks that are not mere illustrations but a part of the text; the human figures are tiny before skyscrapers and machinery and along imposing avenues. Poetry and visual arts of the period, nearly a hundred years ago, registered and grappled with the shock of the new and the velocity of change. The machines in the landscape Maples Arce surveys with his movie-camera gaze are in high gear. “Here is my poem,” he proclaims. There are strong poems to be written yet.


Leslie Bary is on the faculty in Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she served as secretary of the faculty senate from 2011 to 2013. Her current book project is That Discerning Eye: Vision, Race, and the State in Modern Latin American Literature. Her e-mail address is [email protected].