A New History of Faculty Governance

By Chad Alan Goldberg

The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance: Professionalization and the Modern American University by Larry G. Gerber. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Larry G. Gerber, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, former chair of its university senate and history department, former vice president of the American Association of University Professors, and a former chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance, is eminently qualified to write this important book about faculty governance in the United States. Drawing on, among other sources, a series of AAUP surveys conducted over the past century, Gerber helps us better understand faculty governance in our time—and why it matters—by placing it in a broad historical context.

Before the modern American university took shape in the 1870s, institutional governance was mainly in the hands of governing boards and the college presidents they appointed. This autocratic model of governance, Gerber argues, went hand in hand with a lack of professionalization among the teaching staff, who were often young, had no advanced training or specialized expertise, were not expected to engage in original research, and “often did not see teaching as a career but rather as a form of temporary employment before finding a pulpit or embarking on some other occupation.”

The period from the founding in 1876 of Johns Hopkins University as America’s first research-oriented institution to the formation in 1915 of the AAUP saw the emergence of the large, modern university in the United States. With its academic specialization, graduate education, and research orientation, the modern university was “predicated on the increasing professionalization of American faculty, who would use their new status” to make claims to a “greater role in institutional governance” and to the academic freedom necessary to “fulfill their mission as professionals.” As Gerber points out, the connection between expertise and academic freedom distinguished the latter from the more general freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. However, because faculty claims were based on expertise, they raised questions about which members of the teaching staff were qualified to participate in institutional governance, and they militated against trade unionism, which many professors considered to be incompatible with claims to professional status. Both of these issues, Gerber shows, have “spur[red] debate on American campuses to the present day.”

The expansion of higher education, an increasing faculty role in institutional governance, and the continuing professionalization of the faculty were closely associated during the interwar period from 1920 to 1940. This period also saw a “trend toward expanding involvement in institutional governance to include more—though by no means all—faculty members,” as well as efforts to unionize among faculty at the City College of New York. Although the CCNY faculty rejected the opposition between professionalism and unionism, their efforts highlighted an enduring “tension between arguments based on professional expertise and those putting more emphasis on purely democratic values.”

The golden age of American higher education from the Second World War to the mid-1970s was marked by the growth and rising global preeminence of American universities, the professionalism of the faculty, and the development of a broad consensus that “faculty should exercise primary responsibility over academic matters.” The 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, jointly formulated by the AAUP, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the American Council on Education, exemplified this consensus. Gerber describes the emergence of new challenges for faculty governance at the end of this period, including the rise of multi-campus systems, the changing national economy, and the surge in faculty unionism in the late 1960s and early 1970s (which the AAUP ultimately endorsed despite its earlier reservations). His discussion of the reasons for faculty unionism, the variation in faculty responses to unionism, and the relationship between faculty governance and unionization (which proved to be complementary in the “dual-track” system of collective bargaining) is especially illuminating.

Examining the changes since the mid-1970s that have undermined faculty governance, Gerber mainly emphasizes the rise of a “market model” of governance that empowers administrators, “consumers,” and corporate donors at the expense of a deprofessionalized faculty. Deprofessionalization is crucial to his argument because it represents a historic reversal of the status on which faculty claims to participate in governance previously rested. Deprofessionalization primarily takes the form of a growing proportion of non-tenure-track faculty, who have “fewer protections of their academic freedom” and “little prospect of developing full-time careers at a college or university” and therefore are less likely to develop a “long-term identification with the institution” where they teach.

Gerber concludes that the market model of governance is antithetical to “the ideal of professionalism . . . premised on the possibility of individuals using their expertise in a disinterested way to advance the common good.” This model threatens not only the “broader democratic mission” of American colleges and universities but also their “global preeminence.” Just as professionalization was a necessary precondition for shared governance, a robust system of shared governance was indispensable to “a system of higher education that became the envy of the rest of the world.”

Academic freedom and faculty governance are threatened by political as well as market forces, and I wish Gerber had devoted more attention to the former. On the one hand, he only briefly notes the limitation of academic freedom by McCarthyism, and he says nothing about what in my view are comparable efforts today to blacklist Israeli scholars and institutions, which the AAUP rightly opposes as a threat to academic freedom. On the other hand, Gerber’s warnings about the dangers of the market model are familiar and convincing. They dovetail with my own experiences in Wisconsin, where the governor and legislative leaders are now threatening to strip shared governance and tenure from state law while imposing deep budget cuts on the state university system. In this instance it is political forces that brazenly promote the market model of governance.

Perhaps more controversial will be Gerber’s defense of professionalism. Some readers who share his critique of the market model may view professionalism with suspicion, assuming that it is elitist and antidemocratic, contrary to the broad class solidarity implied by unionism, or at odds with political activism. However, I think Gerber persuasively shows that professionalism can be articulated in more than one way, that it includes the ideal of public service, that it is compatible with unionism, and that it can provide an effective basis for mobilization and making political claims. In sum, he has written a valuable and accessible study about a subject of vital importance to American faculty, which every one of us should read.

Chad Alan Goldberg is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has served as a faculty senator and is a longtime member of United Faculty and Academic Staff, American Federation of Teachers Local 223. His e-mail address is [email protected].

Through an arrangement with the AAUP, Johns Hopkins University Press is offering a 30% discount off this book for AAUP members. Please order directly from the press's website, http://www.press.jhu.edu/, using the discount code HWUP.

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