From the President: Governance for a New Era

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

This summer the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued a report titled Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees. The report, produced by a panel chaired by City University of New York board chair Benno Schmidt, opens by telling us that taxpayers and families now view unfavorably a system of higher education that was once the envy of the world, believing that they are not getting “value for their investment.” Among the key problems they see, according to the report, are tenure, which adds cost and compromises quality, and political correctness and intolerance, which undermine academic freedom.

This view, which has been promoted by some commentators, is simply unsupported by fact. There has been a dramatic decline over the last thirty-five years in the percentage of faculty positions that are on the tenure track, from 70 percent of all faculty positions to less than 30 percent. If the report’s argument were correct, costs would be declining, quality would be increasing, and academic freedom would be flourishing.

The report laments that students are leaving school unprepared for jobs or serving their communities and are suffering from vast gaps in their knowledge. It points out that graduation rates are low and that tuition is rising, along with student debt. While admitting that there is no single reason for these failures, ACTA asserts that the failure of governance is one of the critical problems, and therefore calls for a new era of engagement by academic leaders and trustees.

The ACTA report criticizes faculty for being too focused on their disciplines and administrators for their preoccupations with growth and prestige. Who can save higher education? The report’s answer: presidents working with trustees charged with seeing the big picture and “making decisions in the best interest of students and the public.” Unfortunately, today’s presidents are paid and act like corporate CEOs, and most trustees are business leaders. As Academe’s editor Aaron Barlow recently wrote, playing on Paul Krugman’s observation that a country is not a company, “Experience in business by no means qualifies one to make decisions about education.”

ACTA is rightly concerned that competition among institutions of higher education is leading to the “bigger is better” model, to the eschewing of quality, and to a failure to set priorities. In large measure, however, these problems result from the corporatization of higher education, and one of the salient features of corporatization is that trustees are increasingly drawn from business and are heavily influenced by the ideology of competition and the alleged virtues of the “free market.” ACTA’s solution would almost certainly intensify and perpetuate the problem.

The report also argues, with some justification, that often adding new programs stretches already thin resources, forcing institutions to raise tuition. Unfortunately, it does not ask why resources are thin to begin with. Herein lies one of the central problems with its analysis.

In higher education, there is a difference between price and cost. Price is what students pay in the form of tuition and fees. Costs consist of the expenses associated with running an institution. Costs far exceed tuition revenue, particularly at public institutions, where state appropriations, grants, and gifts are also significant sources of revenue. 

ACTA seems solely focused on costs, especially those of academic programs. While the report recognizes the cost disease that afflicts higher education, it never mentions the metastatic growth in administration, nor does it recognize this as a by-product of corporatization. The report mentions only in passing the intercollegiate athletics complex, which at the majority of institutions is a huge consumer of resources.

Indeed, even if costs were not increasing, tuition would still be rising because of privatization, which has led to declining state support for public higher education. Privatization is based on the premise that education is an investment in “human capital.” The language of investment and the term “human capital” tell us that we should not expect public support. After all, the only businesses truly deserving of public support are the Wall Street banks and defense contractors that live at the public trough.

The central causes of eroding quality and reduced access are skyrocketing tuition at public institutions, rising student debt, and the fact that a large and increasing majority of faculty members work on contingent contracts. All these problems stem directly from the
erosion of state support for higher education. Public and private institutions both suffer from the cost disease, but tuition at private institutions, while high, has not been rising much faster than the overall rate of inflation. In contrast, tuition is going through the roof at public institutions, where state support has been diminishing for decades—but never more dramatically than over this past decade.

The ACTA report commends the AAUP for protecting the academic freedom of faculty but accuses us of failing to guard the academic freedom of students. This, of course, is part of ACTA’s agenda to promote “intellectual diversity”—a solution in search of a problem. The report calls on trustees to create mechanisms that allow students to complain when they believe they are “unfairly treated because of their political, religious, or social beliefs and practices.” But it does not raise the problems of racism, sexual assault and harassment, or the dearth of women in certain fields, especially in the STEM disciplines that many institutions seem to have targeted as “centers of excellence.”

The report bemoans the cancellation of talks by a few high-profile speakers and calls for trustees to reach down into academic departments “if they believe a department places limitations on the representation of disciplinary fields and academic viewpoints.” But there is no mention of David and Charles Koch’s using their foundations to promote their political agenda by donating money with strings attached, or of the conflict of interest created when universities accept corporate funding for research while knowing that the “wrong” results will lead to defunding. The report expresses no concern that as government funding for medical research declines and researchers increasingly rely on private philanthropy, the research agenda will be driven by the personal interests of rich donors, though these may not be society’s most pressing problems. 

In the section on educational strategy, the report suggests that we go back to the “good old days” when colleges and universities had a “coherent and rigorous curriculum that provided a broad, general education in addition to the specialization of the major.” The report complains about courses focused on popular entertainment and other narrow topics, and argues that a lack of coherent vision is responsible for many students’ view of general education as a random collection of courses that adds to the cost of education without providing useful job training.

It may well be true that general education sometimes lacks coherence. The courses are often taught by faculty on contingent contracts, who work without benefits and run from institution to institution trying to earn enough to eat and pay the rent. Many are excluded from departmental and institutional governance, and others have governance rights that are largely empty, since they are not paid for time spent in governance work. Finally, without the protection of tenure, many faculty live in fear of losing their jobs, and so, even if they were paid to work on improving general education, might be reluctant to express their views.

Of course, another flawed report from ACTA would not be complete without calls for decision making based on data. The report argues that “trustees need to insist on a dashboard of key . . . measures” that will enable parents and families to assess educational effectiveness. In this respect, it seems that ACTA would support the report card called for by the Obama administration. The report even suggests that there might be a single set of indicators for this dashboard, which “should be adopted by all institutions across the country.” Figuring out if you are low on gas or if your car is overheating is a lot easier than determining whether an institution is providing a quality education to students who come from diverse backgrounds. It is naive at best and cynical at worst to claim that there can be a one-size-fits-all system for evaluating educational quality.

The final section of the report deals with trustee selection. It recognizes that presidents often have inordinate power in selecting members of private boards and that the primary criterion is the size of the candidate’s wallet. In fact, most presidents at private institutions are judged by how much money they raise, and boards are largely self-perpetuating clubs for elite donors that reflect and further the overall inequality in our society. It is hard to see any incentive for reform.

At public institutions, trustees are typically selected as part of a system of political patronage, and given recent US Supreme Court decisions on campaign financing this looks unlikely to change anytime soon. Most are businesspeople who are also campaign contributors and see the world through green-colored glasses. They know little about higher education and are mostly kept at a distance from faculty, staff, and students.

Real reform in higher education will come only as part of a broader social movement that challenges the existing inequality in our society. Only when this happens will higher education be transformed from an institution that increasingly serves private interests into one that truly serves the public interest.

Almost one hundred years ago the AAUP issued a Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, which aimed at creating a system of higher education that would serve the common good. Today this system is threatened, which is why the AAUP, in honor of our one hundredth anniversary, has issued a Centennial Declaration (http://www.aaupdeclaration.org). We call on all faculty, students, and community allies to sign it and join together to reclaim our system of higher education.

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