State of the Profession: How We (Should) Govern Now

By Shawn Gilmore

It has been a strange and strained year for American colleges and universities. Every institution has had to reckon not only with the COVID-19 pandemic but also with a bewildering variety of possible responses to the crisis, trying to manage competing claims regarding the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff while confronting economic pressures, both immediate and long-term, that are too stark to be ignored. The situation in which we all find ourselves isn’t likely to get any easier, with campus life likely to be disrupted through much of 2021 and financial woes that will only compound as states start to constrict their already diminished investments in higher education. Institutions with large endowments or those with alternative revenue sources may fare well, but most of us should expect hard times.

Each of our institutions is grappling with this new situation through governance systems that likely weren’t created to handle changes of this magnitude or designed to come to decisions on such short timelines. And yet here we are—operating with systems, many of which serve us well in ordinary times, that are pushed to the point of failure. We have seen presidents and chancellors overstepping their authority and boards issuing dictates about how their institutions will operate without consulting faculty, staff, or students. Some pandemic responses have been stymied by a basic inability to adjust schedules, methods of instruction, and grading options on the fly. And while most colleges and universities are managing, some have faced embarrassing and costly public debacles, revealing how ill-suited their governance systems have been to the realities of how we must govern now.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I teach and chair a governance committee for our academic senate, we have not been immune from these pressures. The last months have been filled with adjustments both large and small as we have tried to meet the demands of each moment. Like nearly everyone else in higher education, we now conduct governance meetings on Zoom, trying to maintain the spirit of shared governance as expressed in our governing documents. But to honor that spirit, we’ve had to work around our limitations, and we’ve relied heavily on groups that often aren’t seen as key participants in the governance of colleges and universities: non-tenure-track faculty, academic professionals, students, and staff.

Within higher education, we mostly imagine governance as a matter handled between administrators and tenured and tenure-track faculty. Historically, of course, tenure-line faculty members have been central to the maintenance of academic standards and ideals. While these faculty members have been essential in fighting to protect academic freedom and combat the corporatization of the modern university, their roles and functions at most colleges and universities have shifted following decades of  hiring faculty not on the tenure track. These contingent faculty members, myself included, are now on the front lines of modern higher education, teaching a majority of classes at many institutions, increasingly conducting primary research, and often teaching our teachers as they supervise primary and secondary education students.

We should rely on these faculty members for their expertise, yet they rarely have clear roles in our governance systems. For example, at the University of Illinois, non-tenure-track faculty members have only recently been allowed to serve as full-fledged members of our academic senate. As one of these faculty members, I finally have departmental voting rights, but I still lack voting rights at the college level. The situation is much the same across American higher education, as our governance systems have yet to respond to changes in hiring and staffing, despite the obvious evidence in front of us. Nor have most institutions adopted the recommendation from the AAUP’s 2012 report The Inclusion in Governance of Faculty Members Holding Contingent Appointments that “faculty members who hold contingent appointments should be afforded responsibilities and opportunities in governance similar to those of their tenured and tenure-track colleagues.”

But now is the time to break our governance paralysis. All of our institutions are being asked to rise to the challenge, to be flexible in the face of changing demands stemming from the pandemic. We should not meet these challenges using models of governance that exclude or diminish those on whom we have fully come to rely to make our universities work: non-tenure-track faculty members.

Shawn Gilmore is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance.