When scholars lose control...

What Ever Happened to the Faculty
January 19, 2007

In 2002, the University of North Carolina assigned a section of the Koran as compulsory reading for freshmen. The upshot of the furore was a threat from the legislature to impose equal time for teaching all religions. A couple of years later, the university played safe by assigning Absolutely American - a book about life at West Point - instead. That is what happens when academics lose control of their universities.

Politicians, top brass, external governors or - rarely and briefly - students take over. The results are usually disastrous: political or commercial agendas distort learning. Mary Burgan - a sober, prudent judge who, as a former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, knows what she is talking about - predicts a future of "surveillance, paranoia and betrayal" for US universities.

Once upon a time, universities were academic communities: "chancellor, masters and scholars". US law still defines academics as constituting their universities, with responsibility for "supervising" and "managing".

"Faculty governance" remains an American dream. The reality is different.

Campus wars divide "us" from "them" - professors from professional administrators. The academics are losing.

Burgan has garnered plenty of reasons for their retreat. Top brass have other priorities: getting money, maintaining the estate, competing in vast arenas. In classrooms focused on students, professors are self-demoted from leaders to facilitators. Information technology has made human teaching robotic and even, some say, unnecessary. Public intellectuals come increasingly from outside academic groves. Think-tanks replace universities in speaking to power - only instead of telling the truth they say what power wants to hear. The drive to recruit academic superstars erodes the notion of teaching as service, for work is service only when it is ill paid. Universities introduced the concept of tenure early in the previous century on the explicit grounds that an unremunerative position must be "honourable and secure". Nowadays, business sponsorship erodes the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and subverts or silences the academics.

Burgan does justice to all these problems, but headlines two horrors.

First, she blames the business model of creative, single-minded leadership, which she says does not work even for business. Second, in partial consequence of the triumph of business, she denounces the shrinkage of tenured positions in favour of part-time, temporary staff, creating "a hole in the traditional governance system, for example, depopulating faculty senates and putting managerial 'experts' in positions to make decisions that should be guided by the insights of classroom teachers. Most significantly, the drift away from tenure has put academic freedom under stress in the many classes taught by faculty who do not have full liberty in their teaching. Thus US faculty has become disposable - outsourced, unbundled and de-professionalised to such an extent that its members will have to struggle mightily, just as they did almost a hundred years ago, to regain the power to make choices about their own future."

Burgan leaves some important influences out. The professionalisation of education has created a cadre of bossy gurus who replace classroom teachers in devising curricula and initiating classroom trends. Academics have forfeited the respect of their bosses and rivals, partly by their antics, partly by their scruffiness and partly because there are so many of them.

People formerly heeded them with the attention due to rarity. Not any more.

Above all, campus democracy and equality subvert professorial power, for university communities now include cleaners, caterers, odd-jobbers, number-crunchers and security staff - constituents beyond most dons' reach or ken.

Ideally, Burgan recommends with tongue in cheek, "trustees, administrators, faculty should throw away ambition, forget competitive advantage, renounce status and rankings, and concentrate on their research and on teaching the students". En route to this nirvana, unions can enforce faculty governance.

But the opposite seems more credible: unionisation is an admission that academics are mere employees, not the heart and essence of their schools.

Burgan implicitly accepts the us-and-them model of governance. But in the best universities, the seam between managers and academics never shows.

They share their objectives and vocations and have a common set of notions about themselves. HMS Pinafore is the best model for university governance, where love levels rank and captains are members of the crew.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is the Prince of Asturias professor at Tufts University and a professorial fellow of Queen Mary, University of London.

What Ever Happened to the Faculty: Drift and Decision in Higher Education

Author - Mary Burgan
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Pages - 238
Price - £25.50
ISBN - 0 8018 8461 6

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