Dwindling power

March 27, 2008

Geoff Pullum and I spent a number of years at the University of California, Santa Cruz (concurrently, in 1981-82), but in spite of our "Old Slug" network, I would like to set the record straight on some of the points he raised (Letters, 6 March).

He asserts that faculty rather than administrators hold the balance of power in American higher education, but faculty's power in major and leading universities is not as absolute as he implies. To take one example, about a decade ago the academic senate of the University of Notre Dame voted to disband since they were effectively powerless - only to be told that they lacked the authority to do even that.

His point is taken that the faculty at the "majors" may have far greater say, on balance, than is the case in the UK, but the larger issue revolves around US higher education in general.

There are about 3,000 US public and private baccalaureate-and-up colleges and universities. The overall percentage of institutional budget spent on instruction has shrunk from 81 per cent in 1930 to 55 per cent in 1988, with declines since then. Administrative staff numbers grow every year while faculty numbers stagnate. And while faculty pay has increased only 0.25 per cent after inflation in the past 20 years (compared with 12 per cent-plus in two years in Britain), administrative raises have beaten the rate of inflation for 11 consecutive years.

Beyond this reallocation of budget from education to administration, the most damaging change pervading US colleges is the steady erosion of tenure-track faculty positions, and even of full-time non-tenurable positions. In 1975, 57 per cent of faculty were tenured or tenure-track; in 2003, it was 35 per cent. During that time, part-timers rose from 30 per cent to 46 per cent of the total. We are America's disappearing profession, yet media discussions of the cost of college persist in suggesting that fictitious increases in instructional budgets are to blame.

Only tenured faculty can effectively challenge wrong-headed administrative priorities, and one needs to offer full-time positions to recruit professionals who have achieved terminal degrees at reputable graduate programmes.

Failing that, the reductio ad absurdum will be reached, and "all that will be left on the campus is the central administrative management function, the business office, and the essential function of quality control" (David Sumler, director of academic affairs, Maryland Higher Education Commission, quoted in University Business, January 2004).

Those pesky professors and students just get in the way.

James McNelis, Associate professor of British literature, Wilmington College, Ohio; President, Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors.

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