US faculty influence wanes during Covid, survey finds

Ideal of shared governance suffers, though AAUP heartened by some revivals, especially at large public universities

June 9, 2021
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US universities took even greater control of operations from their faculty during the pandemic, the nation’s chief organisation of professors found in a survey covering nearly 400 institutions.

The survey by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that faculty at about 25 per cent of institutions felt their influence declined during Covid, while those at only 15 per cent felt an increase.

The AAUP acknowledged that the findings, from its first survey in 20 years aimed at measuring the extent of so-called faculty governance, stand as an overall net negative.

Yet even the small number of institutions found willing to expand their faculty involvement in policymaking during a pandemic should be regarded as encouraging, the 45,000-member association said.

“We did not expect that – it was a positive development from our perspective,” said Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior programme officer at AAUP.

That low threshold of expectation reflects, “to some extent, how we operate – almost everybody comes to us and says things are terrible”, said Professor Tiede, a professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University. “The AAUP as an organisation, almost exclusively, has people come to us to say things are really bad.”

Concern for faculty governance has been a prime focus of the AAUP almost since its founding a century ago, when it began arguing that professors should be included in university selections of administrators and other personnel and in decisions about budgetary and educational policies.

Larger public doctoral-level universities accounted for most of the institutions identified in the survey as welcoming deeper faculty involvement in campus decision-making processes during the pandemic, Professor Tiede said.

“There is some evidence that, at those institutions, faculty recognised the crisis and the threat to their health and that made them assert themselves,” he said.

The AAUP released its survey data only days after issuing another report that took a closer look at eight institutions that it accused of going in the opposite direction and violating their existing shared-governance agreements during the pandemic.

Leaders at such institutions “seem to have taken the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to turbocharge the corporate model that has been spreading in higher education over the past few decades”, the AAUP said.

Those eight campuses – all but one small and private – laid off faculty and shuttered programmes “as expeditiously as if colleges and universities were businesses whose CEOs suddenly decided to stop making widgets or shut down the steelworks”, the association said.

The AAUP reports nevertheless left unclear the question of whether increases in shared governance produce gains in student outcomes. Professor Tiede and some outside academic experts said it was an important consideration that perhaps cannot be tested.

“I can’t imagine a set of metrics that would be universally accepted in a study of the value of shared governance,” Marc Singer, the dean of undergraduate studies at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, said in a Twitter exchange on the matter.

Professor Tiede suggested that elite institutions may generally have better atmospheres of shared governance as well as higher graduation rates. “But as for drawing a direct causal connection between the two,” he said, “I don’t even know how you would go about trying to do that.”

The AAUP said its survey was sent to a faculty senate chair or other faculty governance leader at 585 randomly chosen four-year institutions and had a response rate of 68 per cent.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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