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New Players in the Academy

By Ken Andersen

When the American Association of University Professors was founded the Association essentially advanced a governance model composed of two parties: the administration and the faculty. In fact, it could almost be characterized as two aspects of the same persons, as it was common practice for faculty members to move in and out of administrative positions. A highly simplified, idealized image of a reality that never fully existed would picture faculty members and administrators (largely drawn from the faculty) jointly determining the educational policy of the institution recommended to and adopted by the Trustees or Regents.

The faculty carried the lead role in formulating educational policy: curriculum, admissions, standards for appointment and promotion of peers. They taught, researched and provided service within the protections of earned tenure and academic freedom. Administrators, with faculty involvement, were responsible for the implementation of policy including the required budgeting of resources.

Recently, this paradigm has atrophied as the governance process has become increasingly complex, subject to forces the founders never envisioned. Groups who functioned as fifth business have become leading players in the governance process. (In Fifth Business, Robertson Davies notes that those stage characters essential to working out the plot, as opposed to the major, active players, whether villain or hero, were called “fifth business.”)

We need to recognize the new players in the theatre of institutional governance and we need to understand how their interests impact upon the drama of educational policy making. This review is undertaken for the purposes of stimulating thought about the changes, not to evaluate or judge their efficacy or inevitability. These changes apply most fully to comprehensive, large research institutions and to varying degrees at other types of institutions.

Many of the internal players are not new but are larger in number, importance, and power in the campus community:

Part-time and Non-Tenure Track Faculty. Nationally and in too many institutions this employee category outnumbers those tenured and on the tenure track. There are institutions offering a degree in a curriculum in which there is not a single tenure-track faculty member. Many of these individuals are excellent teachers and some bring a special expertise to their teaching. But they are not wedded to the institution nor does the institution usually accord them benefits, support, etc. Some accept this as they are “moonlighting,” but others are resentful and bitter.

Students. In part as a result of events of the 1960’s and 70’s, students have achieved much more power in campus decisions. Educational policy decisions are often driven by enrollment considerations. Students often demand or merit a seat on committees and in governance bodies such as senates. Too often they represent a single interest, have not developed a wide perspective, and are driven by considerations or a rhetoric largely irrelevant to the real issues. An urgent, current reality is the fact that students’ views (never monolithic) have become incredibly Balkanized. We do not deal with one student body or with Greeks and independents; we must deal with incredibly diverse groups, many not represented by or actively rejecting existing student governance structures. Greater accessibility and a greater need for higher education is radically changing the student body both in terms of its needs and it composition.

Professional Staff. We now have a large and growing continent of non-teaching professionals carrying various titles. This group includes researchers, advisors, academic resource people, administrators at some level, managers and, possibly, coaches. As this group expands, their voice is increasingly influential. Many of these individuals are performing functions formerly discharged by faculty, but they have essentially none of the protections of tenure.

Support staff. Clerical, operations and maintenance personnel, custodians, technicians, etc., are essential to the operation of the institution. Such personnel are often unionized or civil service employees. Usually the impact of this group is less directly tied to educational policy than some others being mentioned, but they have an impact. My institution does not function on those days negotiated as holidays. We avoid closing for natural disasters such as snowstorms—the overtime is too expensive.

Senior Administrators. Whereas presidents, provosts, and deans were once academicians, often intending to return to the professoriate, many are now career administrators. A substantial number have never been tenured faculty; others expect (prefer) never to return to that role. Their immediate staff are now often academic professionals who have never had nor ever will hold a faculty position.

System Administrators. System administrators, as contrasted to campus administrators, are a product of the growing complexity and size of institutions of higher education and at times an effort to gain control over campuses by grouping them in a system. While system administrators may be linked to the flagship campuses within the system, increasing they are recruited to the position from educational institutions other than those they will administer.

Three players of growing importance are internal to the campus in some senses, external in others:

Disciplines. Disciplinary considerations are central to many university functions. Faculty are educated within a discipline. The disciplines determine who publishes and who achieves status in the discipline, which in turn has implications for appointment, promotion and salary. In many circumstances the power of the faculty member is the status of that individual in the discipline.

Accrediting agencies. Such agencies use external faculty and administrators to judge performance. Many disciplines are tied to accrediting agencies, a source of growing concern to many. Accreditation requirements place demands upon the resources and even the governance structures of institutions seeking certification and require fees to conduct the process as well. Further, accreditation is required in some instances to obtain federal or state student aid, equipment, or other support. Faculty and institutions are increasingly questioning the costs vs. benefits and complexity of the process.

Regional accrediting agencies are an established tradition in the academy. Significantly, they are developing new standards or adjusting old ones with significant implications for institutions.

Trustees. Regents or trustees have always had a primary role in institutional governance, but this responsibility was generally exercised prudently, although AAUP standards and Committee A cases may have contributed to this fact by highlighting the exceptions. Today, trustees are becoming more aggressive in their direct interference in campus affairs. They appear to be less interested in the institution per se and more interested in a particular agenda, their own advancement, or in applying practices utilized in their work or profession to the university. Nationally there are growing reports of untoward interference, politicization, and a decline in the quality of people serving these roles.

The remaining players are seen as external to the academic community:

State Coordinating Boards. In some states the legislatively mandated coordinating boards or boards of review are the fastest growing segment of funds appropriated to higher education. Such boards may have or seek power beyond making recommendations relative to tuition levels, allocation or amount of state funding, curriculum and degree approval, elimination of programs, etc.

State Legislatures and Governors. Public discontent with rising tuition has been given voice by legislators and governors calling for accountability, often in the form of outcomes assessment; support for budget cuts for higher education; and calls for reform. Fueled by tax revolts and diminishing revenues, legislators often view higher education as one of many special interest groups vying for funds. Given revenue shortfalls, they may cut funds for higher education on the grounds that institutions can turn to other sources such as tuition for revenue.

The Federal Government. Student assistance funding for the last decade has shifted from grants to loans with a decline in funding given rising tuition. There has been a tendency to increase the “earmarking” of funds for specific institutions rather than trust the competitive processes of funding agencies. Federal legislation in areas such as tax and retirement policies hurt colleges and universities. Research funding is unreliable and prone to shifts in focus. Federal (and state) mandates, regulations and burdensome reporting requirements have greatly increased costs.

Business and Industry. The push for academic partnerships with business raises vexing questions of academic freedom, conflicts of interest, and applied versus basic research. The goals of business and industry often do not support basic research or accord with academic values. Entrepreneurial faculty seeking research support or contracts, or who own their own companies, often produce significant issues of conflict of interest and such ties have been a factor in falsification of research findings. Those offering the support at times want to restrict the publication of findings if they do not support the outcome sought.

Alumni and Donors. Alums remember the campus as they experienced it, not as it is. They may resist innovation and change. Donors, many of them alumni, tend to give money that is restricted to specific uses, which may distort academic priorities. Gifts rarely include operating expenses for the new building, funds for restoration of existing buildings, or general support of academic programs or for use where the need is greatest.

Athletic Supporters. Many see higher education only in terms of the athletic program’s success or failure. Interest in athletics, fanned by media coverage, has produced rabid fans across the nation who want “their team” to be number one, not just in the final four or a runner up. One internationally renowned university found that more than 90% of its media coverage focused on athletics. Whether interest in athletics enhances or decreases donor support for other areas within the university remains a question in the eyes of many.

Parents: Many parents are convinced they are the victim of excessive tuition and fee charges while paying excessive taxes. Further, their children are not receiving the education to which they are entitled as critical books and newspaper reports make patently clear. Parents may focus more on job preparation to the detriment of the student’s own career choices or the best preparation for a lifetime of work. Universities have rejected the idea of “in loco parentis” while some parents move to exert more control.

The Public. There appears to have been a shift in the belief that education is a public good to a stress that education—at least higher education—is a private good. Rising tuition costs and the plethora of critical reports and books have contributed to a public loss of confidence in higher education. This is further exacerbated by the ascendancy of single issue groups, i.e., animal rights, artistic censors, opponents of sex education, that attack universities directly and through attempts at legislation. Universities are seen as having a “political bias” that needs to be corrected.

The Press. Education is on the public agenda. Higher education is receiving greater media coverage. But the coverage tends to highlight the problems, whether a racial incident, a shooting, money scandal or academic dishonesty, rather than the daily successes of the university. Further the focus on issuing quality rankings and ratings based on one or another set of criteria may distort both institutional priorities and student choices.

Omitted is the changing environment in which the institution must make choices as to its response. These include economic conditions, global warming, societal changes, technological innovations, political shifts, evolving medical issues such as new viruses or drug-resistant pathogens, shifts in ethical standards and values.

With regard to governance we may ask: “Has the faculty moved to the position of being one more stakeholder, one among many?” Are we becoming “fifth business” in governance, essential but not a major player? If so, how do we respond? In my opinion, only the administration can realistically deal one to one with the parties external to the university. It is the only actor in the drama that can authoritatively respond in the name of the institution to pressures from the various interest groups. How, then, do faculty assume governance responsibilities and claim or reclaim coequal status with administrators in determining educational policy? The challenge to shared governance currently is learning how to deal with the newly powerful contenders moving whether by force of circumstances or by desire to become powerful stakeholders in the governance process.

The culture within the academy is not constituted to contribute to rebuilding a strong faculty governance structure. We have lost much of our sense of community and continuity. We have become isolated in our disciplines as the reward structure we created pushes us to the discipline rather than to the shared community of the institution. We bias our reward system to punish those who commit time and effort to governance above the level of department and, possibly, college. We pressure our younger colleagues to avoid governance activity in favor of activity that may yield still another publication—a lesson they continue into a tenured status. Governance leaders are aging. As many senior faculty retire or depart in the next 10 to 15 years, the next generation is not prepared for or, often, respectful of governance activity. In the shade of mighty oaks, precious few acorns have rooted. This time of severe financial crisis is not fertile soil for a resurgence of faculty governance.

As faculty addressing these questions, we need to join with the administration in focusing upon the mission of higher education: to educate, to add to the quality and value of knowledge through research and artistic creativity, and to serve humanity. We need to understand who we are individually and collectively in accomplish that mission. Hence, we need to determine the role our institution should play within higher education by joining in the definition and redefinition of the institution’s specific mission. That focus, coupled with utilizing ethical standards and values in vibrant, flexible shared governance systems, will serve the institution, its faculty, and the larger society well.