Thursday, July 16, 2015

A University Without Shared Governance is Not a University

By Jennifer Ruth, Portland State University
Tenure is what makes shared governance real and shared governance is one of the primary reasons faculty need tenure so it’s no surprise that the University of Wisconsin System Omnibus Motion” explicitly guts shared governance while going after tenure: “Delete current law specifying that the faculty of each institution be vested with responsibility for the immediate governance of such institution and actively participate in institutional policy development.” Governor Walker’s target audience is not the higher education community: it is the Republican Party. In Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education (2015), William Bowen and Eugene Tobin—two men with long careers in higher education—want much the same thing as Walker but since we (people involved with higher education in one way or another) are their audience, they’ve worded their arguments a little differently. Indeed, one might read their book and, along with Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed, conclude that it “offers neither a wholly faculty- nor administration-driven perspective [but rather] seeks to deliver a friendly but urgent message about the importance of shared decision-making to higher education's future.” However, this would be a serious misreading.

Bowen and Tobin argue that universities must rewrite their rules so as to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. If they intend to reclaim their role as “engines of mobility,” institutions of higher education need to feature strong leadership at the presidential level, to use technology aggressively, and to implement what they call a “professional teaching staff.” About this last, they write:

“There is, in our view, an important opportunity at this particular stage in the evolution of faculty roles for new thinking about structures. The benefits of new thinking could be substantial. . . . Universities would be well-advised to acknowledge (as some already are) that full-time faculty have been filling essential teaching roles for many years, and to move expeditiously to consider creating analogous ‘professional teaching staff’ structures. Tenure-track faculty should cooperate with such efforts and not simply bemoan reductions in their relative numbers. There is surely a place in academia, and it should be a respected place, for talented individuals who do not aspire to publish the truly distinguished work of scholarship that would make them top candidates for a tenured position...” (161)

Eligibility for tenure is not part of the deal: “We do not think the conferring of tenure is necessary or desirable for professional teaching staff, given institutional needs to preserve staffing flexibility.” (163) Note that they invoke “flexibility” only moments after citing the long-term (“many years”) and “essential” reality of current teaching faculty. 

Bowen and Tobin do not acknowledge the importance of job security for the exercise of academic freedom. Instead, they claim that faculty on fixed appointments can enjoy what they repeatedly refer to as “basic” academic freedom. The teaching staff should have, they write, “some basic organizational protections for the core elements of academic freedom.” (163) (It is telling and related that they never use the word “professor”—just “teachers” or “staff.”) Buried in the middle of the book is this: “Core values of academic freedom should not be tied too tightly or too narrowly to tenure-track or tenured faculty." (164)  Tenure does not make good on the promise of academic freedom; rather, it is a recruitment tool and reward, applicable only to the “truly distinguished.” In short, it is a status symbol.

Bowen and Tobin do not explain how their position on the undesirability of tenure for teaching relates to their position on shared governance. But we can figure it out by recalling that much earlier in the book they pointed out that the erosion of tenure has weakened the collective faculty’s power with administration. The fewer the number of tenure-track positions at an institution, the weaker its shared governance. By explicitly discouraging tenure for teaching, and telling tenure-track faculty not to “bemoan” their shrinking numbers, while simultaneously explaining that faculty’s role in shared governance has declined with tenure’s decline, they come down on the side of “strong leadership” not “shared decision-making.” Whereas “academic freedom” is airy and immaterial in this book, “shared governance” is just doublespeak. 

The locus of authority for The Locus of Authority is top administrators and their Boards while faculty authority is restricted to curricular matters narrowly defined; delivery methods, encompassing online development, are not faculty purview, for example. They add that one “critical” reason why faculty should be denied substantial influence in governance is that they have “a conflict of interest.” (151) Viewing tenure as a status symbol, they appear to willfully disregard its original rationale as developed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP): the provision of a high degree of job security so that faculty can negotiate difficult matters with relative objectivity.

Bowen and Tobin take great pleasure in comparing and contrasting the leadership styles of various University presidents but their digressions about specific individuals should not distract readers from their overarching point: strong presidents who consult with faculty render shared governance unnecessary. Strong presidents are bosses – smart, charismatic, persuasive bosses but bosses. For them, this is a good thing, because shared governance is in fact the major obstacle preventing institutions from responding effectively to the challenges of the 21st century.

It’s not hard to connect the dots. A professional teaching staff “solves” the problem of a toxic labor system by legitimating faculty through regularized contracts and inclusion in governance. Inclusion in governance of non-tenure track faculty, in turn, “solves” the problems they perceive with shared governance by ensuring that the majority of faculty are not peers empowered to deliberate upon the university’s interests as a whole but are managed employees.

Since the American Association of University Professors issued its 2012 report The Inclusion in Governance of Faculty Members Holding Contingent Appointments, the idea that the majority of faculty participating in governance might be doing so without tenure has become increasingly accepted. Should the unlikely bedfellows created here --AAUP activists wanting justice for NTT faculty on the one hand, administrators wanting less interference from faculty on the other—give us pause?

As more and more non-tenure track faculty are involved in service and governance at various institutions, a new story is taking shape—that of a seemingly egalitarian world exposed as a cut-throat workplace under the strain of budgetary crises or hiring disagreements. In places where off-track faculty are involved in service and governance, equality has not somehow reigned but rather a pretense of equality that papered over a Glengarry Glen Ross reality.

Take a 2009 Academe article entitled The Unhappy Experience of Contingent Faculty.The anonymous author describes life at his or her university before and then after the 2008 recession:

“Working across disciplines in teams, the faculty appears cohesive, with little distinction made between those on and off the tenure track. In fact, NTT faculty serve on annual merit committees with tenured faculty and the same criteria used to assess the performance of the nontenured are applied to the tenured. In other words the college seems to run in a fairly egalitarian manner. In the 2008-2009 academic year, however, this egalitarian approach changed.” 

She or he describes an ugly post-recession world of secret ballots distributed only to tenure-track faculty, reductions of positions made for financial reasons passed off as curricular modifications, and the replacement of “Professor” titles with the term “lecturer,” etc.

The anonymous writer ends the piece by recommending that universities “treat [NTT faculty] with the same respect as tenure-track faculty” and that they be given “a voice in governance.” But this is what she or he argued they in fact already had before 2008-9. The next recommendation seems more to the point: “Administrations should review cuts to such faculty positions with the same due consideration they would give to tenure-track positions.” Is it realistic, though, to ask administrators to treat two groups of workers with different contractual status the same? Could they legally do so if they wanted to? The more logical conclusion for the writer to draw from his or her experience is that real equality means equal eligibility for tenure.

Like Bowen and Tobin, Michael Bérubé and I also argue that universities that turned to off-track faculty with higher teaching loads after 1970 must now legitimate these faculty. We contend, however, that the only way to do so honestly is through the tenure system. For shared governance to survive as the defining feature of the American university, the majority of non-tenure track teaching-intensive positions must become tenure-eligible.  The difference between a university in which the majority of faculty are tenure-eligible and one without tenure (or one in which tenure is reserved for a research-focused minority) is not the difference between one model of higher education and another.  It is the difference between an institution with academic freedom and one without it.


  1. The financial emergency can easily be used to rationalize the end of tenure and shared governance-- outside of the academy there will be very little resistance to this. With regard to the author herself, the responsibilities of shared governance (departmentally or university wide) cannot continually be abdicated if one is also to retain the respect and congeniality of one's colleagues. It seems quite odd that this self-righteous engagement with the future of academic freedom comes from one who has abdicated repeatedly... Regardless of personal role, though, it's the politically generated emergency that will rule the day unless you can turn your energies toward *it* instead of trying to become a pied piper of the hopes and dreams of the tenured and the untenurable alike. It's less that you will need internal organization around the future of your institutions (although good for a career or two, perhaps, in the field of tenure studies) and more that you need to counter the almost unconquerable logic of "we're broke!". To most voters shared governance and academic freedom are utter luxuries as soon as it becomes a question of costs in the way that it has in our time. What to do about that?

  2. In politics and finance, there is always great interest in damping boom/bust cycles of finance or policy and give everyone some stability. Joint governance has always been a mechanism for doing that. Any one university President can come in with grand ideas for how to change the academy (and so put their mark on it and build their resume) but when leadership changes, so too, overnight can the grand ideas. Such whipsaw management damages an institution whose core mission changes slowly: developing new knowledge; training new scholars, researchers, and professionals; and teaching undergraduates. Joint governance, done well, acts as a brake on such inefficient individually-driven shifts of focus and direction. Faculty may sometimes be entrenched and resistant to change, but as a whole, we tend not to be clueless and we usually understand our institutions and we do understand the changes in the world around us.

    Change is essential but many who advocate it don't understand Universities. I have never told someone I've recently met and had them ask anything but "what do you teach?" Yet, as a professor at an AAU University, "teaching" is only part of my job. Our job is not to only pass on existing knowledge--what Century would we be in if that were the case--but also to train new practitioners and to create new knowledge. It's those latter functions that are ultimately perhaps our most important ones because they are the ones that keep the system advancing. When the perspective is all on the "teaching staff," the University becomes nothing more than the last four years of K-16 school, rather than the engine of a growing society.


  3. I have a very ambivalent reaction to this whole post. As the president of a union representing over 4,000 non-tenure-track faculty in the University of California system, we have the same academic freedom protections as the tenure-track faculty, but we are not part of the faculty senate. I know Ruth feels that we are too insecure and self-interested to participate in an objective manner, but this really sounds like blaming the victim: you exclude us, and then argue that we are unfit to join because we are not as rational as you are (this is how I read your book with Berube). The tenured faculty are often very defensive about the role they have played in casualizing the academic labor force, and now they want to tell us that it is tenure or nothing. What good has tenure been if it has not defended the academic freedom and shared governance of the majority of the faculty and it has caved to virtually every administrative demand? Tenure has turned out to be a mostly individual right that works against collective responsibility; I would rather see a non-tenured, unionized force with strong collective bargain power. That said, I will fight against any loss of tenure and shared governance rights; I just don't see the favor being returned.

  4. @Bob Samuels. I think you get at the core dilemma in the first half of this sentence. : "Tenure has turned out to be a mostly individual right that works against collective responsibility; I would rather see a non-tenured, unionized force with strong collective bargain powe.". and the second half is correct unless we can address the problem expressed in the first, which TT fac have not yet done across status divides

  5. @Bob Samuels

    Thank you for arguing against the erosion of tenure. I think I am returning the favor by pushing for the expansion of tenure to the majority of faculty..

    Why do you defend tenure, though? I mean this sincerely because if you think that you can have the same academic freedom protections through collective bargaining agreements, then what do you think tenure does that unions can't do? Or do you think there isn't anything but you'll fight for tenure on principle? I ask this with some real urgency as my institution is moving towards something for NTT faculty that does look very much like tenure but without calling it tenure. I'd prefer we called it tenure and can't understand why we wouldn't. To me, it seems that people still assume that it will be harder to fire TT faculty than the NTT faculty on the new indefinite contracts. So, to me, this is a problem. We've improved the situation but not fixed it.

    After 15 years of heavy involvement in governance at a unionized university with both TT and NTT faculty (who are in the same union), I can't wish away all the conversations I've had with NTT faculty who have expressed their completely justified anxiety to voice opinions when involved in service/governance (activities which can turn 'political' on a dime). This has little to do with individual courage and integrity, in my opinion, but is rather a structural consequence of the different hiring practices and contracts. Had I had been hired on an off-track contract and the university not been obliged to go through the tenure process with me, I would have a different relationship to governance.

    Also, just to be clear, I am not excluding anybody from service/governance. I can say that I believe shared governance suffers when the proportion of faculty with tenure at a university shrinks without drawing the conclusion that NTT faculty should be excluded from shared governance.

    NTT faculty cannot be Senators where you are? I don't see how you have the same academic freedom in that case. as you don't have a vote in the university venue that is -- in my experience -- the most critical site for the exercise of shared governance.

  6. I defend tenure because in the current system, it is the best that many people can hope for, but I do believe that tenure has often turned into an individual right, and many faculty senates have very little power, and are forced to work with the administration in compromising ways. Unions can offer a countering force to administration and can connect with larger state and national unions and influence state legislatures. Of course, many unions fail to do this, and they need to be democratized and empowered. We look at tenure and ask how did it allow the profession to be casualized, while the administrative class took over. We need an oppositional politics that acts both inside and outside of the institution. Unions offer collective power through collective processes, and academic freedom often becomes an excuse for individualistic careerism. I think that shared governance is largely a myth and it is best to protect academic rights through enforced contracts and collective processes.

  7. @Bob Samuels

    Yes, I've heard from many people over the years - on TT and NTT contracts -- who consider shared governance a myth. I don't and I'll give you one example why: we had a program that offered online and off-campus courses . This unit was extremely profitable. It had no tenure lines and ran on adjunct contracts, with instructors having no relationship with the university outside of their teaching for us. The program was managed by people hired and evaluated directly by the university's top administrators. These people were essentially business people and, though they did not have academic expertise , they determined the courses that were offered and the hiring and scheduling. Faculty began to ask questions about this in Senate and insisted on an investigation. As a result, the program was dissolved and oversight of all curriculum -- hiring and scheduling as well as content -- returned to the various departments' faculty. This is just one example but I like it because it is one where faculty were paying attention and reversed the managerial approach that people like Bowen and Tobin would like to see dominate our universities.

  8. It would be interesting to think about the virtues of tenure compared to member-owned and democratically controlled co-operative universities. Elsewhere, there are many examples of worker control and workplace democracy that a reinvigorated tenure system might draw from:

  9. @Joss Winn an interesting example of your point from the newspaper world:

  10. A bit late to the discussion, but I just want to say I am finding it telling that the two NTT faculty members who are most annoyed with our position on NTTF and shared governance-- i.e., give them a path to tenure so as to protect them from retaliation-- are members of the California Faculty Association. Bob Samuels here, and Chris Nagel in a discussion thread at Goodreads, basically have the protections we seek to extend to NTTF, thanks to the awesomeness that is the CFA and its provisions for "eye of the needle" review for NTTF. So their criticisms of our book read a little bit like "we oppose Berube's and Ruth's proposal because we already have something very much like it." The problem is that the CFA is anomalous in American higher education, and of course I don't need to point out that faculty in many states cannot unionize at all.


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