• Home
  • About Us
  • Guest Posts

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wednesday, September 21, 2016
I've always believed that university professors are willing and able to govern academics, but now I am not so sure.  I am worried about growing fatalism among even tenured faculty activists.  I'm concerned about the tacit belief that unstoppable historical forces have already destroyed the universities they want to keep.  From this standpoint, local resistance can work but remaking is futile, though remaking is the premise of shared governance and of academic freedom.

My summer travels took me to London, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Liverpool, Bonn, Cambridge, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Crewe, York, and Valencia, mostly for lectures and discussions with faculty members about the state of  universities in their country.   I was struck by the contrast between the great intelligence and professional commitments of the professors on the one hand, and their lack of hope for universities on the other.  Several of the visits revolved around higher education conferences, where I heard brilliant analyses of the nuts and bolts of national education initiatives that lacked a standpoint for faculty intervention.

Everyone was extremely busy teaching, running research centers, organizing outreach programs, testifying to government officials, and so on--there was never a lack of constructive activities.  But I sensed little confidence that any of the faculty activities would help improve their institutions or the policy environment. There are important exceptions to this rule, and I am always impressed by the great spirits who continue to be attracted into academia. When necessary, faculty would set up Temporary Autonomous Zones and hope that these spaces--labs, classrooms, offices--would escape outside attention long enough to succeed at getting their work done. It's not that faculty members saw managers as their enemy. They saw them instead as a fatal environment.

A few examples: in Denmark I heard stories both of a comedic inability of managers to return email from faculty who had major proposals before them and of the mandatory use of automated work output management systems that scored and ranked faculty members for university managers.  In South Africa, I encountered professors who were angry at their students for demanding #FeesMustFall rather than at politicians for failing to fund the higher education mission. in Britain, I worked with faculty who were responding to the post-2011 elimination of public funding for all qualitative teaching fields by reinventing entire programs nearly every year to be more appealing to the student market.  They were all great people who had reacted to challenges by creating better local solutions, but with no expectation that it would help the university system.

In most cases, output audit was replacing direct faculty-administration dialogue and the collaborative reimagining of that university's future.  The UK's Tory government has been the most explicit about its use of funding authority to replace professional judgment with market signals. In cutting central government funding for instruction to zero for most subjects, it has forced teaching to cater to student demand.  It uses impact assessments and other auditing techniques to norm STEM research to business needs.

Governments are ignoring the fact that universities are supposed to be way out in front of public sensibility in both technical and sociocultural subjects.  Universities can't be original unless they are out in front. Managing by audit, in contrast, readily norms the teaching of society, culture, and science to established mainstream views, whether that be commercial television's stories of the origins of terrorism or the pharmaceutical industry's preferences on the characterization of molecules. This norming reduces the university's non-market and social value. It ironically reduces its market value by emphasizing existing rather than future skills for students and well-known rather than challenging problems for research.

It was impossible for me to forget the University of California's travails no matter the distance, and I see two recent Berkeley issues through the gap I saw this summer between faculty reaction and faculty governance.  One issue is the budget: Berkeley's senior managers are apparently still saying that private revenue streams and more entrepreneurship will fix the budget deficit.  I interpret the evidence to show that the deficit came in large part from privatization and cannot be fixed by more of the same.   I also think that the admin's proposed solutions of "enrollment control, self-supporting degree programs, increased land utilization, entrepreneurship, and fundraising" expresses the conventional budgetary wisdom of our proverbial neoliberal era of the kind that universities exist to get beyond. Either way, the issue can't be resolved by meetings that offer spotty information about which faculty ask isolated questions and express frustration.  It can only be resolved by faculty bodies--the Senate and/or the Faculty Association and/or other groups--doing independent analysis with comprehensive financial information and building their own sustainable budget to advocate to the administration.  Faculty members haven't shifted from budget reaction to budget governance. Until they do, nothing will change.

Same goes for the Berkeley administration's suspension in the middle of the term of a student-taught course, "Palestine: A Colonial Settler Analysis."   Dean Carla Hesse suspended the course on the same day that  "43 Jewish, civil rights, and education advocacy groups" wrote to campus chancellor Nicholas Dirks to claim that the course was political advocacy, met the "government's criteria for anti-Semitism," had been approved and was being taught by anti-Zionist zealots, and was out of compliance with UC Regents policy.  And yet the course had been approved through a standard process in which faculty members have primary and ultimate authority over the curriculum--in this case the department's acting chair and the Academic Senate.  It also appears that the Berkeley administration would have taken no action without pressure from outside interest groups, and that the suspension was a response to this outside pressure.  The chancellor and/or executive dean in this case intervened in the faculty's core domain in response to an outside grievance, and they triggered national coverage of basic questions about academic freedom.  For the blow by blow of that issue I refer you to John K. Wilson's detailed analysis, Berkeley professor Samera Esmeir's commentary, and Dr. Wilson's critique of Dean Hesse's reinstatement letter.  My point here is that various kinds of internal pressure were brought to bear, from every student in the course and also from Berkeley faculty, which resulted in the course's reinstatement, and yet this kind of strong reaction is not going to be enough.

For the dean's reinstatement letter claims both that deans "review, but do not approve the academic content" of courses in this program and that this review legitimately asked about course content, that is, about "whether the stated objective for the course to 'explore the possibility of a decolonized Palestine' potentially violated Regents Policy by crossing over the line from teaching to political advocacy." The latter phrase does assert an administrative right to review content of these student-taught courses even when they are, as in this case, approved by the appropriate faculty.  Dean Hesse's position is thus that enforcement of University instructional policy does not lie with the faculty alone, but requires administrative supervision.   This remains a departure from standard AAUP-based principles of faculty self-governance of instruction.  It is consistent with the trend toward shifting the supervision of instruction reflected in the MOOC wave of 2012-13, where officials signed contracts with little faculty knowledge or input, and with the trend toward removing faculty from the university's reputation management that enabled acts like the Board firing of Professor Steven Saliata from the University of Illinois and of Asst. Professor Melissa Click from the University of Missouri.  While faculty reaction helped resolve the immediate UC Berkeley issue, faculty governance will be needed to reconstruct authority over curriculum in order to prevent such intrusions in the future.

The Berkeley student course on Palestine raised the question of whether society will allow universities to function as their over-the-horizon intellectual resource.  It represented academic inquiry that fulfilled the intellectual mission of being out in front of public sensibility on an important question. When a classroom, library, or laboratory houses original solutions, some factions will see them as impossible, outrageous, or offensive.  This is the routine impact of any avant-garde in art, science, and every field in between, whose members are treated as enemies before in many cases being lauded as pioneers.   All the outrage means is that the university is doing its job.

Since senior managers can apparently not be expected to stand up to influential outsiders, the tenured faculty will have to do it.  It would be better to do it by re-establishing governing authority over the conditions that make originality possible, rather than putting out particular fires on a global scale.