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June 16, 2010 [feather]
Learning to share

Right now the AAUP is calling for greater faculty involvement in shared governance, and so are prominent members of the professoriate--among them AAUP president and University of Illinois English professor Cary Nelson, whose new book, No University Is an Island, makes the case for both stronger faculty unions and more faculty power. The idea is that there are so many outside pressures on the academy--from reduced public funding to political meddling to corporate manipulation--that faculty have to band together to protect what's theirs. Bolstering this idea is the notion that trustees, who run our colleges and universities but tend not to be of colleges and universities, are intrusive, agenda-driven, anti-intellectual, and generally not to be trusted.

But "shared governance," like "academic freedom," is one of those magical terms that can mean just about whatever anyone wants it to mean. Most faculty--and, indeed, most trustees--don't really have much of a clue what the rationale for it is, or what it means for who gets to decide what. And, as often happens, confusion on such a basic point creates a vacuum that then gets filled with mischief--and so you get micromanaging trustees and absentee trustees, disengaged faculty and faculty who think they run the place. Mismanagement, paralysis, and infighting ensue.

Meanwhile, those pressures aren't going away. And higher ed has a problem. As reporters and pundits are beginning to observe, this industry has blown up like a bubble in recent years. And it's about to burst. The solution? Swift, creative, constructive action. Better shared governance--which means getting back to basics, so that faculty, administrators, and trustees actually approach governance with a shared understanding of what it is. Simple, practical, straightforward, reasonable.

This was the theme of ACTA's panel last Friday at the annual meeting of the AAUP. And to its credit, the Chronicle of Higher Ed attended the panel to see what it was all about. That was a good idea--ACTA was at the AAUP conference last year, too, and ran a very successful panel on governance. On the strength of that, ACTA returned this year to continue the conversation that began last year.

Sadly, though, the Chronicle's coverage strikes me as oddly skewed. First, ACTA is introduced as a "right-of-center" group--a gratuitous and inaccurate label (ACTA is nonpartisan) that serves, in this context, as a credentialling slur for columnist David Glenn. Second, Glenn takes another cheap shot by representing panelist Donald Drakeman as the financier behind "a high-profile effort to promote conservative scholarship on an Ivy League campus"--when what Drakeman is is a supporter of the acclaimed and nonpartisan James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.

Really, Mr. Glenn. Doesn't this kind of thing just bore you? Or at least embarrass you--just a little bit?

Topping it off, Glenn devotes excessive attention to panelist Mark Schneider's "combative ... provocations," focussing particularly on his comment that "I have no use for the concept of tenure. None whatsoever." Schneider is a former SUNY political science professor who is also a former commissioner of the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. He is presently a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. He doesn't speak for ACTA--but the article rather implies that he does, and some are reading it that way. As one commenter notes, "ACTA has been kind enough to put their agenda on the table. It is a fait accompli only if we accept it as such." More tarring by association. One notes that Glenn does not appear in the comments to disabuse confused commenters of erroneous assumptions that his article helped them to make.

As it happens, ACTA policy director Michael Poliakoff--formerly of the University of Colorado--has added a clarifying comment:

ACTA was pleased to be a part of the 2010 AAUP conference--for the second year--in what we hope will be an ongoing, constructive conversation. Our panel focused attention on how faculty and trustees can work together to tackle the pressing matters of cost, educational quality, and accountability in a manner that respects academic freedom and avoids micromanagement. Historically, faculty and trustees have tended to view each other with suspicion (if not outright hostility). What is lost in this standoff is true shared governance and shared expertise. Trustees are the ultimate fiduciaries of their institutions--and it is ACTA's conviction that they simply must step up and become more engaged. The Chronicle's characterizations notwithstanding, engagement of the sort ACTA recommends is not a conservative or liberal issue. Rather, in an era of shrinking funding, governmental intrusion, and declining public trust, this is a matter of higher ed's sustainability and survival--and should therefore concern everyone who cares about the future of our colleges and universities.

In this regard, one of the real takeaways of Friday's discussion was articulated by Senator Brown and echoed by the audience: Governance focused on appropriate goals, measurement of outcomes, and an informed public really does work. For example, re-directing limited resources to instruction rather than administration--as Senator Brown did at the University of Northern Colorado--does make sense. Similarly, ensuring that tenure remains robust through a rigorous system of post-tenure review--a theme ACTA has outlined at length in the AAUPs own magazine, Academe, and that Senator Brown himself develops in an article that we distributed at the session is an essential part of this equation.

A little clarification can be a beautiful thing. A pity that Glenn preferred--to borrow his own terms--"combative provocations."

posted on June 16, 2010 7:14 AM

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FWIW, the fact that ACTA and the JMPAII are nonpartisan says nothing about whether they're conservative.

Posted by: Eveningsun at June 19, 2010 10:17 AM

I understand why, but am appalled that, saying an organization is conservative is bad.

Why shouldn't all voices be heard?

Posted by: Suanna at June 24, 2010 3:21 PM