Three Cheers for the Dons: Part 2

May 06, 2009 | 

Tom Wood

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Three Cheers for the Dons: Part 2

May 06, 2009 | 

Tom Wood



This is the second part in a three-part series. To read Part 1, click here.

Some examples

As the Academic Correspondent for the NAS, I have been increasingly struck by how often the manifold ills of the university stem from pressures brought to bear by individuals and organizations who see the academy as a lever for social and political change, and who have relatively little regard for the teaching and research priorities of the university. Governance structures that take control of the university out of the hands of the faculty make it easier, not harder, for these “change agents” to operate.

It helps, in thinking about the governance issue I have raised, to think about some specific examples. The following set is not intended to be exhaustive or even comprehensive—only suggestive and illustrative.

The Carnegie study of campus community. Critics of the academy often allege that professors have little or no interest in teaching their students. In fact, surveys have shown that most faculty members in academe are interested in teaching. The problem is that the reward systems put in place, largely by presidents and other administrators, do not reward teaching. I cited a landmark study of campus community by the Carnegie Foundation in the late 1980s in an early posting (“Who Educates the Whole Person These Days?”). The data I cited there came from surveys reported in Campus Life: In Search of Community, a special report of the Carnegie Foundation, which was published in 1990.

The Carnegie study found low levels of faculty-student interaction on campus. Many critics of higher education are inclined to attribute this to a tacit agreement between students and faculty to make undergraduate education less demanding. The Carnegie study arrived at a rather different picture. Carnegie found a surprisingly high level of interest in teaching on the part of many faculty members. This was true even at the research institutions. The level of interest in teaching at comprehensive two-year community colleges and liberal arts colleges was even higher.

Many faculty at all types of institutions did feel, however, that teaching was undervalued on their campuses, because tenure decisions and other professionally relevant reward structures were heavily biased in favor of publications and research. This view wasn't confined to the research institutions. Faculty at the comprehensives and liberal arts colleges reported that this was increasingly true for them. Many faculty members who felt that teaching was undervalued on their campuses believed the bias toward publication and research over teaching came more from ambitious deans, presidents, and administrators than from the faculty. Only faculty at the two-year community colleges felt that good teaching was rewarded appropriately and accorded the importance it was due at their institutions.

The Oxbridge tutorial system. The Carnegie survey found that faculty at almost all institutions in the US place a higher priority on teaching than do university presidents and college deans (at least as the faculty see it). This raises an interesting question: What priority is teaching given at Oxford and Cambridge, where the dons have retained control of the university governing bodies?

HEFCE and other critics of Oxbridge have not criticized Oxford and Cambridge for doing a poor or inadequate job of teaching their students. It appears, in fact, that Oxbridge deserves high marks for both research and teaching. Oxford and Cambridge are consistently ranked among the top half dozen research universities internationally. It is less appreciated that Oxbridge has also maintained a tutorial system that is very labor intensive and extraordinarily expensive. Professors of mine who were familiar with the tutorial system and who had experience with Oxford and Cambridge told me years ago that the faculty at Oxbridge worked very hard, and that much of this was due to the tutorial system. It certainly isn’t self-interest that has led the Oxbridge faculties to fight pitched battles to defend this costly and very labor-intensive system. The tutorial system has survived for centuries at Oxbridge only because it has been favored and perpetuated by the dons. It is under attack now, mostly by forces outside the university who are not academics, on the grounds that it is excessively expensive and “elitist.”

Affirmative action & the U Conn/Roper Center survey. The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut conducted a nationwide survey of faculty opinion on affirmative action in mid-October 1996. The survey, which was sponsored by the National Association of Scholars, questioned 800 faculty members at public and private four-year colleges, and used a representative sample of faculty and institutions.

The survey produced the following findings:

  • 60 percent of professors felt their institutions “should not grant preference to one candidate over another in faculty employment decisions on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity.” Only 29 percent supported such preferences.
  • 56 percent felt that their institutions “should not grant preference to one applicant over another for admission on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity.” Only 32 percent supported such preferences.
  • 64 percent of the nation's professors supported a policy stating that their institution “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, candidates in faculty employment decisions on the basis of their race, sex, or ethnicity.” When the same phrase applied to “applicants for admission,” 61 percent agreed.

Despite the overwhelming opposition of faculty members to the use of racial and sexual preferences, more than 8 in 10 faculty members claiming familiarity with their institution's faculty employment practices reported that such preferences were being utilized at their institutions. Six in 10 claiming familiarity with student admission practices report the use of such preferences in admission decisions.

In an NAS press release, Steve Balch stressed the disparity between these findings and the publicly stated opposition of many university administrators in California and in other states to California’s Prop. 209. “The leaders of the higher education establishment would have us believe that racial and sexual preferences enjoy intense, widespread support throughout academia,” Balch said. “Yet these findings make it clear that the college and university presidents who rushed to denounce CCRI are out of touch with or simply are not accurately representing the faculty of their institutions.”

So far as I know, there has been no comparable survey of university presidents and other administrators. However, it is almost certain that a comparable survey of university presidents and administrators would yield quite different results. As bad as political correctness is in the academy, most of the professoriate still has academic and intellectual integrity, as Robert Weissberg has argued. Faculty lives continue to center on teaching and research. This is not true of administrators. They are appointed or hired to carry out bureaucratic functions, and are motivated accordingly. At the University of California, with which I am most familiar, no administrative position of any consequence has been filled for the last thirty years by anyone who has not held the “right” views politically. Furthermore, it hasn’t been sufficient to have a public record of stated allegiance to such views; demonstrated zeal in the pursuit of politically correct ideals has also been a requirement. This is simply not true of faculty appointments and tenure decisions at UC. It would be naïve to assert that political views have played no role there, but whatever that role has been, it is nothing like the role that political correctness has played in the administrative sector of the university, where there have been few if any constraints on the feverish pursuit of, and obeisance to, political correctness.

The Intergroup Relations program at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. This program is a particularly interesting example to consider. I wrote about it at some length in my earlier posting “The Marriage of Affirmative Action and Transformative Education.” IGR is a fundamentally non-academic program that has received continuing administrative support from the president’s office despite its failure to find a home in the regular curriculum, which is under the control of the faculty.

IGR’s distinctive core course involves peer-group (student-led) discussion groups on racial issues. The History page on the IGR site says that this program was “originally conceptualized as an academic initiative fully integrated with college life.” After a one-year program that involved a number of different but coordinated campus initiatives, IGR was established (in 1989) as a unit in the Division of Student Affairs, and “began collaboration with the Departments of Sociology, Psychology, and American Culture to offer intergroup dialogue academic courses.” In 1999, the same page says, IGR was “further institutionalized” by becoming a “full partner” with the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). IGR currently describes itself as a “social justice education program,” and as a “joint venture of the College of Literature, Science, and Arts, and the Division of Student Affairs.”

It isn’t easy to envisage how this “joint venture” or “full partnership” between the academic College and the Division of Student Affairs actually works in practice. IGR is not listed as an academic unit in the College of LSA, though it is listed as one of the LSA Dean's Areas and Non-Instructional Units. It is important to note that IGR is a program in the Division of Student Affairs that only collaborates with a division of the university in the academic sector (LSA). For a recognized academic unit like a department, all matters involving research, curriculum, and instruction are within the purview of the faculty senate (called the Senate Assembly at U Michigan), not the administration—not even the dean or VP of academic affairs. But IGR (besides reporting to the Dean of Student Affairs) only reports to the Dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts as one of the Dean's “Areas and Non-Instructional Units.” As one of these units, it is quite likely that it does not fall under the purview of the faculty senate at UM in the way that a normal department or academic unit does.

Most programs or courses that begin in the Dean’s “Areas and Non-Instructional Units” eventually disappear or find a home in the regular curriculum. IGR hasn’t disappeared, but in its entire twenty-year history it has also failed to secure academic standing with the faculty at the university. This is exactly what one would have expected. IGR is not an academic program at all, but is built around a student-led peer group dialogue class centered based on discussion groups and group therapy rather than academic instruction or learning. IGR has survived for over twenty years at UM as a division of Student Affairs, and as a faux, quasi-academic program as one of the Dean’s “Area and Non-Instruction Units.” While it has not and apparently cannot get a foothold with the faculty, it has managed to find a permanent niche for itself in the administrative sector of the university (Student Affairs and the Dean’s office).

The University of Delaware and Virginia Tech. The recent cause celèbre at the University of Delaware is worth mentioning in this context, because the faculty there acquitted itself better than the administration. It is true that the faculty senate at Delaware approved a revised Res Life program submitted to it by the university president, but the program it approved was so eviscerated that it no longer appears to be a threat to the academic integrity of the university. An anonymous “former UD hall director,” in a comment on an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the recent NAS statement, “Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative,” has conceded—apparently with considerable bitterness—that “transformative learning” is no longer allowed in the residence halls at Delaware.

The original program, which was truly pernicious, did not originate with the faculty. As is typical of universities these days, it emanated from one of the fever swamps of political correctness in the administrative sector of the university—Student Affairs and Res Life. (Many Res Life and Student Affairs staffers at the University of Delaware and elsewhere believe that it is incumbent on them to develop such programs because the faculty is interested only in “information transfer” rather than “transformative education.”) When the original program came under heavy fire, it had to be amended and eviscerated before it could gain the approval of the faculty. I believe this is typical of the contemporary American university.

The same is true for the recent proposal to require “commitment to diversity” for faculty hiring, promotion, and tenure at Virginia Tech. That proposal, too, originated in the administrative sector of the university, particularly in the office of Mark McNamee, senior vice president and provost of the university. The proposal was recently put to a vote of the faculty there; the results are unknown. However, the president of Virginia Tech recently announced that he was withdrawing the proposal from consideration, precisely because it had made commitment to diversity mandatory. Here again, a truly outrageous proposal that had the full support of the academic sector could not survive outside the politically correct administrative hothouse. We still do not know how the faculty voted on the issue. What we do know is that the proposal didn’t originate with the faculty, and it is hard for me to imagine that it ever could have originated there.

The Dartmouth College Board of Trustees

The Dartmouth College Board has been much in the news in the last several years. A close examination of Dartmouth College’s recent history reveals some of the important governance issues that underlie that controversy and the flaws inherent in control of the university by outside members.

Until recently, Dartmouth’s governing board had eighteen members, comprised by the state's governor, the school's president, eight trustees appointed by the board, and eight trustees nominated by alumni. A recent controversial move by the Board expanded the number of trustees to 26 members by the addition of eight more trustees appointed by the board.

Dartmouth’s Charter grants what amounts to plenary power over the university to the Board of Trustees. (This is typical of all university charters and governing structures.) Here is how the Trustees’ page on the Dartmouth site describes the Board and its functions:

The Board of Trustees is granted final authority under the original Charter of Dartmouth College to establish such “. . . ordinances, order and laws as may tend to the good and wholesome government of the said College . . .” Other statutory functions of the Board include the appointment of faculty and principal administrative officers, the purchase and disposition of real property, the establishment of salary scales, and the awarding of degrees. In short, the Board of Trustees has ultimate responsibility for the financial, administrative and academic affairs of the College.

That is, by the terms of the university’s charter, the Dartmouth Board of Trustees controls everything.

The Board’s decision to expand its membership has been controversial. It was made in response to four individuals who had been highly critical of the college administration and the Board and who had used a little known clause in the charter to run, successfully, for alumni slots on the Board.

There were, it seems, a number of different issues in play. According to Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Education, the recently elected alumni who have been critical of the university have claimed that “Dartmouth is ignoring its roots as a liberal arts college, denigrating its Greek  system, and starving its athletics program (all charges denied by college leaders).” A slightly longer list was provided by one of the recently elected alumni trustees, Todd Zywicki, whose remarks at a Pope Center conference led to his removal from the Board. According to Zywicki, the controversy was really about Freedmanism—after James Freedman, a former president of Dartmouth. (Interestingly, Zywicki named the political and cultural foe he was fighting after one of Dartmouth’s presidents, not after a faculty member or the Dartmouth faculty.) Freedmanism, according to Zywicki, was an agenda with four planks:

  1. The idea that Dartmouth should be a university rather than a college.
  2. Political correctness in all forms – speech codes, censorship, and the whole multicultural apparatus.
  3. Comprehensive social engineering of student life and replacement of the Greek system for instance.
  4. A de-emphasis on Dartmouth's traditional values of educating well-rounded leaders in favor of creative loners.

It cannot be said for certain how the Dartmouth faculty senate would have handled such issues if it had had the plenary power over university affairs that now resides in the externally controlled Board of Trustees. It does seem fair to say, though, that the reform-minded alumni did not succeed in engaging the support of the Dartmouth faculty. Scott Jaschik in his article in IHE reports that he had spoken with some professors at Dartmouth who told him that the governance debate and the recent trustee elections “have not been consistent with their experiences.” He cited one faculty member in particular, Andrew J. Friedland, the outgoing chair of the Faculty Committee on Priorities, who reported that most faculty have been puzzled by the criticisms, since their experience has been that Dartmouth in recent years had seen higher quality teaching and a continuing strong commitment to athletics and to “student-oriented learning.” As to the latter, “It’s part of our culture,” Friedland said.

It remains to be seen if the controversy has been resolved. In February 2008 James Edward Wright announced that he would step down as president of the College in June 2009. The president elect is Jim Yong Kim. According to the College, Kim’s election by the Board of Trustees was made after his selection by a search committee. The committee, which included alumni, students, and faculty, spent nearly a year soliciting input from the Dartmouth community and reviewing a wide range of candidates. The Board’s position and the College’s, then, is that Kim is a consensus candidate who has the support of all the major constituencies at the College, including the alumni.

Even if this turns out to be true, however, the question of governance structure that provides the context for the whole controversy involves a different and deeper issue. Whatever else one might say about the Dartmouth Board of Trustees, one thing is certain: it is not a democratic arrangement. The student newspaper, The Dartmouth, went part of the way toward addressing this issue in an editorial:

[T]he College’s current structure of governance isn’t really a democracy. Democracy is government by the governed. In the case of Dartmouth, the students and faculty are the governed, but the alumni are not. The so-called government for those constituencies is the Board of Trustees and, no matter how the Board is composed, the governance of Dartmouth relies on the construction of a Board that acts in the best interest of the College’s students and teachers.

Alumni have a special relationship with the students and faculty of a university, and since a private university is especially dependent on their philanthropy, the students and faculty necessarily have a special relationship with them. But the university’s alumni have graduated from the university, and gone on in their lives to other things. They no longer comprise the university itself, which at any given time is simply the community of scholars that consists of the university’s faculty. Students, too, are a very important part of the college community at any given time, but since they are there to be taught, are essentially consumers in their relation to the university, and are there for only a few years, faculty members have a much more critical role to play in defining the university than either alumni or students.

Faculty members have more than a fiduciary relationship to the university. In a very real sense, they are the university. Since a board’s essential purpose is to promote a community of scholars, those scholars should themselves have control of the board. Since the Dartmouth Board of Trustees can stack itself or add members, it can also amend its rules of membership to give a majority of seats to elected members from the university’s faculty senate—and it should. 

The Dartmouth editorial didn’t go far enough. The Dartmouth was undoubtedly right in holding that the purpose of the board is to act in the interest of the college’s students and teachers. It was also right to point out that alumni philanthropy (or the lack thereof) will always be a constraint on the Board’s decisions. That will be true whether the Board has a voting majority of faculty members or not. But the governance structure of the university should itself reflect the fact that the university is essentially an on-going community of scholars. Oddly, that is recognized by the governance structures of Oxford and Cambridge, but by almost no other university in the world.

Next, read in Part 3: 

    University finances and budgeting/putting your money where your heart is
    Looking to the future

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