Editor's note: This article was orginally published by Minding the Campus on July 6, 2016.
Since its founding by progressive academics 101 years ago, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has had little affection for the governing authorities of colleges and universities. Of course, when college presidents, trustees, and boards of regents bow in submission to its edicts, the AAUP will spare a few words of non-condemnation for the penitents. But for the most part, the AAUP pursues its vision of higher education as best governed by the collective will of the faculty, by which it means the progressive faculty.
The deep roots of this hostility to non-faculty governance are nicely documented in Hans-Joerg Tiede’s recent book, University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors. Tiede is an AAUP man through and through, and sees nothing amiss in the organization’s long war for faculty domination of colleges and universities. That war grew out of an earlier time when the non-faculty governing authorities had nearly unbridled control of their institutions, and faculty members served pretty much at the whim of plutocrats, clergy members, or other figures whose commitment to open intellectual inquiry was often dubious.
As Tiede puts it, “Since the beginning of higher education in the United States, institutional governance has ultimately been based on the lay governing board, which in a strictly legal sense, is the university.”
That “strictly legal sense” hasn’t changed despite 101 years of organized pushback by the AAUP and other bodies that aimed to transfer effective power to faculty members. In Tiede’s account, this battle to overcome “the wanton power that presidents and trustees possessed” faltered early on. The founders of the AAUP in this Game of Thrones hoped to secure all the power for the faculty, but a decisive early intervention by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching resulted in college presidents grabbing the scepter from the trustees. Faculty were left with the flyswatter of complaints about academic freedom, job security, and professionalization.
That’s a pretty fair summary of where things have stood for the last century: strong college presidents dominate the boards of trustees and regents who, on paper—but often only on paper—hold the power to govern their institutions. Faculty members have in some cases unionized to present a counterforce to the dominant presidents, but even where they are not unionized, faculty members typically range themselves as an independent third voice under the doctrine of “shared governance.” This doctrine is often given a semblance of authority though formal agreements, but those agreements have also, time and again, proven to be a weak bulwark against college and university administrations.
The AAUP bellyaches about this, but the weakness of the faculty isn’t just an AAUP talking point. Other observers have said much the same thing. In The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (2011) Benjamin Ginsberg inveighed against what he saw as a “surrender” by the faculty to “rampant administrative blight.” Ginsberg, a highly regarded professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, didn’t seem to view the AAUP as a very effective antidote to this blight. He cited a 2009 AAUP conference on academic freedom and shared governance as the equivalent of a Geneva Convention in which the participants hoped the treaty would protect them from “water boarding.” These days the AAUP is investing a lot of effort into organizing adjunct faculty members, hoping against hope to stem the further dilution of faculty power.
Then there is Melissa Click: the unavoidable Melissa Click.
The AAUP membership at its recent annual meeting in Washington DC, voted unanimously to “censure” the University of Missouri at Columbia for—what else?—the decision by its Board of Curators to fire Melissa Click.
The story of Click’s outrageous behavior wasn’t lost on the participants. The call for “some muscle over here” to eject student photojournalist, Tim Tai, from a November 9 Black Lives Matter protest, and her screaming profanities at police officers trying to clear protesters from a public street at a homecoming parade, gave plenty of evidence that she had overstepped her authority as a faculty member. That Click was a hard-core ideologue who had nothing of value to teach Mizzou students didn’t enter into the University’s rationale for firing her, though it ought to raise serious questions about “university governance” that she was ever hired in the first place. Click’s scholarship and teaching involves studies of Lady Gaga and Fifty Shades of Grey.
Knowing all this, the AAUP members (I repeat) unanimously voted to censure the University of Missouri on the grounds that the university had denied Click “academic due process.” Specifically, the AAUP believes that Click should have had the benefit of a faculty hearing, and a year’s salary or a year’s notice.
Let me allow that Mizzou’s Board of Curators might have made some technical mistakes in its firing. One would have to go deep within the wreckage of Mizzou’s governance to see what foolish agreements were signed, what abridgements of governing authority were authorized, and what reckless precedents had been created before one could say with any confidence that the Mizzou Board of Curators acted in a way that didn’t expose them to AAUP’s patented petulance.
But let’s keep in mind that the AAUP’s membership has shown no such urgency in many other situations in which “due process” is in jeopardy. At the same meeting in which the censure of Mizzou passed, the AAUP officially adopted its report, The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX, which I previously reviewed. This document faults the Office for Civil Rights as well as many colleges and universities for imperiling “due process rights and shared governance.” The peril in the case of OCR’s systematic attack on the presumption of innocence, evidentiary standards, sloppy definitions, and more is many orders of magnitude greater than any inkblots left on Mizzou’s dishonorable discharge of Melissa Click.
But the AAUP has yet to find anyone to censure over abuses of Title IX.
Trustees ‘Come from Different Worlds’
So why the urgency on Click? The Chronicle of Higher Education answers by quoting Howard J. Bunsis, chairman of the AAUP’s Collective Bargaining Congress. Bunsis explains. “The attacks are not going to stop.” It seems boards of trustees “come from different worlds than we do.”
Bunsis means that as a bad thing. Imagine: Members of boards of trustees come from a world where college professors are expected to uphold freedom of thought and freedom of expression; where faculty members express some modicum of respect for the rule of law and police officers who are doing their jobs; where persuasion is valued over force; where civility is integral to the exchange of ideas. Perhaps they even come from a world where people possess actual competence in the fields in which they are employed; where “activism” cannot be substituted for scholarship; and where people gain employment in higher education to teach students worthwhile subjects. But if that were the case, it might well be that Bunsis’ worries are well placed. Melissa Click is unlikely to be the only Mizzou faculty member hired to engage trivial research and feckless teaching. As The Federalist headlined the story of her firing, “Melissa Click: One Bad Professor Fired, Thousands to Go.”
So in that sense, the AAUP vote makes perfect sense. But it also reveals the AAUP as a body acting in the spirit of trade unionism to protect its members no matter how incompetent or reprehensible.
The AAUP was in a censorious mood at its convention. It aimed its peashooter not only at Mizzou, but also at the Iowa Board of Regents and the College of Saint Rose in New York, and it leveled a “sanction” against Union County College in New Jersey. The Board of Regents at the University of Iowa hired a new president without adequately involving the faculty. Saint Rose, faced with financial exigencies, laid off 23 professors. Union County College likewise failed to consult faculty members on various matters.
Lapdogs of College Presidents
Let’s remind ourselves of Professor Tiede’s observation: “the lay governing board…in a strictly legal sense is the university.” The governing boards of the great majority of our colleges and universities have for a long time acted as lapdogs of college presidents. Every once in a while a board rouses itself form its usual torpor and attempts to exercise some portion of its legal rights. These steps may be awkward because college and university governing boards are used to the supine position and walking is, at first, a novel experience. But we should encourage the exercise. If they at first knock over a lamp or break a vase, it is a small price to be paid for the prospect that, with a little practice, they will begin to walk upright and hit a steady stride.
I know a good many individual trustees who are ready and able to do this, but they are conjoined to boards that have been padded out with friends of the college president, sports boosters, and sentimentalists who have no real idea of what happens in the classrooms of the institutions they are supposed to oversee. When these independent trustees show some sign of wanting to exercise their authority, bad things happen. In 2008, at Dartmouth, the president successfully launched a board-packing plan, akin to FDR’s court-packing plan.
When the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors in 2012 tried to dismiss its egregious president Teresa Sullivan, she successfully mounted a campaign to be reinstated. Sullivan went on to preside over (and foster) the campus hysteria that followed Rolling Stone’s confabulated account of a rape at a campus fraternity. In 2014, when Regent Wallace Hall at the University of Texas at Austin started asking hard questions about the operations of the university, he was brought up on charges by the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations for “misconduct, incompetency in the performance of official duties, or behavior unbefitting” a holder of state office.
A Resurgence of Trustees? Not Really
So challenge a college president’s domination of “governance” is plainly no easy task. The law almost always invests authority in the trustees, but the power is firmly in the hands of the president. Stories about the resurgence of trustee authority need to be taken with a grain of salt. But exceptional events can change that. The catastrophic meltdown of administrative authority at Mizzou was one such instance in which the board was, in effect, forced to step in and exercise its genuine authority. When boards do that, they ought to expect that the AAUP and faculty activists will be incensed. And then they should do it some more.
I say this not because I have such high confidence in our current boards of college trustees, but because I have such low confidence in our current college presidents and college faculties. The presidencies are held in overwhelmingly numbers by careerists who are deeply indebted to the campus grievance marshals and the dynamics of identity-group politics. The faculties are dominated by progressive activists who have intimidated their colleagues into silence. Fear of being labeled a racist, sexist, homophobe, or a conservative keeps nearly everyone in line. The result of all this is that “shared governance” has become a code word for the hard left’s dominion in American higher education. A 101 years ago, the problem may have been “the wanton power” of presidents and trustees. Today it is the wanton power of the faculty activists.