Relaxed Mediocrity: Florida’s Mission to Reassert Board Control Over Faculty Appointments

Peter Wood

A bill currently before the Florida House has raised hackles among ardent defenders of the status quo in American higher education. They fear that if the bill passes in Florida, the ideas put forward by Governor DeSantis could spread to other states. The bill, HB 999, has many controversial provisions. I want to comment on just one of these:


(1) Each state university board of trustees is responsible for hiring faculty for the university. The president of the university may provide hiring recommendations to the board. The president and the board are not required to consider recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university or other individuals or groups.

(a) The board of trustees may delegate its hiring authority to the president; however, the president may not delegate such hiring authority and the board must approve or deny any selection by the president.

To those unfamiliar with the working of contemporary universities, these few sentences might seem bland, if a little mysterious. Of course a university board of trustees is and should be ultimately responsible for hiring the faculty. But the Florida bill takes away the implicit “ultimately.” It assigns to the boards of trustees actual responsibility, and it limits the ability of boards to delegate it down to academic departments, deans, and other folks in the academic hierarchy.

Why would DeSantis want to do that? Let me offer some speculation based on my many years in college and university administration.

First, DeSantis knows that university boards of trustees have long been one of the great obstacles to effective change in higher education. They are in principle the watchdogs, but in practice the lapdogs of the institutions they oversee. At many universities they rubberstamp whatever list of faculty candidates the university president puts forward. And in most of those cases, the president in turn has just rubberstamped the “recommendations” that have been forwarded by the provost, the deans, and the academic departments. These days we might well add the diversity czars, who have inserted themselves into every level of faculty appointment.

The name for this dithering away of intellectual authority is “shared governance.” And shared governance is an almost sacred cause for faculty activists, who believe they should have final say in who their colleagues are. Volcanoes erupt and tsunamis are unleashed on the rare occasions when a board of trustees rouses itself from its torpor and says “No!” to the proposed appointment of someone who is conspicuously unqualified or inappropriate by virtue of his predilection for cannibalism, child molestation, or some such habit not strictly related to his proposed position in teaching, say, mass communication in the School of Mummery.

By vesting the responsibility for academic appointments in the board of trustees, DeSantis’ bill would all at once put an end to this folly. But would it really? Who is better than the faculty of the mathematics department to pick the most qualified candidate to teach algebraic topology? Who is better than the engineering faculty doing optical engineering research to find the best candidate in that specialization? Plainly “shared governance” makes sense when the focus is on areas of recondite knowledge. But even there, some burden falls on the higher levels of administration and the board to make sure that the preferred candidate is all that those who recommend him say he is.

The trouble is that faculty members in virtually all other areas of the university believe that they should be treated just like the mathematicians, engineers, and specialized scientists. Who better than an English professor to recognize the most promising faculty candidate in English literature? Who better than a historian… etc. The right answer—though stoutly resisted by the faculty at hand—is that there are a great many people who may better understand the needs of the students, the needs of the university, and the needs of the public for an English or a history professor than the existing English or history faculty.

This is because the liberal arts call for intellectual breadth and humanistic vision as well as the specialized disciplinary skills. And the board of trustees of a university ought to be able to judge all of the qualities, with a better eye to the larger horizons of the institution which it is their duty to see and understand.

DeSantis’s proposed rule goes still further, asserting that boards of trustees are “not required to consider recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university or other individuals or groups.” The key word in this formula is “required.” Board of trustees can seek whatever recommendations and opinions they choose, but under this provision they are exempt from having to subject themselves to the special pleading, intimidation, and filibustering of faculty members who simply want their way. It is a wise provision and shows that DeSantis understands the usual campus game.

The DeSantis proposals have already been met with consternation by those who translate the ideal of “academic freedom” into the despotism of faculty demands. I come to the topic with a somewhat unusual experience. I started working in the John Silber administration at Boston University in 1987, and was immediately detailed to reading and reviewing the portfolios of candidates for faculty appointments outside my own area, which is social anthropology. I quickly learned that no recommendation, including my own, counted for anything unless it was backed by solid evidence and unbiased analysis.

Boston University was exceptional at the time for having a president committed to this view and a board that engaged with it. Every appointment down to the level of graduate student instructors went to the board backed with a detailed case for approval. The point was not just quality control over the appointments themselves, but the creation of a campus culture in which the effort to maintain academic standards was conspicuous.

Every approach has its limitations, and I can’t say that Silber’s regime produced an academic Elysium. For one thing, its accomplishments were fragile and were quickly undone by his successors. Relaxed mediocrity is the deep norm in American higher education and every institution will revert to it absent a president and a board who are determined to pursue the uncomfortable course of fighting for excellence.

DeSantis appears to understand this and has decided to raise Florida’s public universities to educational distinction. It will be a very hard fight and is likely to take a long time, but vesting control of faculty appointments in the boards of trustees is a crucial first step.

Photo by DXR - Own work // CC BY-SA 4.0 //

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