Last century, American professors accomplished a miracle. In a nation not known for its love of intellectuals, the American Association of University Professors declared, in 1915, that they were more than employees. Their relationship to trustees, who are legally responsible for governing universities, was akin to the relationship of Supreme Court justices to presidents. Trustees and administrators were to respect and defend the independence of professors, who, much as judges answered to the Constitution, answered to a socially sanctioned mission: the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.
This unlikely view is now so widely accepted that even legislators retreat when “academic freedom” is invoked. As William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin explain here, professors eventually used their unique standing to fight for (and sometimes win) a voice in nearly every aspect of higher education governance. But the problem, as Bowen and Tobin see it, is that faculty members govern poorly. Faculty meetings teach us that the monks of scholarship depicted by the AAUP are as vain and selfish as everyone else. They are as inclined as anyone to love an opinion because it is theirs, as prone to let disputes over office space color disputes over the curriculum, and as likely to believe that what enables them to live comfortably just happens to be best for everyone.
Small wonder that change rarely comes, as onetime president of the University of California Clark Kerr put it, “at the instigation of this group . . . as a collective body.” Small wonder, too, that “the call for effectiveness in the use of resources [is] perceived by many inside the university world as the best current definition of evil.” Bowen and Tobin go further: Clark Kerr gave considerable ground to faculty, whose resistance to change and insistence on deliberation and consensus yielded “a greater sense of order and stability.” But Bowen and Tobin deny that “the most urgent need for today” is a greater sense of order and stability.
Rather, Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton, and Tobin, former president of Hamilton College, think that university administrators and faculty alike are fiddling while Rome burns. Their worries are familiar. Americans complete college at relatively low rates and take so long to do so that success is measured by completion in six years, rather than four. Costs remain staggeringly high, which means not only that students often graduate with significant debt but that universities will have to right themselves without spending more money. Viewing the landscape, Bowen and Tobin see mostly paralysis. A 2014 survey they draw on shows that although “many campus chief financial officers lack confidence in the sustainability of their colleges’ business model,” they also “seem loath to take cost-saving measures” because they fear “antagonizing key constituents, especially faculty.”
When Bowen and Tobin, friends and knowers of higher education, worry about “the uncertainty one senses about higher education’s resolve to reform from within,” the heart sinks.
In two informative chapters, they give a brief history of the faculty role in academic governance, from the colonial era to today. The main takeaway is that this role has often changed to accommodate “market pressures,” “financial realities,” and “the changing needs of the society that higher education exists to serve.” It is foolish to think that a “hundred-year-old system of governance practices” is right for today’s troubles. A new governance system is needed for a world that is itself quite new.
Of the new things described in the remaining chapters, two stand out. First, we live in a “digital age,” and technology, including online courses and even automated grading, can help lower costs without necessarily sacrificing educational quality. Unfortunately, faculty members, who think that how they teach should be up to them, obstruct the systemwide changes needed to take full advantage of new technologies. It is time, Bowen and Tobin assert, for faculty to “give up . . . any claim to sole authority over teaching methods of all kinds.”