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Essay calls on college administrators, trustees and faculty to work together

A New Partnership

May 5, 2014

Although to my knowledge no one has tracked in a given year much less over time the number of faculty votes of no confidence in their presidents, readers of Inside Higher Ed will observe that such votes appear to be taking place all the time. The reporting of these votes reveals that faculty members generally are protesting what they judge to be their presidents' failure to honor shared governance, particularly when it comes to academic matters. Such votes often also condemn what the faculty see as a campus culture that is top-down and corporate rather than collaborative in nature, particularly when budgets are being cut.

This complaint that colleges have embraced business values and practices at the expense of academic values and practices is not a new one. Robert Margesson in A Rhetorical History of Academic Freedom From 1900 to 2006 noted that the American professoriate has been claiming at least as far back as 1908 that colleges and universities had become too corporate and that presidents had too much power.

This history notwithstanding, as I argue in my new book, Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Seniors Administrators and Faculty Can Help Their Institutions Thrive (Jossey-Bass), many presidents (and their boards) are in fact now minimizing and even ignoring the notions of shared governance in unprecedented ways. For example, increasing numbers of presidents whose institutions are facing significant financial pressures have — without the involvement of the faculty — eliminated, added or reorganized academic programs and altered how funds for departmental budgets and faculty lines are allocated.

Others have sought to create greater efficiencies and increase faculty “productivity” as defined by the number of students and/or class hours taught and, in the view of the faculty, moved too quickly, thereby violating the faculty’s wish for extended deliberations. Moreover, nearly 75 percent of faculty currently teaching at our colleges and universities today are “contingent,” (i.e., not on the tenure track and often part-time) compared to roughly 22 percent in 1969. Since contingent faculty generally have no role in governance, the reality today is that the majority of those teaching at the college level have no opportunity whatsoever to contribute to institutional decision-making.

Believing themselves under siege, many tenured and tenure-track faculty are assuming a more adversarial stance toward their administrations and sometimes their boards than I believe was previously the case. Even more specifically, because many faculty members believe that their traditional prerogatives in terms of academic matters and their established processes for faculty deliberation (which many see as their protection) are being ignored, the traditional tensions between faculty and administration are being aggravated.

Although these trends may be understandable, they are also having the very damaging consequence that a number of presidents whom I would judge effective and who do in fact embrace academic values and seek to foster shared governance, are questioning the very viability of the college presidency. I have been startled in my recent informal conversations with presidents at higher education meetings and/or in phone calls that so many presidents, already troubled by the many external challenges facing higher education, have contemplated leaving their position because of their contentious relationships with some members of their faculty. Typically, these presidents were considering either returning to teaching, retiring early or moving out of academe altogether.

Despite the fact that these presidents are located across the country and in institutions of various sizes with an array of different missions, their refrain has been consistent. In addition to citing the unrelenting demands of the job and the extraordinary financial challenges facing their institutions, both of which require an inordinate amount of presidential time and energy, most were more discouraged by what they characterized as persistent and often public criticism from a very vocal minority of faculty members on their campuses. To a person, all were dismayed that most members of their faculty, including those who privately expressed their support for them, were intimidated into silence by a small number of vocal and often vitriolic opponents who dominated the discourse in faculty meetings, in hallways and in lots of dark corners.

Most of these presidents have multiyear contracts. Only one of those with whom I have spoken recently has experienced anything approaching a formal protest from faculty colleagues, after which his board gave him a new five-year contract. Thus, none were worried about job security. Rather, their legitimate worries about the external environment were compounded by their worries about the climate on their own campuses. In addition, in a few instances, their concerns were magnified because they were uncertain that their board would be united in its support of any unpopular actions on their part, even in cases when the board had approved those actions. Several noted that their most vocal critics argued that all administrators were untrustworthy and/or incompetent. Sometimes, faculty members shared these views with their students, inspiring student dissent and distrust. Some faculty involved alumni.

Several presidents talked about how their colleagues always viewed the present through the lens of their memories of the past. On a number of campuses, presidents told me, when they looked into ongoing complaints about “the administration’s actions,” they learned the actions being criticized came from prior administrations. (I confess that sometimes when I am visiting campuses as part of consulting projects and hear such stories, I am reminded of Faulkner’s line in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)

The presidents with whom I talked were all also aware that any conflict on campus today could readily attract a great deal of negative public attention that might harm their institution and garner support for their critics, both in social media — often through Facebook pages — and also in the local and sometimes national press as well. Although these presidents recognized that such media campaigns were often mounted because faculty and students had legitimate concerns, they were nevertheless nervous that such campaigns might be successfully mounted against them for what they believed to be less compelling reasons. (See the following Inside Higher Ed pieces for examples of media campaigns and related controversies that led to presidential resignations at places as diverse as Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Louis University and Florida Atlantic University.)

Of course, such tensions are occasioned today by the fact that so many colleges and universities, sometimes for the first time in their history, are facing declining or unpredictable enrollments, rising financial aid discounts and structural deficits that have led to higher than standard endowment payouts, which threaten the sustainability of the institution over time. Because these problems seem to defy easy answers, many campuses are extremely anxious about their future. As one faculty member told me this fall, he understood that he and his colleague were unlikely to find other positions in higher education, if their institution closed.

Even so, he observed, most of his colleagues were in denial about the seriousness of the problem and instead were focused on what he called “the blame game.” He expressed regret that few on the faculty were willing to work with the administration to try to find solutions. On another campus suffering declining enrollments and where the faculty had not had a pay raise for years, faculty members refused to meet with prospective students and their families unless they were paid stipends to do so. The institution responded that it would only have the funds for such activities if enrollments increased. When last I checked, they were at an impasse.

Presidents and faculty members both should be nervous about the future. Perhaps most importantly, because the majority of American private college and universities are overwhelmingly tuition-dependent and because the funding of so many public institutions is based on enrollment, the financial impact of reduced enrollments can be devastating. Some recent statistics illustrate the volatility of enrollments:

  • Total undergraduate enrollment was down at 45.6 percent of all institutions in 2011-12 from the previous year and down at 41 percent of private institutions.
  • In 2012-13, the enrollment declines continued with declines of nearly a half million students, compared to the previous year, with approximately 90 percent of this decline coming from those who were over 25 years old.
  • Graduate enrollment too has softened. For example, in 2012, first-time graduate student enrollment declined 1.7 percent and more strikingly, enrollment of U.S. citizens at American graduate programs declined 2.3 percent.

A few specific examples will illustrate the serious consequences of declining enrollments.

  • Iowa Wesleyan College, despite its 117-year history, plans to close 16 of 32 academic programs (including studio art, sociology, history, philosophy of religion, communication and forensic science), to shrink its faculty from 52 to 22 and to reduce its staff from 78 to 55. Its new focus will be exclusively on business, education and nursing. The college will also seek to enroll greater numbers of adult students. 
  • University of Maryland University College, serving nontraditional students, such as members of the military, the federal government and working adults recently announced that it would lay off 70 employees. Its enrollment was 43,000 in 2011. For 2013, UMUC anticipates 37,000 students.
  • The University of Maine System announced plans to lay off approximately 165 faculty and staff members. This follows the elimination of 520 positions (one-tenth of the faculty, one-fourth of administrators and one-sixth of hourly employees since 2007).

Today’s financial pressures are so serious that Moody’s in 2014 issued a negative outlook for all of higher education, essentially exempting only the most affluent and selective colleges and universities. In reaching this judgment, Moody’s was influenced by the stressed business conditions in higher education, especially that revenue growth was anticipated to by much lower than had previously been the case at a time when “pent-up institutional needs” were requiring expenditures greater than revenue. Moody’s also cited uncertain funding from the public and private sectors and the current regulatory environment.

But despite the fact that these pressures are affecting the entire higher education sector, most of the presidents with whom I talked believed that they had failed to persuade their faculty colleagues that their institution was being challenged by external forces that generally were beyond their control. Rather, most of these presidents told me, when they shared information about the higher education landscape with their colleagues (and sometimes their boards), what they hear in return is that their own institution is immune from such circumstances because they are better than those being affected, that their institution has survived in the past and so will continue to survive in the future and/or that the problem really is not external but internal, i.e., that if the administration simply functioned more effectively, everything would be fine.

If in fact our colleges are to thrive in these difficult times, members of the faculty and the administration must overcome this growing divide and intentionally become partners in thinking about their institution’s future so that their institution can benefit from the best thinking of all of its members. They need to abandon the position that they are natural adversaries.

What might such a new partnership look like? For their part, I believe that presidents and boards must commit to and act on the notions that education is the institution’s reason for being, that faculty members ultimately are the heart and soul of the institution and that faculty voices do need to be at the appropriate tables. Thus, I believe that when boards select nontraditional presidents who come from outside the academy, they be sure that their choice has had an experience of some sort — as a student, a faculty member, an administrator or a board member — at a comparable institution and that they value the academic enterprise.

I am equally persuaded (although many faculty members will not welcome this suggestion) that professors understand that if they wish to contribute both to the conversation and decision-making, they need to act in a much more timely fashion than has been previously the case, sometimes even immediately. They will also need to embrace new approaches to governance that focus on institutional health rather than solely on their individual or departmental interests. For example, despite the difficulty of doing so, faculty members need to be willing to partner with the administration to make often-painful decisions about the allocation of resources. Without such collaboration, many administrations will act unilaterally.

One such example occurred a few years ago at a university where several departments enrolled at the most only a handful of students, who were taught by an equivalent number of faculty members. The president established a program prioritization process in which a committee comprising faculty members and the vice president for academic affairs spent the academic year analyzing course offerings and enrollment patterns. The committee ultimately recommended that the university phase out several majors and one minor that they judged were not central to the institution’s mission and that in the committee’s judgment were not financially sustainable. Their recommendation called for the tenured faculty to be reassigned to teach in other departments if those departments so approved and/or to teach interdisciplinary courses in the freshman and senior seminar programs. The untenured faculty would be retained only for the duration of their current contracts. Thus, although the savings would not be immediate, eliminating these programs would free up resources over time. The president was pleased with the recommendations. However, the entire faculty spent the following year debating the matter, ultimately voting down the recommendations overwhelmingly because they did not want to set the precedent that any major or any minor at all should be abolished. Board members are considering instructing the president to make such decisions administratively going forward.

For colleges and universities to chart a successful future going forward, I believe that faculty members and administrators alike must move beyond constituency politics. They and their boards must also embrace their academic mission, see themselves as partners and act in the best interests of the institution as a whole. Short of such a partnership and such an institutional perspective, I fear that the best of those in leadership positions may step down, that contentiousness will lead institutions to an unhealthy and unsustainable paralysis and that prospective students and potential donors may make other choices.

Bio

Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound and president of SRP Consulting. Her latest book, Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Senior Administrators and Faculty Can Help Their Institutions Thrive, has just been published by Jossey-Bass.

 

 

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