Death by a Thousand Cuts

Michael Johnson Jr. calls on tenured and tenure-track faculty to combat an incremental erosion of faculty governance.

November 1, 2019
 
 

We’re beginning to see frightening glimpses of what I’ll call higher education’s slow extinction.

First, we’ve witnessed the potential financial evisceration of the University of Alaska, which, to all appearances, escaped that fate by halving the proposed permanent 41 percent reduction to their budget to 21 percent (although one could hardly describe a permanent 21 percent cut as an actual reprieve).

We also saw an equally devastating -- but less well-publicized -- financial cut of 30 percent to the budget of the University of North Dakota system, where, according to Sheila Liming, an assistant professor of English, some departments have been permanently damaged due to faculty losses of up to 50 percent (without of course, any likelihood of replacement hires).

What’s more, faculty members across many institutions have increasingly expressed dissatisfaction with the neoliberal methods of assessment, where they are evaluated by nonfaculty bureaucrats.

How the hell did we get here? And can we do anything to reverse this trend?

Research from as long as a decade ago noted the proliferation of managerialism and the exercise of bureaucratic control over functions that the faculty traditionally conducted. By 2011, the increased use of neoliberal mechanisms of evaluation had firmly sedimented itself into higher education, to say nothing of administrative bloat, which had significantly expanded. Devin Douglas-Bowers, currently with the Hampton Institute, said of one university:

The president [had] … 17 administrators on his staff, including two deputies, an executive assistant and multiple assistants to the assistants. The provost has 10 vice provosts working for him (each with staff); the director of diversity and community engagement had 14 key administrators and an unknown number of lesser workers; and the development office listed 118 employees, 32 of whom worked in university communications.

And many institutions I’m familiar with are plagued with a similar problem, in varying degrees of severity. While it’s true that this condition is not terminal, we’re in desperate need of a cure. Research shows that the main culprit has been the incremental and imperceptible increase over time of higher education administrators. In other words, the budget that could have been allocated to reducing student-to-teacher ratios by hiring tenure-track faculty members has been consumed by the salaries such bureaucrats command. Other researchers have also concluded that this incremental process has often occurred without much input from the faculty.

Admittedly, the erosion of faculty governance has a lengthy history that began well before I was born. Administrators have been hired without the faculty even knowing (typically during summers, when we’re technically supposed to be off work), while in other cases, they’ve been appointed despite outright rejection of any faculty input whatsoever. This incremental decline of faculty influence has diminished our ability as faculty members to spend time on priorities of our own making. And the imposition of a business-like model onto nonprofit educational institutions has created the time-consuming need for faculty members to perpetually attend to “performance indicators” and unending “assessment rubrics.”

Such “accountability measures” demonstrate a fetishistic need to quantify everything in keeping with a capitalist model of profitability that reduces people and their work to numerical values represented by credit hours, FTEs, K-factors and WTUs relative to cost-benefit analyses. That has resulted in the systematic undermining of our collective power as faculty members who know best not only what to teach but also how to teach it, in what numbers it can be taught and under what conditions to do so.

Unfortunately, the growing managerial class is often represented by administrative positions that focus on cost-effectiveness and vague and changing metrics of student learning. One predictable consequence of the imposition of this kind of neoliberal ideology is the decline in the arts and other creative disciplines. Faculty teaching small classes or one on one, as is commonly the case in art or music or other teaching-intensive disciplines, is a best practice that should be encouraged and supported. But when faculty are forced to teach increasingly larger class sizes, despite research that says such actions produce poor student performance, it shouldn’t be surprising that declining morale among the faculty becomes an issue. Though that may well not be a concern for administrative officials pathologically dedicated to cost-effectiveness, it should matter to faculty members, who have a professional obligation to uphold the principles with which all academicians should be preoccupied: the education of future members of society.

Another unfortunate, but entirely avoidable, by-product of the rise of managerialism and neoliberal policies is the recharacterization of the student (or sometimes parent) as a consumer, ripe with an unearned sense of entitlement to an education that should be delivered to them as quickly and cheaply as possible -- complete with the righteous need to justify why our intellectual demands upon their time shouldn’t be equivalent to reading Wikipedia. (It’s what I call the Burger King phenomenon: "Have It Your Way.")

We tenure-track and tenured faculty must increase, not decrease, our ranks, for we are the only ones equipped with the job security to balance this redistribution of institutional power back to those most directly involved in the mission of our colleges and universities. Historian Alexander J. Motyl makes clear that often administrators today:

determine the budgets for all divisions of a university -- often with only perfunctory participation by lower levels of the bureaucracy or the faculty … [they] also determine which departments or programs will or will not exist or thrive; they control and distribute space and all other scarce resources, thereby being able to play off units of the universities against one another; they appoint the chairs of important task forces; and they often even weigh in on which students departments should admit. Finally, top administrators have virtually uncontrolled authority to expand their own ranks, to hire favored faculty, to privilege “superstar” professors, and to grant or deny tenure.

The consequence of this imbalance in power means that the priorities of the administrators have become the priorities of the college and university. Some observers have suggested that nothing less than a wholesale change in zeitgeist will suffice. And that begins with a loud, well-publicized abandonment of all pretense to faculty governance and a calling out of those who willing perpetuate that pretense.

In addition, we should eliminate collegiate sports from higher education entirely. That may well sound like a radical step, but given the fiscal implications that some people have already reported on, colleges and universities should at least seriously consider it. College athletics has long suffered from any number of problems that continue to dominate the news: academic fraud (involving both administrators and athletes), admissions and pedophilia scandals, inexplicable spending, and the economic exploitation of athletes.

Most institutions are not profiting from their athletic teams, so the salaries allocated to their coaching staff could be reassigned to faculty positions. In fact, it’s incumbent upon faculty members, and their union representatives, to advocate for mandatory reallocation of these funds to tenure-track faculty hiring.

In California, a new law will now require student athletes be financially compensated, and athletic departments at our institutions will soon have to reconcile themselves to this new reality. The future of collegiate athletics is changing, and we as faculty members must be a part of that change and leverage this opportunity to our advantage.

One thing is for certain -- we cannot allow the status quo to continue. If we do, we’re not only handicapping ourselves, our junior colleagues and the doctoral students who are the future of our profession. We’re also shortchanging the students we’ve presumably dedicated ourselves to educate and mentor.

Bio

Michael Johnson Jr. is an assistant professor of media theory and criticism in the cinema and television arts department at California State University at Northridge. His book, There’s No Place Like HBO, will be published by Wayne State University Press in late fall 2020.

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