'Locus of Authority'

New book from William Bowen and Eugene Tobin argues for more effective, nimble and collaborative approach to institutional decision-making, saying new models of shared governance are needed. Some of the authors' suggestions are sure to be controversial.

January 5, 2015

The idea of shared governance probably conjures different notions for trustees, administrators and faculty members. But let’s say it’s a spectrum, with faculty advocates who want a say in major (or minor) institutional decisions while hoping trustees and administrators will stay out of the curriculum on one side. On the other side, think of administrators and governing boards who desire more involvement in curricular and other decisions long considered to be primary faculty domains, who are happy to be left alone on finance and management.

Now imagine somewhere right in the middle: that’s where Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education, a new book by William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin from Princeton University Press, aims to land. From neither a wholly faculty- nor administration-driven perspective, it seeks to deliver a friendly but urgent message about the importance of shared decision-making to higher education’s future.

Bowen, president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University, and Tobin, a senior program officer of higher education and scholarship in the humanities at the Mellon Foundation and former president of Hamilton College, argue throughout the book that college and university shared governance structures are generally staid, slow if not ineffective, and suboptimal for addressing the challenges facing higher education and society generally in the 21st century. Of particular concern are “plateauing” completion rates, increased time to degree and college affordability, and their implications for income inequality later on.

 “We must ask whether it is reasonable to expect a century-old structure of shared governance to enable colleges and universities of all kinds to respond to new demands for more cost-effective student learning,” Bowen and Tobin say. “Will institutions that educate growing numbers of students from first-generation, under-represented, and disadvantaged backgrounds be able to make the organizational and pedagogical changes that can preserve higher education as an engine of social progress? And can those institutions regarded as pacesetters in both the public and private sectors do more than maintain their positions in the higher education hierarchy?”

While shared governance is hardly a sexy topic, they say, better institutional mechanisms for making important decisions – sometimes quickly – can help address such concerns. And for that to happen, boards, administrations and faculty members all must prioritize the institutional mission above their own interests and actively create more nimble, effective and collaborative means of making important choices and changes.

“Going forward, we suspect that a much more horizontal structure is going to be required, because decisions of many kinds are going to transcend departmental structures,” Bowen and Tobin say. “We have in mind decisions about the deployment of technology, about new approaches to teaching at least some kinds of content, and about the reallocation of teaching resources.”

They continue: “ 'Horizontal thinking’ will require both effective leadership from senior officers and a much less compartmentalized and, perhaps, a more ‘networked’ way of approaching issues; an essential element is the willingness of key faculty to think broadly about institutional needs, without expecting to control outcomes.”

Cost-Effectiveness and Online Education

Bowen and Tobin discuss some controversial ideas, saying that cost-effectiveness has been for too long considered “sacrilegious.” For example, they say, a hypothetical teaching method that yields “the best” results but costs significantly more than another good but less effective teaching method might not be best for the institution over all, since resources saved in adopting the latter method may be spent elsewhere.

They go further in this vein, particularly in regard to online learning, saying that “it is time for individual faculty to give up, cheerfully and not grudgingly, any claim to sole authority over teaching methods of all kinds.” That’s in exchange for an “important seat at a larger table” in discussions about online pedagogies – which they say hold largely untapped value. (In his 2013 book, Higher Education in the Digital Age, Bowen, a labor economist, proposes online education as a possible solution to the “cost disease” many colleges and universities suffer.)

Controversy aside, the status quo simply isn’t pleasing anyone, the book says.

“A growing number of trustees are frustrated by the slow, deliberative nature of institutional decision-making,” Bowen and Tobin argue. “They want clearer boundaries between decisions that affect the curriculum (narrowly defined) and those that involve the institutional mission and budget.”

Many faculty members, meanwhile, "categorically reject the values, vocabulary, theories and methods of ‘corporate’ approaches,” the book says. “Faculty nominally endorse the concept of ‘shared governance,’ a concept we interpret as presuming the absence of an inherently adversarial relationship between faculty and administrators/trustees and the embrace of a collaborative approach to achieving common goals. But even within the faculty ranks, cherished notions of debate, consultation, deliberation and the search for consensus have been diminished by the compartmentalized nature of the academy and by faculty members’ loyalties to their disciplines rather than to their institutions.”

Bowen and Tobin chronicle the evolution of the faculty’s role in institutional decision-making to the “golden age” of the 1960s, when the American Association of University Professors published its Statement on Government in Colleges and Universities. The history attempts to demonstrate that while the faculty role in governance always has been “highly iterative,” it has failed to evolve to meet today’s biggest challenges. The authors are careful not to include direct recommendations, saying they’d instead like to participate in a “conversation” with their readers – ultimately in the hope that it will bear real-life discussions and changes tailored to individual institutions.

New Concepts of Faculty Input

Locus of Authority argues that it's time to rethink the faculty role in various institutional decisions: selection and tenure of a president; faculty appointments and dismissals; general “advice-giving”; budgetary and staffing questions, including those about the status of non-tenure-track faculty; maintaining academic standards; and authority to determine teaching methods, including for online courses.

Regarding choosing and working with a president, Bowen and Tobin say that faculty members have a “definite” role to play, since a leader’s success is closely linked to his or her “fit” with an institution, including the faculty. But they say that a “poorly understood risk” of too much faculty involvement in the search process is misleading a governing board about institutional needs. Contrary to what many faculty advocates have called for, Bow and Tobin also caution against ever giving a faculty member a seat on the governing board, as it “creates conflicts of interest and can put a faculty representative in an awkward position."

For decisions about fellow faculty members, Locus of Authority argues that faculties “have an essential role to play in selecting new colleagues, evaluating the professional competence of peers on an ongoing basis and providing proper procedures for ensuring that individuals are not dismissed for wrong reasons,” as long as they adhere to “institutional norms.” Bowen and Tobin reject what they call the “unqualified use” of the term faculty “rights,” and say that presidents, deans or provosts reserve the right to “upgrade faculty quality” when needed.

“The most successful colleges and universities pride themselves on enjoying a strong partnership between administrators and faculty in rejecting candidates for promotion who are not up to high standards, in tying advancements in rank and salary to stellar performance, and in insisting that searches for new faculty aim high enough,” they say. To that end, “we think there is much to be said for appointing, not electing, departmental chairs – albeit, after close consultation with the departmental faculty.”

Bowen and Tobin also support serious peer-to-peer post-tenure-reviews and strong consideration of “creative contributions” to online pedagogy in personnel decisions.

In general, they call for a more regularized sense of faculty input, saying that while some campuses have dozens of faculty committees on everything from student life to library matters, a strong faculty voice is sometimes missing on arguably the most important questions. They cite what they perceive to have been a lack of faculty outcry last year during what has been elsewhere dubbed “disinvitation season,” when a number of controversial convocation speakers withdrew amid student protests. The topic is close to Bowen’s heart, as he filled in for a speaker Haverford College in May and chastised students for not living up to the ideals of free speech.

"Here is an instance in which a firm voice, expressed by the faculty collectively, would have served institutional purposes very well indeed,” Bowen and Tobin say. “Odd as it may seem to those concerned about too much faculty power, both sizeable parts of the academic community and the public at large seem to be more troubled by the lack of clear expressions of faculty sentiments on core principles […] than by concerns about faculty overreaching.”

The authors acknowledge the difficulty of achieving a strong central voice among as heterogeneous a group as a faculty, and of knowing when enough consultation is, in fact, enough – even on campuses with strong faculty senates. But they argue that ultimately “there should not be too much ambiguity” on individual campuses about where rests “the locus of authority for decisions of various kinds.”

Perhaps most notably, the authors make the case for “sensible policies and regularizing procedures” regarding non-tenure-track faculty, and call for the establishment of a “professional teaching staff” with a “regularized, respected, decently paid way of toiling in their chosen teaching vineyards” – similar to the professional staff researcher ranks that swelled after World War II. Bowen and Tobin predict that the trend toward majority non-tenure-track faculties will continue, and cite several institutions that already have taken steps to regularize this new class of teacher. They say the University of Michigan’s 183-page contract with its Lecturers’ Employee Organization is worthy of study, as it contains nine titles for adjuncts based on their exact jobs, a “presumption of renewal,” detailed salary information and other information. The authors endorse the idea of three-year appointments with the expectation of renewal, a well-defined evaluation process and “basic organizational protections (such as appeal processes) for the core elements of academic freedom.” (Over all, they endorse a limited definition of academic freedom that protects faculty academic utterances.)

Bowen and Tobin say that tenure-line faculty members should “cooperate with such efforts and not simply bemoan reductions in their relative numbers,” as there should surely be a “respected place” in academe for “talented individuals who do not aspire to publish the truly distinguished work of scholarship that would make them top candidates for a tenured position at a university that prides itself on producing Ph.D.s, or at a college committed to inculcating scholarly skills among undergraduates.”

Faculty generally should not lose their “Horatio at the Gate” status concerning academic standards and curriculum, the authors add. Even when “entire courses of study” are being considered, they say, it’s important to seek faculty consultation and support. Bowen and Tobin cite the demise of the Global Campus initiative at the University of Illinois as an example of how “risky” it can be to “impose a new curricular initiative if faculty harbor serious doubts about its academic value."

On the flip side, however, they argue, “negative” decisions about closing programs or courses of study should be the "province of administrative decision-makers and trustees, who are ultimately responsible for priority-setting, as well as what are always difficult decisions about resource allocation and fundraising.” Faculty consultation is desirable, they say, but faculty members should not be given a “veto” over decisions to discontinue programs. That contradicts the AAUP's stance, which was recently revisited to prescribe the involvement of peer-elected faculty members at all levels of decision-making, among other protocols, and to more clearly link program closures and resulting layoffs with financial exigency. 

Case Studies at Princeton and CUNY

Bowen and Tobin bolster their 360-page argument with a handful of case studies about what they consider to have been strong institutional decisions or institutions with strong methods of making decisions. Among them is Princeton University, where the authors say there is very little “we-they” thinking between the faculty and the administration and where the Faculty Advisory Committee on Appointments and Advancements collaborates closely with the president on personnel decisions before they are passed on to the Board of Trustees for approval.

Bowen, who as president of Princeton chaired the committee for many years, said in an interview that such a committee could have prevented some of the continuing controversy stemming from the rescinded appointment of Steven Salaita, a would-have-been tenured professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in August.

“In 16 years [as president] there was never a disagreement between me and the committee,” Bowen said, noting that a committee-approved candidate once asked him what would happen if the board didn’t approve his appointment. “In that case, the two of us will be looking for jobs,” Bowen recalled saying.

Beyond concerns about personnel matters, Bowen said, the book seeks to challenge higher education’s “aversion” to talking frankly about costs, since “very unfortunately, I don’t believe we will see a return to the glory days of yore, in terms of public funding. … We have to find way to improve, revise and change the production function in higher education. I think there’s just no choice if we’re serious about reaching various national achievement goals and reducing disparities in outcomes.”

Tobin also said much is riding on institutions’ improved ability to make effective decisions, sometimes quickly.

“I don’t think anyone ever sits down and says, ‘Let’s write a book about faculty governance’ unless there are compelling societal issues at stake,” he said via email. “Right now, if we look at rates of educational attainment, average time to degree, the growing disparities in educational outcomes by race and socioeconomic status, and rising costs, we’re not getting the job done.”

Tobin added: “In addition to skepticism about the flexibility of existing governance structures, we have been struck by the contentiousness with which faculty members, deans, provosts, presidents, trustees, regents, and students question each other’s prerogatives, motives, and legitimacy. These divisions are magnified by the steady fragmentation and stratification within higher education that make it much more difficult to find common ground.”

In another case study, Bowen and Tobin endorse the City University of New York’s adoption of the Pathways general education curriculum as an important means of increasing student transfer rates across the massive system. Bowen acknowledged that the decision remains controversial, especially among the CUNY faculty, who voted no confidence in Pathways and launched a lawsuit against the administration, alleging insufficient faculty involvement. (The lawsuit was dismissed.) But he said he thought Pathways was still “absolutely essential to stopping the problem,” and said the decision was a prime example of “key leadership” from “people who weren’t looking for another job” – in other words, they were working with the institution’s interest in mind, not their own.

Not everyone agrees with that assertion, or others included in the book.

Barbara Bowen (no relation to William Bowen), president of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, the independent faculty union that launched the lawsuit against the administration, said Pathways does not solve the system’s most pressing attainment problems, since more students have trouble transferring upper-level courses in their majors, not lower-level courses. She also said the general curriculum “water[s] down” required courses and unique curricular offerings at individual colleges.

“They generally named the problem and created a solution that increased centralized control and degraded the quality of education,” Barbara Bowen said. “It’s completely the opposite of what universities should be doing and is not an example to emulate.”

Larry G. Gerber, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University and former chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance, also took issue with some of Bowen and Tobin’s points – including that Gerber’s recent book on shared governance arguing that “corporate-driven market practices have eroded faculty's historic role as professionals and as equal participants in shared governance is oversimplified and a misreading of his own scholarly analysis.”

Gerber, who could only read the new book’s publicly available introduction prior to its full publication this month, said that Bowen and Tobin “identify important issues confronting higher education today.” But he said it’s “telling” that the authors explicitly say that they do not consider questions of educational “quality.” (In the introduction, they say the topic is important but too “complex” and “tricky” to deal with in a discussion about shared governance.)

“This is a serious flaw in their approach,” Gerber said. “It would be very easy to increase the number of students getting degrees, and to decrease the cost of higher education, if all considerations of quality were put aside. Lower standards could obviously lead to higher completion rates, but is that the way we want to go?”

It can be dangerous to remove faculty primary responsibility in decisions about instructional technology, for example, he said, arguing that administrators and politicians “tout the cost-saving possibilities of instructional technology, but often do so without fully appreciating the quality issues involved,” or the capital costs. Problems are particularly apparent at some for-profit institutions, he added.

Bowen and Tobin in their book also include a note of skepticism regarding a recent report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. They ask if it’s wise to advocate for more trustee activism in curricular decisions and in protecting the academic freedom of students, as the report suggests.

Benno Schmidt, chair of the board of the CUNY and former president of Yale University, led the panel that issued the report. In an interview, he said he thought it would be appropriate for a board to intervene in traditional faculty domains “only in very rare situations.” But, he said, “I think there are some cases where the collective result of a faculty decision may not reflect the best interest of the students.”

In a hypothetical example, Schmidt said a board or administrators might need to “step in” if a history department continued to appoint professors who didn’t allow the department to “cover the full breadth and depth of the subject.” He also defended the Pathways decision as necessary to increase student success.

Adrianna Kezar, director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, was also unable to read the book in full but said she was enthusiastic about Bowen and Tobin’s recommendation to establish a professional, non-tenure-track teaching force with clearly defined protections of academic freedom.

“I have made both those arguments myself in books and articles,” she said, saying that few other publications have offered a meaningful discussion of how to include non-tenure-track faculty in “meaningful ways.”



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