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I remember well the meeting with a senior faculty leader. It was early in my Wesleyan University presidency, and I was excited about the many things I hoped to see accomplished. We were talking about the objectives for the year that the administration would be presenting to the board of trustees, and I asked what her goals were. Clearly surprised by my invitation to help set the agenda for the university, this faculty veteran -- well respected by her colleagues and a devoted mentor for her students -- explained to me that she would do what she could to ensure that not much would change. When I seemed incredulous, she emphasized that “preventing disaster is not the same as doing nothing.”
What to make of this exchange? Emblematic of the university’s disdain for innovation? Of higher education’s notorious inertia in the face of change? Certainly the conservative dimension of academic culture is real and important, protecting the university from merely echoing microtrends that may be irrelevant, even antithetical, to quality education. But in this age of increasingly rapid change fueled by technological innovation, we might find, to paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein, that we have been protected out of all we own.
In their Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in Higher Education, William Bowen and Gene Tobin defend a contemporary model of shared governance, one that emphasizes robust consultation. In the end, however, they stress that if colleges and universities are to thrive in the current environment, the power to initiate changes and make them stick must be centralized. Although recognizing that new academic programs need faculty support, they underscore that the allocation of resources and even pedagogical initiatives are going to be most successful with leadership unbeholden to any existing constituency.
Successful change will emerge, Bowen and Tobin underscore, when leaders work for the good of the university as a whole and over time. Given that both authors were themselves presidents, it is unsurprising that when they look for people thinking of the good of the whole, they find them in the central administration.
Colleges and universities have been under enormous pressure to change, and change they have. Faculty authors of the Yale Report of 1828 defended their work against critics who claimed that colleges “are not adapted to the spirit and wants of the age; that they will soon be deserted, unless they are better accommodated to the business character of the nation.” Sound familiar? The 19th-century Yale faculty pointed out that they also had to deal with alumni who complained that the college was no longer teaching the way it had decades before, just as today college-educated parents often express surprise that their children aren’t learning the same things they were taught. The notion that professors have been teaching the same things in the same way for centuries is just false.
But modifications of the curriculum, even alterations in teaching style, may not be what the “disrupters” are looking for when they talk about the importance of transforming higher education. They want universities to be more nimble, capable of responding to the needs of students and to “just-in-time” research opportunities as these emerge. Critics rightly charge that the structures of universities insulate faculty, administrators and students from many stimuli (and incentives) for change. Sure, new kinds of colleges, like Minerva, and new platforms for taking classes, like Coursera, are putting pressure on some colleges to adjust, but according to higher education’s critics, most institutions just go along their merry way.
I served as president at the California College of the Arts before coming to Wesleyan, and I’ve seen some pretty big changes at those institutions. Some of these changes came from enterprising faculty, others from students, and some from administrators who saw real advantages to altering the traditional models we were using. A few came from my own initiatives. All of them eventually required the kind of consultation Bowen and Tobin describe, though none of them would have had consensus right off the bat. In higher education, the promise of consensus usually devolves into the threat of veto. Consensus kills innovation.
At California College of the Arts (CCA), I had a key role in the momentous decision to change the name of the institution, long known as the California College of Arts and Crafts. Although I was personally committed to many of the values of the arts and crafts movement out of which the college emerged, I came to see that the name was no longer helpful in designating a vibrant place where digital design, architecture, film, fine arts and writing often intermingled in powerfully creative ways. We could have embraced the name and made it work, I thought, but the leadership of the college hadn’t been doing that.
For at least 20 years much energy had been spent complaining about or defending the name. As president, I was able to guide a process involving faculty, students and board members that eventually led to the name being changed. My major contribution was just setting parameters for the discussion and saying that we would finish our decision-making process within a year. Either we would change the name or we would not talk about the issue for the duration of my presidency. In 2003, the board unanimously approved the name California College of the Arts, with the understanding that craft, design, architecture and writing were all part of our approach to learning through the arts.
After about three years or so at CCA, I introduced the idea of an M.B.A. with a focus on design. Lots of people laughed at the idea of a business degree at an art school. Having no business background myself, I hired a faculty member, designer Nathan Shedroff, to help plan a distinctive business program that would work in our creative context. The provost (now president), Steve Beal, and the CFO, David Kirshman, were enormously helpful in launching the program, which has now received international recognition from the design and business communities.
We brought the program for detailed discussion with more faculty members only after we had done quite a lot of planning -- and knew that we would not spend very much money in advance. Before launching the program, nobody else at the institution would have been invested in its success. If we had asked for a vote, we would have lost. Now, with allied programs, a larger faculty and successful alumni, the graduate Design Business program is an important part of the wonderfully eclectic CCA mix.
If these examples from CCA depict presidential initiative, two examples from Wesleyan shine a light on how individual faculty members can create broad institutional change. Over the past 30 years, Jeanine Basinger has taken film studies from the small interest area of a few colleagues to a fragile interdisciplinary program and on to a department with its own lines and facilities. As she has told me more than once, “They tried to kill it many times.” But through her indefatigable efforts together with her example as a teacher and scholar, she turned film studies into one of the university’s most widely recognized areas of excellence. And she’s still going. Two years ago, I asked her and her colleagues to make the interdisciplinary department, including an important historical archive, into the College of Film and the Moving Image. We are now building an endowment for C-Film as a permanent part of our academic offerings.
Biologist and environmental scientist Barry Chernoff was one of several faculty who responded to my call for new academic proposals when I began my tenure at Wesleyan. A radically interdisciplinary scientist, Barry wanted to bring more collaborative research and teaching under the environmental studies tent. In 2009 we created the College of the Environment, a program in which all students have both a major in environmental science and a linked major -- be it economics or biology, anthropology or dance. In addition, there is a think tank attached to the college in which faculty and undergraduates from very different departments work together on collaborative projects. A number of important publications have already emerged, and we have built a significant endowment for the program.
In both these cases, individual faculty were not only the instigators of new programs, they were also the builders. As president, I knew when to get out of the way and also when I could help them raise additional resources to make their enterprises sustainable. This last part is often important in gaining buy-in from the faculty more generally. Raising additional resources “expands the pie” so that older departments don’t block change out of fear that they themselves will receive less.
But the notion of expanding the pie also fosters illusions because it masks the trade-offs that should be visible with innovation. If new programs become more successful, according to transparent criteria, then resources should be reallocated. That often painful process of reallocation, as Bowen and Tobin argue, is the responsibility of the administration, and, ultimately of the board. It’s up to the president and provost to explain publicly the criteria for the distribution of resources.
The faculty rightly controls the kinds of courses offered for credit, and it has clear rules for approving promotions, new classes and different modes of teaching. At Wesleyan, though, students have often played an important role, instigating changes in the curriculum by bringing their intellectual interests to the fore (we want environmental design! we want more art classes! more labs!). Recently students, along with a group of faculty who wanted to experiment with intensive teaching, were instrumental in opening up the academic calendar. They made a strong pitch to faculty leadership to offer classes in the summer, and then in the winter break. The intensive courses award full academic credit and are offered at sharply discounted tuition, incentivizing breaking away from the conventional undergraduate calendar.
These proposals had strong administrative support, and it was crucial that there were faculty leaders who were willing to try the new modes of teaching. Our summer and winter terms are small, but they are growing. They offer all students more pathways to complete their degrees, often with substantial cost savings and evidence of deep learning.
My final example of change at Wesleyan is my decision to partner with Coursera in the summer of 2012. This was an unusual moment, a time when I was convinced that we at Wesleyan needed more experimentation with online learning, a time of both MOOC mania and backlash against MOOCs. I was very impressed with Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller’s approach to building a group of strong classes through an iterative process of running them and improving them.
Since these classes were not being offered for credit, I knew I did not need authorization from the faculty as a whole. We were going to produce the classes very economically, so money wasn’t the issue. I decided to join the first group of Wesleyan teachers online, inviting some of the most respected and celebrated faculty members to join me in the experiment. We were very fortunate to enlist five colleagues from very different departments. None of us knew precisely what we were getting into, but we all were curious about pedagogical innovation and eager to share our classes for free with students from around the world.
When I announced this partnership at the first faculty meeting of the year, there was real consternation. Did I actually have the authority to do this, I was asked by one of my senior colleagues. Yes, I did, at least according to the board chair and the general counsel. I knew that the ice on which we’d started skating was thin, but in the end the success of our efforts would be judged by the individual teachers involved and then on a strategy and policy level by the relevant faculty and board committees.
If I had asked a general faculty meeting for authorization, I doubt we would have ever gotten started. Instead, I asked the faculty committees to respond to our reports on the classes we taught, to refine the process of selecting teachers and subjects, and to help determine which lessons from our online classes were relevant to our work on campus.
Wesleyan is a small place. We have around 3,000 students, mostly undergraduates. In our work with Coursera over the last few years, we have worked with more than 1,000,000 students from over 120 countries. All of us who have taught in the program find it exciting and frustrating by turns -- and tremendously invigorating. We are taking lessons into flipped classrooms as well as into more traditional seminars. The partnership with Coursera continues. We are learning together. If in the end the faculty deems the experiment a failure, then will move onto other experiments.
Changes are happening at America’s colleges and universities as faculty, students and administrators grapple with making the education they offer more empowering beyond the university. Although the faculty as a whole may sometimes function as a guardian of mission and tradition, individual professors are often catalysts for innovations that can be put in the service of broad, strategic goals. As Bowen and Tobin emphasize, strong leadership recognizes the need for faculty as genuine participants rather than as adversaries.
And it’s not just faculty who can launch sustainable change. Sometimes initiatives come from students eager to try to modes of learning, or to delve more deeply into subjects not yet well represented in the curriculum. Deans, provosts and presidents learn to get out of the way when tailwinds can carry worthwhile initiatives to fruition, but they also can themselves initiate curricular experimentation in areas where there is of yet no campus constituency for new programs.
Bowen and Tobin’s main point is as simple as it is important: effective shared governance is not divided governance. Coordinated consultation and transparent decision making can ensure that universities aren’t just protecting themselves out of all they own, but are learning how to promote inquiry, learning and creative practice in ways that remain most empowering today.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.