The Faculty's Complicity

Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn takes issue with arguments that the erosion of faculty members' participation in shared governance is entirely due to forces beyond their control.

May 26, 2016

Last July, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law a budget bill that, in addition to making it much easier to dismiss those in tenure-track positions, significantly attenuates the participation of faculty members in institutional governance. Doing so, he entered into a debate that has emerged as a hot topic in higher education circles and that is the subject of several recent books, including Locus of Authority by William Bowen and Eugene Tobin, Governance Reconsidered by Susan Resneck Pierce, and The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance by Larry Gerber.

While all parties to this debate agree that higher education in the United States is now undergoing a profound transformation, opinions diverge on what this signifies for shared governance. The American Association of University Professors, for example, contends that a robust reaffirmation of the faculty’s role is in order, while the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, known as AGB, insists that meeting the imperatives of a new era requires acknowledgment and support of that role, but also considerable amplification of executive authority as well as enhanced trustee oversight.

The principal developments most often cited as causes of higher education’s contemporary transformation are familiar. These include major cutbacks in state funding for public universities; intensification of federal concern with student indebtedness, tuition levels and educational outcomes; displacement of tenure-track positions by contingent and most often part-time appointments; emergence of online and distance learning providers; proliferation of consumerist sensibilities among our students; and so forth and so on.

As I read the literature, more often than not, these forces are figured by friends as well as foes of vigorous faculty participation in institutional governance as external factors that now encroach on the internal affairs of colleges and universities. What, however, is obscured when this debate is informed by a metaphor that locates the causes of higher education’s transformation beyond its walls and then, as this trope connotes, suggests that erosion of the barriers that once secured the academy’s relative autonomy defines how we should think about the future of shared governance?

This construction, I believe, serves all too well the interests of those who contend that, if higher education is to adapt to the imperatives of the 21st century, the capacity of faculty members to obstruct urgently needed reforms must be diminished. But I worry that adoption of this representation by defenders of substantial faculty participation also masks the ways in which we faculty members, and especially those of us fortunate enough to hold tenure-track positions, are complicit in undermining the necessary conditions of that role.

Whether explicitly invoked or tacitly presumed, deployment of the distinction between external and internal is common in discussions of shared governance, and that is so regardless of the position advanced by parties to this debate. For example, this metaphor informs the title of the “AGB Statement on External Influences on Universities and Colleges,” and its import is apparent in the verbs employed to characterize the work performed by these influences: “Governors and legislators have attempted to direct governance actions, regulators have tried to redefine board independence, state laws have increasingly encroached upon independent decision making, donors and sponsors have sought to determine policy, and a broadening array of organizations has continually worked to influence board decision making” (emphasis added). As AGB notes, “many presidents, governing boards and faculty members believe that institutional governance is so cumbersome that timely and effective decision making is imperiled,” and a growing number of administrators now argue that reinvigorated presidential leadership is imperative if higher education is to address its most pressing challenges,

This same metaphorical binary is presupposed by those who bemoan the academy’s “corporatization,” which is often lamented as a principal cause of the faculty’s relegation to the sidelines of institutional governance. To illustrate the point, consider the title of Lawrence Soley’s Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia or, alternatively, of Jennifer Washburn’s University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. Proponents of this thesis typically contend that corporations, often abetted by right-wing foundations, have seized control of the academy, replaced its once public values with those of the marketplace and -- often in cahoots with governing board members drawn from the for-profit sector -- imposed administrative techniques whose exercise is incompatible with extensive faculty participation in matters of institutional governance. True, this argument often affirms that the academy’s colonization is now expedited by the host of in-house lackeys who collectively comprise “the administration.” But this twist on the external-internal distinction does little to unsettle a characterization that effectively absolves faculty members of complicity in furthering the conditions of their own disempowerment.

I do not take issue with those who claim that today higher education is undergoing changes of a scope not witnessed since what is sometimes called its “massification,” principally via the GI Bill and subsequent enactments, following World War II. Nor do I contest the claim that institutions of higher education are increasingly beset by forms of intervention and regulation over which they have limited control at best. But I do contend that the present situation of higher education and hence the debate about shared governance is not exhaustively captured by a metaphor that implies that the once more or less well-bounded academic citadel is now overrun by alien intruders demanding capitulation to their terms. Instead, and drawing on recent scholarship that explores the penetration of neoliberal values within associational forms once predicated on very different normative foundations, I suggest that we think of higher education as one of many overlapping, networked and reciprocally constitutive spheres, the affairs of which are ever more fully figured as matters of commodified exchange governed by the logic of the marketplace.

At first blush, this perspective may appear indistinguishable from that invoked by the term “corporatization” (or by the kindred term “privatization”). The vantage point I am proposing differs, however, insofar as it posits that the borders that once more neatly demarcated government from the economy, and both from higher education, are now so permeable that any analysis that presupposes the adequacy of an external-internal bifurcation is almost certain to conceal more than it reveals.

To adopt this perspective is to open up the possibility of asking how infiltration of higher education by neoliberal rationality, however uneven and contested that process may be, has fostered the formation of faculty members who are ever less likely to appreciate and still more unlikely to do what needs to be done to arrest their declining role in institutional governance. This sort of fashioning occurs not because we are duped by an ideology that legitimates our subordination to a ruling class and its duplicitous agents within the university. Rather, neoliberal academic subjects are shaped via everyday experiences in multiple domains of conduct, each of which engenders a representation of conduct as so many instrumental efforts to maximize return on investments in the self, whether this return takes shape as income, status or some other good.

We are accustomed to spotting this form of reason at work when, for example, our students treat their education as a commodity whose value is to be determined by future earning capacity. Are we, however, equally adept at recognizing its operation when we upload our publications to (as I recently did), and then frequently check our “analytics snapshots” (as I now find myself doing)? To what extent does such conduct betray internalization of the neoliberal assessment techniques and productivity metrics that are now ubiquitous throughout higher education?

And what lessons do graduate students absorb when told they must become entrepreneurial agents if they are to succeed in what we continue to (mis)represent as a meritocratic competition for the ever rarer prize that is a tenure-track position? And what does it tell us when that forlorn term in the holy trinity of faculty evaluation, i.e., service, becomes a matter to be shunned whenever possible as a distraction from the “research productivity” that is key to our recognition within the disciplinary silos from which we derive our primary identities? For neoliberal subjects, I fear, investment in institutional governance is ever more likely to be deemed a speculative outlay of scarce resources whose payoff, because uncertain at best, is ill advised.

Careerism, of course, is nothing new within the academy. What is new is the inconspicuous but unrelenting disappearance of rival forms of professional identity whose persistence might trouble the figuration of individual conduct, as well as our relations with one another, in a neoliberal register. To illustrate, consider the sort of faculty member imagined by the social contract that was tacitly and sometimes expressly invoked, especially in early decades of the 20th century, to justify the distinguishing features of the academic vocation.

However idealized, the terms of this contract, sometimes labeled “social trustee professionalism,” portrayed the academic career as an ethical trust that entailed commitment to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge that is indispensable to the altruistic good that is progressive enlightenment. Achievement of that end required that the university be subject to neither intrusive political regulation nor marketplace imperatives. To secure such relative autonomy demanded institutionalization of its necessary conditions, including tenure, peer review, academic freedom and participation in organizational governance akin to that exercised by members of other self-regulating professions, especially law and medicine. Should faculty members fail to engage in such governance, this representation cautioned, they will endanger the profession’s claim to exemption from forms of regulation to which other enterprises, especially commercial, are appropriately subject.

If that account of the academic social contract now rings implausible or even quaint, that goes a long way toward affirming the accuracy of my claim about the insidious encroachment of neoliberal sensibilities within the academy. True, sometimes a colleague will characterize teaching as a calling. And, occasionally, if not in so many words, a colleague will commend academic inquiry because of its capacity to contribute to distinctively public goods. Finally, every so often, a colleague (typically senior) will bemoan the disinclination of others (typically junior) to assume their fair share of responsibility for collective governance. Rarely if ever, though, are these claims understood as mutually constitutive elements of a social contract whose terms must be resolutely safeguarded if the walls separating internal from external are to prove more real than not.

Absent that understanding, we should not be surprised when those within the academy find appeals to institutional loyalty or sacrifice on behalf of a collective good ever more incredible in the literal sense of the term. Nor should we be surprised when people outside the academy contend that contemporary defenses of the academy’s independence are little more than self-serving efforts to shield from encroachment a monopolistic enterprise that is indistinguishable from more prosaic occupations.

To close, let’s assume that I am correct to suggest that those who argue that faculty participation in shared governance must be curtailed if the academy is to adapt successfully in the 21st century are effectively facilitating the neoliberal transformation of higher education into an engine of capitalist growth. And let’s imagine that I am right to argue that a key element of the neoliberal project involves dismantling the walls that once secured higher education some measure of independence from government and economy. And, finally, let’s imagine that I am on the mark in contending that this project’s advance is now fashioning neoliberal forms of faculty subjectivity that render us less likely to recognize our part in reproducing the conditions of our own marginalization.

To say all of this is not to advocate return to a bygone era that perhaps never existed and, if it did, was certainly not all it was cracked up to be. Nor is it to assign blame, which is an unproductive temptation to which we are already too prone. But it is to take issue with arguments that represent us as victims whose present plight is entirely a function of forces beyond our control. And, correlatively, it is to say that a failure to acknowledge our complicity in the erosion of faculty participation in shared governance is an act of bad faith.


Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn is a professor of politics and leadership at Whitman College.

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