Don’t Romanticize Faculty Governance

We faculty members are capable of both intellectual rigor and self-serving small-mindedness, astounding courage and craven pettiness. We are and are not special, writes Kathryn D. Blanchard.

July 24, 2019

Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, recently wrote a provocative piece urging faculty members to “reassert themselves” as the leaders of universities. He cited the many dangers of administrative bloat and “student-facing” approaches to higher education, especially the danger of letting 18- to 22-year-olds make their own curricular and co-curricular decisions.

I found many familiar sentiments in the article. Like Abrams and apparently 55 percent of faculty members he surveyed, I am dubious that young people know exactly what they need from baccalaureate education, and I enjoy the distinct privilege of intervening in their intellectual lives for just a little while. But while he is dismayed to find himself surrounded by liberals at a famously liberal institution in a famously liberal region of the nation, my own college in the rural Midwest -- and I suspect many nonelite institutions nationally -- is much more politically mixed, among employees as well as students. And unlike him, I am not convinced that faculty members always know best.

At first glance it seems intuitive that “Faculty members are trained to be thoughtful and balanced.” But as much as I’d like to believe this, reality doesn’t always bear out such a broad assertion. Some number of business faculty, for example, are trained to believe that stockholders’ gains are always the sole measure to and by which financial managers should attend and be held accountable. (I know because I’m currently taking a master’s-level finance course and our textbook explicitly says so.) So seeking a thoughtful “balance” among stakeholder needs is not necessarily part of the training. For that matter, I distinctly remember my own doctoral adviser admonishing me for reading certain theologians’ work too charitably when he wanted me to cut them off at the knees. If I am at all balanced in my outlook, it is significantly despite my training.

To a large extent I agree that “Professors should have control over what they teach and how they teach it.” I am, for example, the only person on my campus with a Ph.D. in the academic study of religion, and it is not far off to say that no one here really understands what I do. If they had their way, I might teach nothing but world religions and Introduction to the Bible all year, every year.

But the idea that my “professional judgment should not be subject to regular outside or administrative review by those who are not academically trained to make such decisions” seems a bridge too far. Historians, dancers and physicists can offer valuable feedback on how I run my classroom. (For example, would they support a decision that it’s not necessary for my students to read or write anything, or even come to class regularly, as long as they pass multiple-choice tests? Or think that it’s fine for me to rank religions according to my personal view of their reasonableness?) In particular, he says, “Faculty members are well aware of the need to promote diversity and should be trusted to develop and bring balance to their own courses,” but the long tradition of courses with all-male or all-white syllabi belies such a claim.

And in truth, even student affairs and admissions staff have an important stake in what I, as an instructor, do every day. Are my scholarship, service and teaching actually enhancing the stated mission of the institution that pays my salary, gives me health insurance and provides a platform that offers me some degree of legitimacy? The mission at my institution, for example, begins with the words “To prepare graduates who …” rather than any words about honoring faculty expertise or promoting knowledge for its own sake. If I am not actively contributing to students’ preparation for life after college -- to say nothing of demonstrably failing to benefit them in the long run -- what am I doing here? “Failure” is, of course, largely a matter of judgment, but why are faculty members the only opinion makers who count in this regard? Do we really think we’re so much smarter or wiser than everyone else?

To be fair, by “running” institutions, Abrams is referring specifically to faculty exercising their power to “direct discourse on college and university campuses,” and I am particularly sympathetic to his bias toward humanistic discourse. Those who deal in facts may see the sciences as the pinnacle of human knowing -- the more mathematical and impersonal, the better -- but I am convinced that humanists are equipped to see what such disciplines cannot. (Whether we actually do see such things is another question.) I wholeheartedly agree that the “nation at large” has been and will continue to be impoverished by an overemphasis on STEM and pre-professional education, to the exclusion of the now apparently luxurious literary and philosophical approaches that train minds skilled in empathy and self-critique. Without such mental facilities we, as a species, risk all manner of harmful oversimplification and fundamentalism in matters large and small.

But despite my unabashed love of the humanities -- and, mostly, of my colleagues -- I am experienced and pragmatic enough to know that people are people, humanists and other faculty members being no exception. We are capable of both intellectual rigor and self-serving small-mindedness, astounding courage and craven pettiness, inclusive reasoning and stubborn circling of the wagons. We are and are not special. Our outlook on higher education is finite, and every bit as shaped by our material dependence on the institutions that employ us as that of any residence life director, vice president, admissions recruiter or graduate.

To acknowledge that at least some faculty members bring distinct perspectives to the table does not require us to ignore our many failings, especially when those failings seem obvious to everyone else, nor does it permit us to dismiss the genuine contributions of at least some administrators. Instead of insisting on faculty dominance, we would be wiser to promote cross-sector cooperation, transparency, accountability and partnership -- preferably coordinated by strong leaders with long experience, clear vision and the interpersonal skills to help us all move our institutions forward together.


Kathryn D. Blanchard is Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College.


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