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COVID-19 and its aftermath have laid bare deeply rooted defects within the U.S. polity. Think, for example, of the recalcitrant reality of institutionalized racism, the paucity of affordable childcare for working parents, the gross inequities in access to health care and the disposability of our most “essential” workers. To extend this list, might we also ask whether the pandemic has revealed the truth about the form of rule that defines the American academy? Is it possible that COVID-19 has exposed the essentially autocratic constitution that structures U.S. colleges and universities? And, if that is so, has the pandemic shown us why the project of shared governance is fatally flawed, precisely because it fails to acknowledge this harsh reality?

When Widget Makers Rule

To set a context for addressing these questions, consider a report issued last May by the foremost champion of shared governance. In “COVID-19 and Academic Governance,” the American Association of University Professors details egregious violations of the principles and practices of shared governance at eight higher education institutions. They include the termination of tenured as well as nontenured appointments, the suspension of faculty handbooks, the elimination of entire academic programs, the abolition of established bodies of governance and more.

College and university officials represented these actions as unfortunate but unavoidable responses to the financial fallout occasioned by COVID-19. The AAUP hints at a more cynical explanation when it quotes an interim dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder: “Never waste a good pandemic.” Following this lead, the association argues that many, if not most, of these top-down transgressions against shared governance were “prompted largely by opportunistic exploitations of catastrophic events.” On this account, the pandemic is not the original cause of these violations but rather “served as an accelerant, turning the gradual erosion of shared governance on some campuses into a landslide.”

The AAUP explains this secular attrition by pointing to the academy’s corporatization, which entails treating colleges and universities as if they “were businesses whose CEOs suddenly decided to stop making widgets or shut down the steelworks.” The consequences of this misrepresentation are exemplified but hardly exhausted by “the expansion of areas of university administration, from the financial office to the office of the general counsel to the offices of risk management, in which the faculty have no involvement” as well as “the casualization of the faculty workforce entailed in the decades-long transition from a majority tenured to a majority nontenured faculty.”

From its findings, the report draws a dire conclusion: “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the most serious challenges to academic governance in the last 50 years.” Peering into the future, its authors express their fear that rule by “unilateral” fiat may soon become a “permanent” element of institutional governance and so “acquire an unfortunate veneer of legitimacy.” For now, they contend, this end is not inevitable: “It remains to be seen whether such norms, once shattered, can be pieced back together or whether we are now in the domain of Humpty-Dumpty, where what is broken cannot be mended and words can have any meaning that anyone [but especially those who possess the power to impose their definitions] wishes to attribute to them.”

To ward off this dystopia, the report issues this exhortation: “Governing boards, administrations, and faculties must make a conscious, concerted, and sustained effort to ensure that all parties are conversant with, and cultivate respect for, the norms of shared governance as articulated in the ‘Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities,’ which the AAUP jointly authored in 1966 with the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards.”

Given the report’s citation of the short and long-term forces that now enfeeble shared governance, I find this admonition unconvincing if not incredible. Here, the AAUP urges the very administrators and governing boards that have demonstrated their penchant for promoting the academy’s “corporatization” -- and, more recently, for ruling by high-handed edict -- to acknowledge the error of their ways and affirm their allegiance to the norms many of them have worked hard to undermine for decades.

Why Autocratic Rule Is Not an Aberration

Perhaps Humpty-Dumpty’s kingdom is not so much a future to be feared but an order from which we have never escaped. To see why this is so, consider the AAUP’s denunciation of the “inclusion of ‘force majeure,’ ‘act of God,’ ‘extraordinary circumstances,’ and similar escape-clause provisions in faculty handbooks and collective bargaining agreements.” The presence of these clauses, the report rightly notes, invites governing boards and administrators “to nullify existing policies designed to involve faculty in decision-making.” Or as an unnamed wag puts it, “The faculty manual is in effect -- except when the administration or board takes actions that violate it.” What this instructor has recognized, I would suggest, is that autocratic and unaccountable rule by governing boards and their executive appointees is not a departure from the norm. Rather, it is the feature that defines the exercise of power within the American academy, and, if that is so, excision of the “nuclear option[s]” the AAUP finds objectionable will do little more than veil this unpleasant truth.

This antidemocratic form of rule is inherent within the legal constitution of the American academy as a historically specific kind of corporation. That corporate form is suggested in the constitution of the private liberal arts college that employed me for nearly four decades. Its first article reads, “As provided in the Charter of 1883, the name of this corporation is ‘The Board of Trustees of Whitman College,’” and it is to this body that the constitution grants exclusive plenary authority over the college’s “corporate concerns.”

To manage those concerns, the charter issued by Washington’s territorial Legislature in 1883 grants to Whitman’s governing board the usual panoply of powers that define all corporations, including the right to purchase, use and sell property; to sue and be sued in courts of law; and to enter binding contracts. Additionally, this document locates in the board the sole authority to appoint and remove the college’s president as well as all other “necessary agents and officers,” which includes but is not limited to faculty members. And finally, the charter vests in the trustees the unilateral power to “make such by-laws for the government of the institution as they deem necessary.”

How shall we best characterize the “body politic and corporate” that is so ruled? Whitman’s constitution leaves little doubt about how to answer this question: the board “shall hold all properties and exercise all powers as provided by the Charter of 1883” (emphasis added). Whitman College, in short, is a legalized autocracy insofar as the ultimate power of rule is monopolized by a single (and, in this instance, a self-perpetuating) body, the members of which are neither selected by nor accountable to those they rule.

True, Whitman’s governing body may delegate some of its powers to the president or to the faculty, who, it should be emphasized, are not members of this corporation but rather its employees. For example, Whitman’s constitution cedes to its faculty “the power to arrange the courses of study.” But because the board alone is authorized to amend the college’s constitution, those delegated powers can always be qualified or revoked. The people who exercise such derivative authority are not constitutionally entitled to claim a share of the governance powers wholly invested in the incorporated trustees, so their status as subjects remains complete.

Some may object to this characterization of the U.S. academy on the ground that it is true of private but not public colleges, because the latter are subject to the rule of state legislatures. There is some truth to this claim, but less than one might think. An examination of the founding documents of public institutions, including those few that are not legally constituted as corporations, reveals that they, too, are structured as academic autocracies and invested with the plenary powers that define such bodies.

Consider, for example, Texas Southern University. In 2019, a board member of this public university drew widespread attention when he declared, “We can terminate everybody, even down to the janitor, if it’s the will of the board.” This assertion of unilateral power was made official when the regents amended the university’s bylaws to read as follows: the board may “remove any professor, instructor, tutor, or other officer or employee connected with the institution when, in its judgment, the best interests and proper operation of the institution requires it.”

Although some questioned the board’s competence to exercise this power, the regents’ legal right to adopt this change was not challenged, and it is not clear on what grounds one could do so. The university’s enabling statute states, “The government of the university is vested in a board of nine regents appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate.” Once appointed, according to Texas Southern’s bylaws, the board enjoys “wide discretion in exercising the power and authority granted by the State Legislature, including discretion in what action it takes directly and in what authority it delegates to other bodies within the University.” The board, moreover, “retains the unilateral right to temporarily or permanently repeal, rescind, suspend or waive” any policies it adopts “whenever it is determined that such action is in the best interest of the institution.”

In short, and as is true of private colleges, the board of this public university is legally authorized to establish the rules that govern Texas Southern, to modify those rules as it sees fit and to contravene them whenever it pleases. Powers that we would like to think are exceptional responses to rare emergencies therefore reside at the heart of the academy constituted as an autocracy in the guise of a corporation.

Where the AAUP Went Wrong

It is against this backdrop that I suggest we read the “Statement on the Government of Colleges and Universities,” the AAUP’s canonical declaration regarding shared governance. The document’s key sentence is one that is often overlooked or, perhaps more accurately, simply accepted as uncontestable: “The governing board of an institution of higher education in the United States operates, with few exceptions, as the final institutional authority.”

With this sentence, the AAUP concedes the American academy’s constitution as an autocratic corporation. Rather than contesting that form, the AAUP capitulates. Having done so, the best it can do is to plead for whatever measure of delegated power it can extract from the academy’s ultimate rulers, and that’s what we call “shared governance.” Tacitly acknowledging that governing bodies are effectively unbound in their exercise of the powers of institutional governance, the statement can do no more than implore board members to “undertake appropriate self-limitation.” What “COVID-19 and Academic Governance” teaches us is the quickness with which this restraint will be discarded -- whether because it appears “necessary” to do so or because this appearance offers irresistible opportunities to impose austerity measures absent adherence to procedural niceties that might otherwise retard their implementation.

When we consider the neoliberal transformation of colleges and universities over the course of the past half century or so, we often point to the erosion of shared governance, the evisceration of tenure and the irrelevance of academic freedom to the instructional precariat. Bewitched by the all-purpose epithet that goes by the name of “corporatization,” we typically regard these as evidence of the success of so many captains of industry and finance in breaching the walls of the ivory tower.

But might we also read these worrisome trends as evidence of a bad bet that the AAUP made in its earliest years? That gamble entailed accepting as a given the autocratic structure of the American academy but with the hope that the authority of a professionalized faculty would suffice to safeguard the workplace prerogatives -- including tenure, academic freedom and participation in governance -- that constitute the core of the AAUP’s mission.

This bet has now come a cropper. As tenure becomes a perk confined to a fortunate few, more and more members of the academic workforce are subjected to the form of domination that is inherent within capitalism’s default form of employment: the at-will contract. And that, of course, enhances the power of employers -- in this case, governing boards. Under these circumstances, it becomes ever less credible to maintain that governing boards, senior administrators and faculty members (let alone staff) share common interests that provide the foundation for mutual collaboration on behalf of the academy’s mission. The appeal to shared governance veils these antagonisms by creating a fantasy of cooperative engagement among those whose interests are structurally at odds with one another.

We cannot democratize the academy via appeals to reinvigorate shared governance. Shared governance operates within a hierarchical corporate context that is antithetical to the end of democratization -- and, in the last analysis, that is the banal but brute truth disclosed by the pandemic. The injustices described in “COVID-19 and Academic Governance” fully deserve the AAUP’s castigation, and the AAUP deserves our gratitude for calling them out. But responses framed in accordance with the categories commended by the AAUP represent a dead end, and that is all the more so when directed to those who pay lip service to shared governance yet routinely contravene its principles and practices. Far better, I would argue, to read this foul play as an invitation to consider the more radical reconstitution of the academy we so urgently need today.

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