On Thursday, the American Association of University Professors, a national faculty union, released its report
on last summer's debacle at the University of Virginia
, where, if you recall, the Board of Visitors fired the UVa's President, Teresa A. Sullivan, only two years into Sullivan's term, without even holding a meeting about the firing first. After a major outcry from faculty, alumni, students, and donors, three metric tons of bad press for the University, and serious egg on the faces of the Board and its Rector, Helen Dragas, Sullivan got her job back.
It's never been clear what Dragas and the Board were thinking, and the team who wrote the report concludes that, after much careful study and hours of personal interviews, they have no idea what Dragas and the Board could have been thinking:
The breakdown in governance at the University of
Virginia documented here was only partly a result of
structural failure; indeed, the board ignored its own
recently adopted guidelines on presidential evaluation.
In much greater measure it was a failure by those
charged with institutional oversight to understand the
institution over which they presided and to engage
with the administration and the faculty in an effort
to be well informed. It was a failure of judgment and,
alas, of common sense.
Even so, Dragas and company have defenders. After all, such people say, doesn't the Board have the right to fire whoever it wants, for whatever reason? Why should the faculty think they have a say?
Because no one knows enough to govern a modern university on their own. Not the trustees. Not the administration. Not the faculty. Nobody. No one person or group is actually capable of understanding
the whole enterprise. That's not metaphor or metaphysics. I'm talking about adequate minimal comprehension.
Since no one has a grasp on the whole picture, universities have evolved a system called shared governance
, which involves multiple parties collaborating and filling different management roles. Part of this involves faculty governance
, which means letting the faculty, as a group, take the lead in decisions about the actual educational nuts and bolts. This is not something that should be done because it's a tradition, or because it's been done this way before. This is something that needs to be done to keep the university working well on a practical, day-to-day level.
The academic side of the university is dedicated to specialized knowledge, in dozens of separate branches. And the level of specialized expertise involved in teaching these subjects (not to mention in conducting original research) is so high that it takes another expert to evaluate whether it's done being properly or not. I don't mean that professors are smarter than other people, or above being judged by them. I mean that even a professor in one field is out of her or his depth when dealing with another field. I am a professor. I have no idea what should be going on in the chemistry department, or the economics department, or the sociology department, except that those departments should be teaching chemistry, sociology, and economics. What that means, exactly, I have to leave to my colleagues in those departments.
And when I say "don't know enough," I mean don't know enough on a practical, nuts and bolts level.
I'm not talking about lacking some subtle philosophical appreciation for the subject matter. I'm talking about not knowing how subjects other than my own should be taught, or even knowing how to tell if they're being taught well or poorly. How much chemistry should students learn in each course? How many courses do they need? In what order? Which courses should be required for every single chemistry major, and which should be electives? Beats me. All I know is that our students should learn at least as much as students learn at other places and that nothing should explode.
Could I learn enough about chemistry to know how a good degree program is structured? Yes, but it would take me about ten years, and at the end of that time I would be a trained professional chemist. Same thing for sociology, economics, engineering, philosophy, and every other field that the university teaches. So neither I nor anybody else is ever going to know enough to really know what's going on in more than one or maybe two departments.
I also don't know enough to evaluate a job candidate in any field but my own. If I go over to the History or Philosophy Department, neither so far from my own, and listen to a job applicant give a talk about her research, I'm going to be able to follow the content of the talk. But I'm not going to be able to tell if the speaker is doing something really new or recycling someone else's ideas from ten years back. I'm not going to be able to know if their methods are cutting-edge or square, reliable or unsound. I'm going to have to rely on experts.
Does this mean that you just let every department in a university do whatever it wants? No. Of course not. It does mean that you let them take the lead in making the decisions that require their specific
expertise. You need them, most of all, to take the lead in decisions about curriculum and learning outcomes, because they know a particular set of things that you don't. You don't free them from all oversight; the faculty-committee system, which is often criticized as unwieldy, is basically a way to try to subordinate individual faculty agendas to wider professional norms. (I don't get to decide that classes I happen to want to teach should be required. A committee that I sometimes serve on works out what courses the students need.) And you keep your faculty honest by consulting with faculty from outside your own university, through peer review, periodic department review by visitors, regional and national accrediting agencies.
Should faculty decide everything? My answer, as a faculty member myself, is: obviously not. There does need to be a set of full-time administrators, who take the lead in questions of scheduling, budget allocation, and so on. There also needs to be an outside board of trustees charged with the overall health, particularly the fiscal health, of the university. (These boards evolved first at private universities as overseers of the university's endowment. At Virginia, they're essentially a bunch of political donors to the state governor.) In a healthy university, these three groups (faculty, administration, and board) each take the lead in their own natural sphere, each listen to the others, and each solicit input from other groups, especially students and alumni.
When one group starts to take over another's proper tasks, the place starts to run badly. For example, if the administration runs wild without the board noticing, they start to run up excessive debt for things like building projects, or to spend too much of the annual return from endowment funds. If the board micromanages the administration, suddenly nothing gets done.
And when faculty governance breaks down, and the administration or board begins to ignore the faculty's advice about things the faculty knows, the bad results don't become visible outside the university right away. But by the time those mistakes become apparent to everybody, they take years to undo. Managers who ignore faculty input can make serious personnel mistakes; one common example is attempting to identify "star" faculty but picking the wrong stars, overpaying people whose careers never really pan out and driving away other people who become very successful somewhere else. By the time you notice you've done that, it's too late. Professor Kind-of-a-Big-Deal has already locked in a salary well over his market value and the Star-Who-Got-Away isn't coming back. That's simply bad management. But much worse are the mistakes that affect the students.
If a university neglects, or worse overrides, its faculty's advice about how to teach their subjects, the students don't get taught as well. You won't notice it in this year's graduating seniors; most of their education is already finished. But over a few years you start to see more students struggling in their advanced classes, either because the lower-level classes no longer fully prepare them or because the way the major is organized no longer builds the skills they need. That turns into higher failure rates, lower graduation rates, and longer time-to-degree. A really top-down administration can paper over the problem by forcing lower standards and more grade inflation. But graduating ill-prepared students is the worst thing any college can do, either for the students or itself. If you're turning out too many chemistry BSs who can't hack a graduate program in chemistry, or too many English BAs who flunk the state teacher-licensing test, or too many graduates that employers regret hiring, your school will get a reputation that hurts all of your graduates, talented or not.
And by the time that happens, it takes at least ten years to fix. Your graduating seniors have already been educated in your broken system; even if you fixed that system in a single day (and you can't), the first students to get the full benefit will be the ones who start next year. And you have to count on it taking at least five years for people to start noticing that you're turning out better-prepared alumni; bad reputations are hard to overcome. The only efficient way to fix a major curricular mistake is not to make that mistake in the first place. And the only reliable way to avoid such mistakes is to listen to the advice of people who teach these subjects for a living. Faculty governance isn't a professional perk. It's indispensable professional advice.
At Viriginia, things degenerated to the point where Dragas, a short-term political appointee, was trying to micromanage what got taught in freshman comp. That isn't wrong because it's a violation of academic tradition. It's wrong because it's a violation of common sense. Dragas was ignoring the people who actually oversee freshman comp and enforce appropriate standards as part of their job, and Dragas herself has no idea how to teach that subject. If you're on the Board of Trustees for a hospital, you don't walk into the operating room and start telling the surgeons where to cut. If you're on the board of a computer hardware company, you don't go into the engineers' workspace and tell them to change the motherboard design. If you did, you could not expect good results. The same bad results emerge when a university ignores its faculty's professional advice. It just takes longer to see the bleeding.
cross-posted from Dagblog