Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Administrative Dominance

Academic institutions were once run according to a model in which the faculty had unchallenged authority over areas such as curriculum, research, and hiring.  Professors were considered to be the experts on what should be taught in courses, what the academic standards should be, what research to conduct, etc.

Nowadays, universities are mostly run according to a bureaucratic model in which authority is delegated from the top down, leading to what some have termed "administrative dominance".  This model has crept in from the corporate world and is exemplified by universities that hire administrators without academic backgrounds and who proceed to run academic institutions as if they were businesses.  In the latter model, authority to make decisions (and even to be involved in the decision-making process) is delegated along a chain of command....with the faculty and staff sitting at the bottom.  

Is the bureaucratic model compatible with academic freedom?

If you've been reading the previous blogs about the recent events at Louisiana State University, you will know where I'm heading with this discussion.  Recently, a senior tenured professor at LSU, Dr. Dominique Homberger, was relieved of her position as instructor of an introductory biology class over concerns about her strict grading.  The dean of the school though that her class had too many Ds and Fs and decided to replace her mid-semester.  The relevant aspects of this event were that an administrator 1) intervened in an academic matter, 2) made the decision to remove the professor without any discussion with her and 3) changed the mid-semester grades without her knowledge or input.

The AAUP (American Association of University Professors) has gotten involved in the issue, since this is a blatant violation of academic freedom in the classroom and due process.

The recent issue of Academe, the magazine of the AAUP, has an article about the erosion of faculty authority and the concept of "shared governance".  In the article, the authors Jenkins and Jensen attribute the loss of faculty authority to the bureaucratic model of governance.  The article was focused on community colleges, which was the emphasis of this issue, but their discussion could just as easily have been about 4-year universities.

The problem with the bureaucratic model for academic institutions is that it can interfere with "faculty participation in the decision-making process, even in academic matters." The situation at LSU is obviously the result of the administration not only interfering in academic matters, but doing so without consultation with the faculty member.  The individual administrators were presumably following the bureaucratic model and thought they acted appropriately (based on their interview comments).

Faculty members and the AAUP, however, see this as a violation of academic freedom and are outraged.

This is where "shared governance" comes in.  According to Jenkins and Jensen, true shared governance is based on four principles: faculty authority, inclusiveness, a commitment to tenure, and commitment to the process.  Faculty authority in academic matters is essential because members of the faculty are the experts.  Inclusiveness means that everyone who has a stake in a decision should be at the table: administrators, staff, and students. Commitment to tenure is important because tenured faculty can speak out without fear of losing their jobs, whereas contingent faculty are vulnerable to political manipulation by the administration. Commitment to the process represents a willingness on the part of all participants for shared governance--not just lip-service to the idea by administrators.

Interference by administrators in academic matters is serious and will likely increase as more tenured faculty are replaced by contingent labor who are more vulnerable to coercion--especially likely with the impending future budget cuts by legislatures.  Organizations like the AAUP defend academic freedom and argue that the academic workplace is unique and unlike the for-profit corporate world.

Even though I no longer work at a university, I find this threat to academic freedom scary...because the ultimate result will be a lowering of standards and scholarship, which will eventually affect all of us.

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