Real Problems, New Governance, and Terrible Solutions

Last August, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA, released a report entitled Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees. The sixteen-page document highlights perceived problems within higher education in the United States. Some of these points are valid, such as the rising price of tuition, the student debt crisis, and systemic issues of ineffective university governance. Despite some of the problems that are discussed in the document, the proposed solutions and remedies are rather myopic. Before delving into the conclusions and suggestions of the report, it is important to remember that three of the twenty-two drafters of this manifesto are associated with the City University of New York. Benno Schmidt, the chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees served as the Chairperson for the Project on Governance for a New Era. Matthew Goldstein, the former CUNY Chancellor and Robert David Johnson, Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, were integral in drafting this document as well.

As fiduciaries with the legal responsibility to negotiate between public will (the taxpayers), faculty, administrative, and student needs and aspirations, university trustees should be individuals that advocate for the continual transformation of higher education. Unfortunately, ACTA and this so-called blueprint serve to calcify the already overwhelming power of university trustees. If one reads through the document, it is clear that its authors feel as though trustees have lost their way, so to speak, for a variety of reasons no doubt, but importantly, for them, one of the prime reasons being a loss of control over the university. This ostensible loss of power is why ACTA desires that trustees “have the last word when it comes to guarding the central values of American higher education.” What of the faculty, the staff, the students, and for a public university, the public? Of course ACTA offers provisions for these groups’ voice to be heard, but in the end, what the Project on Governance for a New Era actually advocates for is increased bureaucratization, a lessening of participatory practices, and the reification of neoliberal ideology and practices within the university.

A telling snippet from Schmidt’s introduction in the report demonstrates exactly what “new governance,” or as written in the report, “university governance for the twenty-first century” would look like. He writes: “Trustees who come from a variety of professions and present a variety of viewpoints, can provide a broad perspective on preparation for citizenship, career, and lifelong learning that a tenured professor, properly focused on his own department and an expert in his own discipline, cannot easily offer.” What this means is less people on boards of trustees who are involved in education. It is somewhat opaque as to where this “variety” will come from, but it seems sound enough to infer that they will be recruited from the world of big business and high politics once one reads the document. The second problem with this statement is that it assumes that the professoriate is truly stuck in the proverbial ivory tower and cannot offer valuable input regarding questions relating to educational and university organization. And clearly, the abstracted professor in Schmidt’s example is a man, because, why would a woman (or person of any gender for that matter) ever be a professor?

The main text of the report begins with a discussion of “articulating the mission” of a given university. This is important indeed, but why, specifically at a public university, should this be left to some aloof fiduciaries? It shouldn’t, in fact the mission of a university should mirror the goals, aspirations, as well as the wants of the given community it serves. So in the case of CUNY, the mission should reflect these things as they relate to faculty (including contingent faculty), staff, students, and the general public. One of the few positive points in thus section is the call to ensure that academics come first and athletics are a sure second, yet they go on to say in relation to the National Collegiate Athletic Association “trustees cannot and should not expect participants in this multibillion dollar industry to police themselves.” A confounding statement for sure, as ACTA is advocating for university fiduciaries to be the lords and stewards of higher education, with no checks on their power except from within.

The subsequent section, deals with the protection of academic freedoms. Citing the 1915 Declaration of Principles by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the report calls for “the freedom of the teacher to teach and the freedom of the student to learn.” It goes on to intimate that universities (actually trustees and administrators) have done an adequate job with the former but that faculty “jealous of their own academic freedom” have diminished student freedoms. So the remedy to this for ACTA is to ensure that trustees have ultimate authority to safeguard academic freedoms. The protection of academic freedoms is a quandary, but it should not fall to an increasingly corporatized body with allegiances to forces outside of the university. Again, the best scheme to prevent the abrogation of academic freedom is one in which multiple people associated with the university (students, staff, and faculty), in conjunction with the public, develop a program independent of arbitrary designations of what is appropriate and how one can dissent, something that ACTA thinks boards of trustees must have a right to do if they are to protect the standards of the university.

In addition to this fraught thinking around academic freedom, the report promotes “maintain[ing] institutional neutrality” and advances the idea that “trustees should adopt policies that maintain institutional neutrality and distance from political fashion and pressures.” Fundamentally, what ACTA is saying is that individuals and groups within the university can well be political (of course only if they conform to the standards that “define boundaries of appropriate and responsible dissent”), but that the institution must remain apolitical. This is a facile rendering of how individual and group dynamics eventually dictate the orientation of an institution. The university, no matter how outwardly or officially neutral, is a political institution that is in constant negotiation with broader society and has internal fissures as well. The report quotes the Kalven Committee of the University of Chicago, surmising that “the university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself a critic.” It is hard to think of any apolitical educational institution in the United States. Universities usually take actions that are inherently political, not just because they are made up of individual humans and groups, but also because the university as an institution has opted for a specific type of program. Take the history of the University of Pennsylvania for example. The decision, as a university, as a corporatized body, to expand into Southwest Philadelphia throughout the 1970s was a political act, with political and social ramifications for the people that were displaced. Similar processes happen today, Temple University (also in Philadelphia) and the University of Chicago in the process of displacing people are engaging in a political process regardless of if they maintain an official line of “political neutrality.”

Furthermore, to be apolitical is still very much indeed a form of politics. Quite possibly one of the worse forms as it is a politics that divests itself from reality, harkening back to fictitious “good old days” when the university was purely a venue for intellectual development and pursuits. Of course the university is, and should be such an institution, but it is also inherently political and continuously engages in political projects well beyond the brief example cited above. Simply put, the university is not devoid of politics. Indeed the university never was, from its institutional founding in Western Europe between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries to its contemporary manifestations the world over, it remains a highly political institution. For a more thorough explanation of why the university, as an institution, cannot be depoliticized see the editorial from Vol. 26 Fall no. 2.

Section three of ACTA’s report centers on creating and implementing an educational strategy. It begins by stating that “faculty should have the first word when it comes to curriculum” but that in the final analysis, trustees, above all else, “establish the expectations for outcomes.” This is merely a way of saying that faculty may develop course materials as they see fit, but boards of trustees have the right to remodel, remold, or outright scrap what would be viewed as unsatisfactory (based upon the inclinations of a given board). Curriculum should really be developed through ongoing discussions, primarily between faculty and students, and to a lesser extent, the broader community. In addition to this call for permanent command over educational expectations, the ACTA report seemingly wants to quantify the level a given university operates on. This would apparently been done through some sort of standardized rubric that registers a litany of gradable areas. There does not seem to be any sort of standardized consequence for universities that failed to pass this assessment, though we can surmise that it would be directly linked to funding, particularly for state schools.
Sections four, five, and six deal with “transparency in performance and results,” the presidential selection process and trustee selection and education respectively. Like the three previous sections, these too point to very real problems within university governance and culture. Nevertheless, there are severe deficiencies in the proposal to remedy the purported issues.

Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, Professor of Economics at Wright State University and President of the AAUP recently offered a laconic reply to ACTA’s report. Despite its brevity and reformist agenda, it is an important piece of writing aimed at counteracting ACTA’s covert neoliberal agenda. Pointing out that most university presidents operate more like Corporate Executive Officers than anything else and that trustees are generally business leaders, Fichtenbaum justly and accurately lambasts ACTA for fighting the corporatization of the university with an increasingly corporate and neoliberal agenda, a process that “would certainly intensify and perpetuate the problem.” One of the most salient features of his critique is to distinguish between price and cost, the former being what students (or their parents) pay to attend and the latter the operating budget of a given institution. In reading ACTA’s project, it is clear that cost is what they are truly concerned about, not price, the end goal is to economize, become efficient, and maximize profit. Education is a clear second. Fitchtenbaum concludes his scathing review of ACTA’s plan by writing that “real reform…will come only as part of a broader social movement that challenges the existing inequality in our society.”

Fitchenbaum offers a valid critique that should be read by anyone who reads ACTA’s platform. And when one does, it will be laid bare that ACTA did not consider remedying the issues of the growing reliance upon contingent faculty (if anything they want to overhaul the tenure process), racial and gender divides, the high propensity of sexual assault and rape on campus, or the overwhelming drive to divert resources to the so-called STEM fields (which have even bigger issues of diversity than most others).
The road to a real remedy for the woes of increasingly neoliberal higher education in the United States is simple. Abolish the board of trustees. There is no reason for them to exist except to (quite politically) direct the orientation of the university, not as fiduciaries negotiating between parties, but as individuals beholden to certain interests. The university should be run and organized collectively by its constituents, the faculty, students, and the public that the institution serves. Administration should follow the aforementioned groups and not lead or dictate. The trustees need not exist, and a university president should be elected through more democratic measures than a council of fifteen or so business folks and professional administrators. The struggle to abolish the board of trustees must coincide with the struggle for open admissions and an end the extremely hierarchical organization of higher education. This struggle must also coincide with broader social processes, particularly at public universities, so that the academy is part and parcel to the progressive transformation of society, not merely the home of observers.

ACTA’s full report can be viewed here
The AAUP’s response can be seen here
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