22.3.06

VOTES OF NO CONFIDENCE. According to USA Today,
Universities are in a tug of war pitting traditionally powerful professors against a new generation of business-savvy presidents hired to control costs, boost research and make classes more relevant in a global economy.
There are two themes to the article. One is the conflict between what trustees see as businesslike methods, with a president as primary decision maker; and traditional faculty governance, with a president in the Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain mode.

Harvard's departed president Larry Summers is mentioned in the article, but he declined the invitation to comment. Kentucky's president Lee Todd, recruited out of IBM, [is that like hiring an AT&T guy to run Penn Central? Behave yourself.] is more talkative.
Professors felt Todd had not been deferential enough and failed to communicate well with them, says faculty [senate] chairman [Ernie] Yanarella.
Easily Distracted has been thinking about whether a more clearly defined hierarchy is superior to shared governance. There are several different themes there. I'll limit discussion to this.
There have been times where I would have preferred centralized control or at least a greater weighting on centralized authority in various decisions at Swarthmore. That has something to do with a perception on my part that I would have agreed with what I took to be the preferences of various leadership figures. That, of course, is the first simple problem with centralized leadership in any institution. It’s fine as long as you’re happy with the leaders, not so fine when you’re not. If a more decentralized model tends towards collective outcomes that don’t suit you, at least you can usually opt out or evade those outcomes in your own autonomous domains. Not so with strong centralization.
That dynamic is where many of the academy's troubles began. Drop consistent standards in the service of some notion of justice or compensation without much in the way of debate and as long as no Ward Churchill shows up, you're fine. But I have to wonder whether Professor Yanarella's colleagues on the faculty senate might not have acquiesced in many an administrative usurpation as long as it was a usurpation on the side of the senate's angels only to discover that their moral and procedural authority (they are different) had been surrendered by default?

The other theme is the mission of Mr Todd and other recently hired university presidents with business backgrounds. The article mentions research emphases and economic development. The subtlety ... which a newspaper reporter can be forgiven for missing ... is in the nature of that research. We're no longer talking about disinterested inquiry into whatever seems interesting whether the outcome will have any lasting effect or not. We are talking about inquiry into projects that have a commercial payoff. The compromise that might be emerging is one in which legislatures might provide additional real resources while changing the roles of their state schools. Thus Mr Todd might receive some help for technology commercialization at Kentucky, but departments at Kentucky that don't do that kind of research, and entire campuses elsewhere in the state, might receive more explicit orders to phase out the research programs. (A similar dynamic might be at work in Illinois, but neither the legislature nor the administration of any comprehensive university has come out and said so. Legislators have conflicting visions. Presidents and provosts are reluctant to voluntarily reduce the scope of their universities.) That might entail what the dean at Anonymous Community describes as "retire the euphemisms and face reality," as well as moving toward his Easter Bunny treat, "So Flagship U could keep its doctoral programs, but Eastern Teachers State U couldn’t. Faculty at Eastern Teachers State U would actually have to teach undergraduates. Graduates of Flagship U would eventually actually have chances to get jobs."

That compromise might be honest, but it might also be unsustainable, for a different reason. Here is the current Faustian bargain at the Upwardly Mobiles, again, from the Easter Bunny post.

There are very, very powerful incentives for individual institutions and departments to “raise their academic profile.” A department that ‘moves up’ gets lighter teaching loads for incumbent faculty, more graduate student labor to do the scut work (freshman composition, survey courses, lab work, etc.), more prestige, and more money. Faculty in that area are freed from tedious undergrad courses, and allowed to teach graduate ‘seminars’ in which they essentially have talented, eager-to-please apprentices to help them do their research. What’s not to like?

Institutions that move up gain prestige (which pays off in a higher caliber of undergraduate, which leads to higher retention rates, which leads to higher tuition revenue…). They also gain research funding, but most importantly, they gain cheap labor. The big state universities couldn’t survive if they paid full-time salaries to everybody who teaches freshman comp.

Let me rephrase that slightly. The Upwardly Mobile recruits ambitious Ph.D.s who might not be doing the currently most fashionable or currently most difficult or currently most fundable work. "Help us establish our visibility. Compete in the profession. Publish your way out if you can, we understand." That might be sufficient compensation for teaching the service courses to individuals who think of Upwardly Mobile as a safety school, or as something that was there when the mugging by reality happened, or as a great place for underage drinking. And thus the cynicism.

OK, tell the truth instead. Drop the pretense of "competing in the profession." Hold-up the existing tenured faculty to teach more classes if their scholarly work is not commercializable. But do so quickly, so as not to recruit any more ambitious Ph.D.s under what is now clearly a false pretense.

Now for the reality check. People who have a vocation for teaching and more modest research aspirations have avoided the Upwardly Mobiles for years. Does Newly Honest Safety School (properly, a four year community college with a climbing wall and good parties?) improve its chances of competing for those people? It is likely to be more difficult to give away economics Ph.D.s under those circumstances. Perhaps a university can deal with its enrollment-impacted departments in the short term by holding-up the existing tenured faculty. Replacing those people in the long term might not be as easy as "Graduates of Flagship U would eventually actually have chances to get jobs," because fewer people will attend Flagship U. with the circumscribed prospects the end of the Faustian bargain implies.

Might there be reason to develop an alternative to the Ph.D. as a credential for college teaching? That's an old idea, one that I wish to address in the future. I would be reluctant to encourage anybody with an academic vocation to act on it in the face of a market for ... state subsidized summer camps where little learning takes place?

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