Three Cheers for the Dons: Part 1

Tom Wood

Would universities be better off if their governing bodies were controlled by their faculties, rather than by individuals external to the university, as is now almost universally the case?

This is not an idle question. It is given definition and force by a current controversy in the UK about the governance structures of Oxford and Cambridge.

Inside Higher Ed had a Quick Take recently that included a link to an article in The Guardian on March 20 of this year (“Cambridge dons retain control of university”). The Quick Take said: “The British government has backed off from a push for people outside the University of Cambridge to hold a majority of the seats on the institution's governing board, The Guardian reported. However, the university has agreed to provide more information about how it uses the government funds it receives.” Although there was no link to it in the Quick Take, the news was also covered in a slightly longer and better article in The Times Online (“HEFCE Criticises Self-Governance”).

All universities in the UK, including Oxbridge, are, by statute, governed by bodies called Councils. The statutes do not stipulate how the Council members are to be chosen, although in virtually all the universities the governing bodies are controlled by non-academics external to the university. Oxbridge is an exception, since Oxford and Cambridge have maintained an ancient tradition, over 800 years old, of faculty control of their governing bodies (now represented by councils). The Guardian article claimed that Oxford and Cambridge are unique in this respect. This appears to be incorrect. As the Times Online article noted, the University of Sussex, a red brick university that received its Royal Charter in 1961, also has faculty control of its council.

The HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England), which is mentioned in the title of the Times Online article, is the government body in England that is responsible for dispensing funds to the country’s universities. For some years now, the HEFCE has been trying to force all the universities it funds to have a majority of “lay” members (i.e., outside members) on its governing councils. So far it has been unsuccessful in its attempts to change the governing structures of Oxford and Cambridge.

It is hard to find a convincing argument for the HEFCE’s position in the controversy in either article, or for that matter, in any of the articles and blogs that discuss the matter on the web. That is probably a sure sign that the argument is in fact weak, and probably politically motivated.

HEFCE says that academic members of the council “may have vested interests that can stop them acting in the public interest when deciding how to spend government funds.” This is a curious argument. What vested interests do the academic members have except the interests of the university as an institution? HEFCE has never claimed, at least publicly, that academics are involved in self-dealing, so the charge must be that academics are inclined to promote purely academic interests at the expense of the “public interest.” But it is very odd to argue that a university has any public interest to support except that of doing the very best at what a university does—teaching and research. Apparently, the HEFCE has the view that there are non-academic interests and purposes for a university that are not well served by structures that give the power of self-governance to the faculty. Given the history of outside pressures on universities here in the US to pursue non-academic goals in the public interest, one can only hope that the dons at Oxbridge prevail over the political forces represented by the HEFCE.

That this must be the underlying issue is made clearer by the fact that the HEFCE cannot identify any respect in which Oxbridge has failed to perform in the core areas of teaching and research. In fact, even the HEFCE has had to concede high marks to Oxford and Cambridge as academic institutions. As a recent HEFCE report put it, Cambridge’s “performance has been excellent.” It also asserted that this excellent performance record academically should not be “undermined by change for change’s sake.” It seems, then, that Oxbridge is being faulted for catering insufficiently to public interests that are regarded as non-academic in nature. No wonder Oxbridge is putting up a fight and resisting the pressure. “Cambridge (and Oxford) have thrived as self-governing communities of scholars because we have the right incentives to make (it) successful,” said Ross Anderson, a professor at Cambridge who was cited by the Times. “External majorities will simply hand almost unfettered power to the vice-chancellor and the administration.” The implication of this remark is that the dons at Oxbridge believe that they cannot rely on the vice-chancellor and the administration to represent the academic interests of the university in the same way that the faculty senate does. Odds are that Anderson’s evaluation is justified.

For the HEFCE, external control of universities in a modern society is natural and expected, while self-governing communities of scholars are odd and unnatural. But it is really the presently prevailing mode of governance of universities that is odd. I am perfectly aware that universities exist in a larger world. Since Oxford and Cambridge, for example, are heavily dependent on government subsidies, they will have to be responsive to external expectations and pressures under any governance structure. The issue here is whether a university’s governance structure should itself reflect the nature and purposes of the university rather than interests external to it. If a university has external majorities on its governing board, the integrity of the university as a community of scholars is inevitably undermined. Under the presently prevailing arrangements, the external world isn’t just an important force to be reckoned with outside the university’s walls. Some part of the external world is already inside the walls. Indeed it actually owns it—or more precisely, is the university, at least legally speaking.

I am also aware that the larger society has its own interests and priorities, which are not exclusively or even primarily academic in nature. Maintaining strong, excellent universities is one of its priorities, but it is not the only one, or even the preeminent one. Any society has the right to establish policy priorities, and to make funding decisions on the basis of those priorities, which may or may not coincide with the academy’s desires and wishes. But those policy decisions should be made as policy decisions by state actors, and not by the universities themselves. Decisions within the walls of academe should not be made for the same reasons or in the same way that policy decisions are made by governments or the wider society.

A strong case can be made, and in fact I think it is probably true, that more government money, state and federal, should be directed in the US towards community colleges and lower-tier colleges, and less to elite universities, than is presently the case. If state and federal governments make that decision, it will be to the financial detriment of elite universities. That’s life. What the government and the general public should never do is use external forms of governance to make elite universities more like less elite universities for reasons of the “public interest.” A university that aims at elite status must do whatever it takes to remain true to that vocation and be elite. It must not compromise. If an elite university feels that it has no choice but to compromise its standards because of external market forces or government policies and funding decisions, that is a decision it can make, but it is a decision that only it should make. That decision, if it is made, should be made by the faculty, acting as an autonomous, self-governing community of scholars, not by a governing body controlled by non-academics, much less by political appointees.

If done the other way, all the issues will be obscured by nonsense to the effect that high academic standards can be maintained in the pursuit of public interests that are non-academic in nature. These non-academic public interests, even when they represent perfectly legitimate public policy concerns, are invariably anti-academic. Experience in the US shows that pernicious, dishonest rhetoric is used to hide that fact. There is a huge difference between saying honestly that it is in the interest of the greater society to give more support to less elite institutions, and having individuals on the governing boards and pliant administrators in those universities engaging in double speak, maintaining that all the reforms are going to make elite universities even better as elite institutions. (Think of the “excellence through diversity” slogan.) This kind of rhetoric subverts not just academic discourse, but all honest discourse as well.

External governance of public universities—control by outside members—also threatens the principle of academic freedom. This emerged clearly in the recent controversy at Virginia Tech. As I pointed out in my recent posting, “Virginia Tech, Academic Freedom, and Employment Law,” the notion that academic freedom—and especially the notion of “shared” governance—is a First Amendment right has been steadily undermined by a disturbing series of recent court decisions. In a world which the principle of shared governance and academic freedom have no sure constitutional protection, the only safe harbor lies in structures that place governance fully in the hands of the faculty. When outside members control the governing bodies of public universities, academic freedom in any meaningful sense must be wrung from the state as a concession. The threat will exist as long as professors are regarded, as they are under the law, as public employees. If faculty had voting majorities on their boards of trustees, they would not be public employees in the same way, even when their salaries are paid by the state, since the faculty senate would itself have a controlling interest in the university. Such a university would be, by its very nature, an academically free institution, at least so far as the governance issue is concerned.

In the wake of the controversy at Virginia Tech, there has been some discussion here in California about whether the University of California (the top tier of the state’s three-tier system) has enough autonomy under the state constitution to guarantee its academic freedom, even if federal courts should find at the end of the day that the principle of academic freedom lacks First Amendment protection. The answer, unfortunately, is that it does not, and it is important to understand why.

The California constitution does by intent grant the Board of Regents (the governing body of the university) a high degree of autonomy. However, in practice this means little, since a majority of seats on the Board of Regents is appointed by the governor with the approval of the legislature. This makes university autonomy in California largely a fiction. (Even this fiction doesn’t apply to the two lower tiers of the state system of higher education.) The fact is that the University of California is controlled by political appointees. This body of predominantly political appointees not only governs the University of California; under the state constitution (Art. 1 Sec. 9) it actually owns it.

While HEFCE and like-minded individuals everywhere think that faculty governance of universities is odd, it is structures that place the control of universities in the hands of politicians and political appointees that are odd. Politicians and political appointees are not scholars. For the most part, administrative types aren’t either: they are above all else bureaucrats. The world view and values of politicians, political appointees, and bureaucrats is different from that of scholars. The former are more pliant to demands and pressures that are non-academic in nature.

The California constitution could be amended to give the Academic Council of the University of California a voting majority on the Board of Regents. For that matter, the governor and state legislature could simply adopt as a de facto policy the rule that faculty members elected by the Academic Senate should comprise a majority of the university’s Board of Regents. It is predictable that such reforms would be strongly resisted by politicians and social activists of all persuasions. Why? Because faculty governance would deprive them of the needed lever to engage what they see as the vital non-academic interests of the university, as opposed to what they see as the narrow, parochial, purely academic ones. But what could these non-academic public interests be, given that universities are essentially academic institutions, whose core functions are teaching and research?

Admittedly, there are many bad apples in the professoriate. (Ward Churchill has recently become the poster boy for such bad apples, but there are many others.) It is also true that the professoriate has been done a poor job of dealing with these bad apples. But is this a systemic problem? I doubt it. Furthermore, administrators are even more to blame on this score than the professoriate. That is not just my view. It is the view of many close observers of the academy in recent years, many of whose writings have been posted to CASNET.

Here is how Robert Weissberg places the blame in “The Noble Lies Of PC“:

Universities, it would seem, are committed to uncovering truth. Exceptions occasionally occur, and a small contingent insists that there is no such thing as objective truth, but for the most part, professors who make up data or plagiarize are usually caught and punished. Recall that Ward Churchill was fired for research misconduct and fraud, not his loathsome views, and even fellow travelers could not justify deception. Professors may exaggerate a bit, disregard awkward findings or even tilt research towards pre-conceived outcomes, but it would be professional suicide to insist that 2+2=5.

Unfortunately, a major exception exists, and this might be called the “Grand Noble Lie” whose purpose is not to deceive (the usual aim of a lie) but to reassure listeners so as to advance a career. Whereas conventional liars seek to cover their tracks (e.g., what is “is”), the effectiveness of the Grand Noble Lie depends on its blatant, plain-to-see falseness. It is insufficient to claim that 2+2=5 or for the timid 2=2=4.01; rather 2+2=100. This is an incredibly upside down world whereby those saying 2+2=100 may go on to glory while Professor Joe Average dreads being humiliated for citing a book he never read. That Grand Liars are more likely to be distinguished university presidents, or at least Deans, not under-the-gun junior faculty concocting data to get published, only makes the phenomena even more remarkable. [emphasis mine]

Admittedly, there are very serious problems with political correctness in the professoriate. It is also clear that a faculty controlled academy would not be a perfect one. My contention, however, is simply that it would be a better academy, not that it would be a perfect one. This contention cannot be refuted by pointing out that the professoriate has some bad apples. It can only be met by arguments and evidence that faculty governance of universities would not be better than the present system, and that seems to me to be a hard case to make.

Critics of the faculty at American universities like Charles Sykes and Roger Kimball appear to have placed most of the blame for the ills of the contemporary university on the professoriate. On this view, it would be catastrophic to put control of the universities in the hands of the faculty. Heavy, outside intervention is in order, on this view, and for this purpose governing bodies with a majority of outside members should be helpful, and perhaps even essential. I believe this view is mistaken—not because the professoriate is perfect, but because, on balance, these outside forces do not improve the academy: they make it worse.

Under the virtually universal arrangements that prevail presently, presidents and other high administrators are either appointed by governing boards controlled by outsiders, or are approved by such boards. What are the administrators, chancellors, deans, student affairs officials and the like doing under the present governing structure that is so great? The worst problems in the academy emanate from the administrative sector of the university rather than the faculty, and from acquiescent and passive governing boards that almost reflexively support presidents of universities rather than the faculty. There are always exceptions, of course, but what reason is there to think that administrators and the external governing boards that almost invariably support them, often in the service of an alleged “public interest,” are on the side of the angels here?

Tomorrow, read in Part 2:

  • Opening the door to "change agents" behind the faculty's back
  • The Dartmouth College Board of Trustees: the control issues behind the controversy
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