The Dynamic of University Faculty-Administration Joint Governance amid the Pandemic and Beyond?

July 2, 2020 11:32 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Article by Davood Rahni

The care of a diverse faculty cadre comprised of tenured, tenure track assist and associate, clinical, lecturer, visiting, and adjust professors vs. a “corporatized” Administration and Board of Trustees.

Anchored on progressive and robust faculty governance post WWII, the American dual system of private and public higher education, still unrivalled worldwide, has become the thinking and tinkering crucible of intellectual, scholastic and innovative ideas. In fact, most, if not the majority, of socio-economic and political development of our nation and the globe for that matter has either been initiated/incubated, or at least enhanced by the pivotal role of colleges and universities and their ever strong alumni.

The academic freedom afforded to both the student and the faculty bodies, and faculty career and employment security (with no mandatory retirement) and the wages and fringe benefits – be it all far less competitive than corporate and government sectors – have remained most appealing to those aspiring to become career professors. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom … – AAUP, (HERE for actionable plan to develop effective shared governance) has in essence served as the advocacy think tank to spur and protect the aforementioned principles. Their Charter has in many colleges and universities, especially the public ones, led to faculty unionization; however, faculty at some and not all [private] colleges in particular, express a level of dismay as to (in-) effectiveness of their unions, let alone the ineptitude of their top ballooning administrative cabinet. A recent review chronicles the “University’s shared governance and faculty discontent.” This is in light of few private universities, which have succeeded passing the NLRB hurdle to unionize, in light of the Supreme Court Yeshiva ruling decision of the 1980 deeming faculty as “Managers.” A faculty union or not, it is only as effective as its succinct mission and its independent leadership, and how they could sustain the majority of its membership actively engaged. However, with the ever proliferating HR personnel and cost of the administrative side of a university, a union or the faculty governance are increasingly hard pressed to assess full data and to evaluate and hold the administration accountable for their (in-)effectiveness.

The current pandemic and its [temporary] fallout and aftermath have actually brought into the open a lingering dilemma as faced by lesser tired (3rd or lower ranking) private colleges and universities. Whereas most of the top couple of hundred universities have taken advantage of several economic growth cycles post WWII and through the turn of the century so as to make their financial goals sustainable (endowment, capital campaigns, physical acquisitions and expansions, multi-campus presence, infrastructure, technology transfer and investment), the lesser tiered universities have all but lost this wide window of opportunity for self-solvency. For instance, there is a consensus that a [3rd tiered] university must have three times its fiscal budget saved in its endowment plus its physical infrastructure valued at twice its budget; at the very least, a one year budget in endowment is most crucial so a university could strategize and plan ahead in exigency scenarios while in the meantime, draw upon its dividends as revenue equivalent to at least 10% of its annual budget. However, many universities have funds in their possession that are far inferior to the required minimum.

Meanwhile, the traditionally ceremonial Board of Trustees (BOT) was increasingly compelled to exercise their fiduciary responsibilities and they themselves had to remain major donors proudly serving as the ambassadors for their alma mater. In so doing, the BOT increasingly resorted to a corporatized leadership model of management that had failed many industries in the 1970s, but now has to operate under the disguise of “business process reengineering” in academe. In essence, the new administrations came in waves, with much hoopla to shuffle budget items around so to make numbers look OK, but with no strategies to increase revenues to meet expenses; the BOT-administrative arms simply kicked the “can of worms” down the dystopian road… for the next administration to arrive and deliver utopia… what is even more unconscionable is when certain administrators resort to negligence or improprieties to achieve their own ulterior motives at the expense of jeopardizing the integrity or sustainability of an institution.

Whereas back in the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of the cadre of faculty were tenure track, in today’s reality less than one third of the faculty body still belong to such dwindling cohorts nationwide. The two-thirds carrying more teaching with a limited level of service and narrow scholarship are comprised of adjuncts and non-tenured FT faculty (clinical, lecturer, visiting). Most such latter cohorts join universities in their mid-career with a successful (lucrative) prior or concurrent professional career and as such complementary jobs afford them, bring in relevant “real life” to classroom. Many USC performing arts clinical professors have or remain artists. Most clinical professors of schools of diplomacy and policy at American or Georgetown Universities are recent retirees from Foreign Service or former government policy makers. In the mind of the BOT and administration to whose pleasure the non-tenured faculty cadre serve so long as they are needed, this gave them the flexibility to make adjustments in the faculty body size subject to institutional financial challenges or their blatant failure, demographic shifts, market trends, or shifts in the university mission.

Meanwhile, the lifelong loyalty commitment and clear sense of belonging to and contributing among all faculty, especially the non-tenured, to advance their disciplines, the university and society, all but dissipated. Whereas in most universities with the above diverse ranking faculty profile, the tenured [senior] professors and the faculty governance with the most purported leverage have remained steadfast to the ideal of one university, one faculty and one academic freedom, thereby serving students best and making every effort to save jobs and benefits. This has in particular become a daunting task.

As to an administrative team that has no salient strategy for substantive expansion of revenues vis-à-vis far more than ever multifaceted student recruitment and marketing methods, and with no aggressive endowment and capital campaign increase on the table, they continue cutting costs especially on the academic side, and in dire need to portray “progress” for narrowing the gap between the expenses vs. revenues that has persisted for a decade and has only been exacerbated amid the pandemic. And although the administration gives lip service to faculty governance, that does not deter them from downplaying and denigrating faculty governance or the faculty input. Instead, they have increasingly resorted to setting up their own university administrative committees to which they merely ask the faculty council for token reps or simply bypass such bodies and unilaterally appoint “needed” faculty themselves. An administrative university budget committee of 25 that still includes ten elected faculty, will over time expand to over 50 with most from the administrative side. In such venues, even if a secret ballot were to be taken for key decisions, that ratio of faculty to staff of 1:4 will make it all but impossible for the faculty group to have a decisive voice at the table. And if an administrator grudgingly chose to acknowledge failure, they would pin it astutely on “self-indulgent faculty and their inefficient governance.” Is it not ironic that while the top 200 corporations have at the 2019 annual Business Roundtable signed onto a statement to give top priority to their employees to earn their trust, commitment and loyalty, some universities are regressing from this principle to deem their faculty as a liability? Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Chairman of Business Roundtable said: “Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans.”

Irrespective of how dedicated a key administrator in a university is, and in light of the possible goal to bolster one’s portfolio to launch for higher positions elsewhere through making the books look OK, the most crucial and frankly the most beneficial arm of a sound university, notwithstanding the mode of its instructions and scholarships, remain its faculty. A typical FT faculty member over a four decade long career helps generate $15-20 million dollars in securing tuition and fees and grants; nonetheless, the same faculty member will only take home $3-4 GROSS million dollars (inclusive of fringe benefits and overhead) for the same period. For a FT faculty body of up to 1100 adjuncts, this amounts to over $20-25 billion dollars in gross revenues over forty years. Many senior administrators remain in position for decades with little evaluation of their performance.

Is it not the time to genuinely recognize the faculty as the “asset” and not perceive them as a “liability”? Is it not more than ever necessary to ensure that the faculty become more actively engaged? Is it not more than ever meritorious for those universities in limbo to recognize and tangibly appreciate the real valuation of their faculty as the faculty have and continue to lay it all out on the table?! And last but not least, how credible an administrator must not feel, when they abuse a temporary pandemic, to retroactively cover for all their inadequacies and unilaterally propel forward massive cuts with no end in sight, and with no substantive revenue growth or reasonable endowment in sight.

Davood N. Rahni

The above OpEd, a peer driven scholastic exercise and discourse, has been reviewed and vetted by several colleagues whose contributions are hereby appreciated. The opinion expressed herein does not necessarily reflect on any specific university or college nationwide.

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