Faculty as Hired Hands: The Erosion of Shared Governance

USM.protestIf students are “customers,” and a college degree a “product,” what does that make faculty and staff? Increasingly, in this corporatized world of higher education, it makes them hired hands, lacking job security or a say in the academic matters of a campus.

“(Administrators) seem to think shared governance means that they make a decision and then invite us to a meeting and tell us the decision, which is not shared governance,” says Susan Feiner, economics professor and co-president of the NEA-affiliated Associated Faculties of Maine (AFUM) chapter at University of Southern Maine (USM).

Last year, citing unsubstantiated “financial conditions,” USM administrators unilaterally eliminated five academic degree programs, stranding students in the process, and also terminated or forced into early retirement 60 of USM’s 250 full-time faculty members. In a 16-page investigative report issued this month, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found the “administration acted in brazen disregard” of the USM faculty’s rightful role and responsibility for “matters of curriculum and instruction.”

“They completely have no respect for faculty up here. It’s ridiculous,” Feiner added.

But USM isn’t the only institution where faculty find their voice increasingly muffled or ignored, and administrators or politicians eager to diminish faculty’s long-held rights in matters of curriculum and personnel.

At the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), NEA-affiliated faculty were excluded this spring from a meaningful role in the selection of a new president, and previously were shut out of planning for the university’s future. In Wisconsin, the state budget proposed by presidential hopeful, Gov. Scott Walker, in February would strip University of Wisconsin faculty tenure and shared governance out of state law.

With that, Walker and others seek to roll back decades of shared governance, or the practice of understanding that “faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process,” according to AAUP’s statement on university governance, which was first adopted in 1966, and then codified in hundreds of universities’ own governing documents, including USM’s.

Contributing to the decline of faculty’s traditional rights is the explosion of part-time or contingency faculty who now constitute more than 70 percent of all faculty in the U.S., and often have very little job security or role in traditional campus governance committees. Also at issue is administrators’ growing affinity for NCLB-style systems that prize efficiency or “outcomes” over the actual education of students.

There are lots of problems with the business model of higher education, writes David Bordelon, president of the Faculty Association of Ocean County College, in a recent NEA Thought & Action. “Delivery of content and education are not the same thing… It’s what students do with information that results in ‘higher’ learning,” he points out. “And realistically, do students really want to be treated like customers by their professors? Do they want a ‘would you like fries with that?’ mentality governing their education?”

Under this model, the experts in higher education no longer have say over what happens — or should happen — in their own classrooms. That prerogative often is handed over to high-priced consultants.

The Ax Falls in Portland

At the University of Southern Maine, administrators claimed they considered “community engagement” and whether a program generated “a significant amount of revenue” as factors in program elimination. Nonetheless, notes the AAUP report, they chopped Applied Medical Sciences (AMS), ignoring the program’s $19 million earned in grants over the past seven years, and multiple appeals from local biotech industry leaders.

“Were you aware that within the last five years, Maine was ranked 9th nationwide for the growth of its biotechnology sector? How is this industry, with many companies based in the Portland region, supposed to find qualified individuals if you eliminate this highly productive and invaluable department at USM?” wrote the president of the Maine Biotechnology Services to USM.

They also cut French — even though Maine has more French speakers than any other state and, as USM’s faculty senate pointed out, its elimination “fails to consider the need for trained teachers of French as new high school graduation requirements requiring proficiency in a second language become effective in 2018.” And they cut New England Studies, the only program of its kind in the six-state area, and a feeder program to museums and other cultural institutions.

And never did administrators share the details of their financial arguments, the AAUP report notes, as they moved swiftly to downgrade USM from “a regional comprehensive university to a four-year community college.” And while this lack of information leaves their motivations unclear, the AAUP investigators note, the issue remains “that the faculty of USM had no meaningful role in determining whether these retrenchments and program closures were necessary and, if they were necessary, how they were to be carried out.”

The program closures and dozens of faculty terminations also violates the collectively bargaining contract between the union and USM, alleges AFUM, which filed dozens of grievances this spring. Now those grievances are in the hands of an arbitrator, who met with USM and AFUM in April and May and likely will meet again with them in June to collect evidence and testimony. The arbitrator’s decision will be final, and the layoffs and program closures could be voided.

“The university is being defended by three attorneys from one of Maine’s highest priced firms, and they’re obviously willing to spend countless hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend themselves,” said Feiner. “We’re very confident we’re going to win.”

Photo: University of Southern Maine