29 April 2009

Democracy & The University

The Objectivist
A Democratic University
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 28, 2009

An interesting issue is shaping up at SUNY-Fredonia and this has to do with the way in which the campus is run. On a business model, the university is a business and the faculty and staff have no more say in how things are run than employees do at any other business. On the democratic model, a university is a democracy in which faculty, and perhaps staff, are stakeholders who have a say, if not a vote, on how things are run. A moderate view that lies between the above views is also possible. Some of the recent disagreements on campus reflect differences in these models.

One example that highlights the difference between the two models had to with the creation of a college of business. The University Senate is the body that represents the faculty and staff at Fredonia and makes reports to the President. Its role is merely advisory, but at many colleges administrators are hesitant to run roughshod over it. Last year, the Senate voted against creating a college of business. That is, they voted against creating a new semi-autonomous wing of the college that focuses on business. President Dennis Hefner promptly overrode the Senate’s decision in part because of a desire to have the business program receive accreditation. The faculty and staff’s opposition was in part financial. The position required a new dean and a new dean probably costs around $151,000 ($126,000 in salary plus 20% benefits) and an upgraded secretary (around $10,000 more). The opposition also claimed that there was a greater need for a college of art. Now the opposition seemed odd to me, given that the university budget is roughly $89 million, the money is an insignificant portion of that, especially if this is a requirement for accreditation and this is a valuable thing to get. Nevertheless, the decision to summarily override the Senate seems to indicate a view that the Senate was not a serious center of power.

A second example concerned the role of teaching assistants. Last summer, the administration used an ad hoc committee to put forth a proposal that banned undergraduate teaching assistants from grading other undergraduates. The proposal ruffled feathers because it was unclear whether such academic questions should be ruled by ad hoc committees rather than by the Senate. The result was confusion because it was unclear whether the proposal was a rule that bound departments or whether it was merely a suggestion. Later, the Senate referred the issue to one of its committees to study the issue. When asked, neither the committee nor anyone else seemed to know whether the proposal was a rule. In a surprising vote, the Senate decided to prohibit undergraduate grading.

A third example has to do with the administration’s claim to a more central role in hiring. It asserts that academic departments have a merely advisory role in deciding who is hired. While this was always the case, most departments operate on the assumption that they have the dominant role in hiring. In making its role explicit, the administration appears to be gearing up to take a larger role in hiring and this seems to involve a policy shift. The administration also asserts that when considering affirmative-action candidates, departments should downplay the prestige of the institution a candidate attended, the caliber of the journals in which she published, and the strength of her recommendations. Because current hiring is done largely on these grounds, this could lead to conflict.

A fourth example has to do with cuts. Fredonia State has budgetary problems and part of the administration’s solution to the problem is to cut three faculty lines, nine staff lines, and some programs. The Senate was not told what lines or programs are going to be cut and didn’t vote on it. Again, this is consistent with a business model of the university. When corporations decide what employees to let go or what products to discontinue, they need not consult, let alone seek the vote of, rank-and-file employees.

A fifth example concerns a recent draft of personnel policies that the Fredonia State administration recently put forth. The draft concerns tenure and promotion of faculty and professional staff. Tenure is given to a professor, usually after a six-year probationary period, and it reflects the fact that his position or employment is permanent. The administration’s proposal differed markedly from an earlier set of suggestions from a committee of faculty and staff.

The administration’s proposal called for a new committee to review a department’s promotion decisions and all but one of its members are to be chosen by the Vice-President for Academic Affairs for an unspecified length of time. The proposal also put forth a new criterion for research. It proposed that research credit be given for the scholarship of engagement. While it is not clear what exactly this consists of, it appears to be a sharp break from the traditional view of research as including only grants, peer-reviewed books, book chapters, articles, artistic performances, etc. The proposal also includes language suggesting to some that promotion would rest in part on collegiality (that is, how well a professor works with and gets along with his colleagues). These and other changes have produced a firestorm. Several departments (philosophy, history, and psychology) released sharply worded criticisms. The matter got even stickier when the faculty union (United University Professions) chimed in. It claimed that a number of the changes concerned the terms and conditions of employment and thus the university had to negotiate with it before the changes could be implemented.

The different models of a university are interesting. The business model sees the university as a firm in which decisions are made from the top and the faculty are mere employees. As such, the administration might seek their input but doing so is optional and faculty have no real complaint if they are shut out of campus governance. The democratic model sees the university as a democracy in which the faculty have significant decision-making powers with regard to how things are run and their input is essential to campus governance. The latter appears to lack support from either law or morality. Legally, faculty have at most an advisory role and the final decision as to what programs to have and who to hire, fire, and promote is within the administration’s purview. Morally, the faculty do not own the university or even their position and hence do not have rights that extend beyond those set out in their contract.

The democratic model has a certain romantic appeal to it, one that views the faculty as not merely experts on academic matters, but as stakeholders who have a say in the university in the same way that a partner in a law firm has a say on what his firm does. However, governing a university involves trading off various goals and it is not clear that the faculty are an expert on this. For example, the university has more full-time staff (441) than full-time faculty (244) and this involves a decision to weigh some goals (for example, police, counseling, and student activities) over others (for example, having professors rather than graduate students teach writing). In addition, faculty are not partners because they do not own any part of the university. In any case, Fredonia appears to be moving unequivocally in the direction of the business model.