At the start of this academic year, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a right-leaning group founded by Lynne Cheney, released a report endorsed by a panel of 23 trustees, administrators and a handful of largely conservative faculty from elite institutions. Benno Schmidt, chair of CUNY’s Board of Trustees and former president of Yale, headed the group of endorsers. Entitled “Governance for a New Era,” the report argues, “There is no doubt that leadership of higher education is out of balance. Trustees should take a more active role in reviewing and benchmarking the work of faculty and administrators and monitoring outcomes.” With respect to faculty control of curriculum, it contends there is “evidence that self-interest and personal ideologies can drive departmental directions rather than the interest of the students and preparation of citizens.”
Inside Higher Ed (IHE) has released a podcast in which Schmidt, IHE editor Scott Jaschik and I discuss the report and some of its arguments (available at tinyurl.com/IHE-podcast-ACTA). I encourage readers to listen to it. However, the conversational approach of the program did not permit a more thorough critique, so I would like to offer one here.
The first thing to say about this report is simply that there is nothing new in it. Here we have, I think, a classic case of what Paul Krugman has called “the usual suspects saying the usual things.” Although Schmidt contends the report does not necessarily reflect ACTA’s views, it largely regurgitates tired arguments that the group has been making ever since its founding in 1995.
To be sure, a few of the report’s recommendations are worthy of support. Its call for trustees to “withstand pressure to grow athletics programs that are a net drain on resources” is certainly welcome. And what faculty member would disagree with Schmidt’s call “for boards everywhere to consider carefully whether search firms really add value”?
But overall, the report’s aggressive advocacy of increased trustee intervention in academic decision-making is both unrealistic and potentially dangerous, as two recent incidents illustrate. At the University of Virginia, partly at the instigation of ACTA leader Anne Neal, the chair of the institution’s Board of Visitors, Helen Dragas, sought to remove President Teresa Sullivan in 2012, apparently because Sullivan was seen as too cooperative with faculty and too disinclined to engage in major institutional decisions without consulting the university community. “Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work,” Sullivan warned after she was pushed out. She was reinstated after a revolt by faculty, students and alumni, including major donors. (See the report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) at tinyurl.com/AAUP-UVA-2012.)
At the University of Texas, trustee efforts to remove the president of the flagship Austin campus have created academic and political turmoil, leading Moody’s to downgrade the university’s credit rating. Moody’s report warned that “prolonged infighting and its effect on personnel and philanthropy” could create “reputational challenges that are likely to hamper the system’s ability to attract and retain high-quality executives and faculty.” Surely such experiences should lead academics to be cautious at minimum about outside efforts to encourage greater trustee “involvement.”
The ACTA report suggests that “data from the National Science Foundation on the income of graduates in particular majors can provide important insight for prioritizing academic programs.” At the same time, however, the report urges “disciplinary diversity,” with special attention to “coursework on the Founders, the American Revolution and the Constitution.” The report also urges trustees to support a “coherent and rigorous general education program.” These goals may well be contradictory, however, since experience suggests that boards of trustees are in practice all too eager to eliminate humanities programs and curtail general education in the interest of devoting more resources to “career-oriented” and “profitable” or “income-producing” degrees.
At CUNY, the institution whose board Schmidt chairs, the trustees imposed a stripped-down and dumbed-down general education program called Pathways. The program scaled back the number of credits required for general education classes, resulting in changes at CUNY colleges that included elimination of foreign language study requirements, reduction of time spent on writing instruction, and removal of lab sessions from science classes. Pathways has been opposed by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), an AAUP affiliate, by CUNY’s University Faculty Senate, and by governance bodies at CUNY colleges. In a referendum vote among CUNY’s full-time faculty, 92% expressed “no confidence” in the program. Yet, Schmidt and his fellow trustees largely ignored this deep and united faculty opposition.
CUNY has a new chancellor, and it remains to be seen what stance he will take toward Pathways. But clearly Schmidt’s understanding of a “coherent and rigorous” general education is one that, to quote the PSC, is “really a narrower, administration-imposed curriculum that seeks to graduate more students, faster, at a lower cost – a curriculum that accommodates to underinvestment.” At least, that is his vision for the majority of US universities. It seems unlikely that a watered-down curriculum like CUNY’s Pathways would ever be accepted at Yale.
Redefining Academic Freedom
The 8,000 words of the ACTA report include exactly one passing reference to community colleges, and none of its authors are directly connected with a community college. There isn’t much representation from MA and BA-granting non-research-oriented public four-year schools, either. It would appear that this is a report prepared by a self-selected group of academic “haves” who would impose their will on the rest of us.
The ACTA report also propounds an unusual and extremely dangerous view of academic freedom. “Academic freedom is the single most important value informing the academic enterprise, and governance for a new era requires trustees to protect it,” the report declares. So far, so good. However, the report quickly begins to redefine academic freedom as “a two-way street: the freedom of the teacher to teach and the freedom of the student to learn.” According to the report, “Trustees and administrators have, for the most part, done a good job of protecting the academic freedom of faculty. But they have often failed to guard the academic freedom of students.”
Increased Trustee Role
This turns reality upside down. The fact of the matter is that ever since the AAUP first defined academic freedom nearly 100 years ago, the greatest threats to the principle have come precisely from trustees and administrators. The examples are legion and even a cursory reading of AAUP’s investigative reports over the years provides ample evidence (see tinyurl.com/AAUP-AF-reports). The record clearly suggests that trustees have been more likely to threaten academic freedom than to defend it.
Reading this report, one would think that the real threat to academic freedom lies in efforts by (mainly liberal) professors to limit “student academic freedom.” According to the report, trustees should “intercede when students … are unfairly treated because of their political, religious, or social beliefs and practices” and should put in place “grievance policies which allow for students to speak out without fear of reprisal when they believe that the institution is failing to protect the students’ freedom to learn.”
The AAUP has vigorously defended student rights. It joined with several other organizations in 1967 to produce the “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students.” Indeed, this statement remains the most important statement of student rights, parallel in some sense to AAUP’s classic 1915 and 1940 statements on academic freedom of faculty. But the Schmidt report’s claim that student rights are under assault is little more than a thinly veiled defense of those – like ACTA – who would attack so-called “liberal professors” for allegedly marginalizing conservative opinions on campus. Such complaints are largely exaggerated and, moreover, are often irrelevant to the classroom. For example, a religious student certainly should have the right to believe and to advocate on campus that the Bible’s account of creation is literal truth. But that student is not entitled to receive full credit on a geology exam for contending that the earth is but 6,000 years old.
According to the report, “faculty cannot be the last and determining voice regarding academic value, academic quality, and academic strategy.” Instead, “it is lay trustees – with considerable life and community experience – who can bring the big picture to bear in determining what graduates will need....” Really? And what, one might ask, qualifies these “lay trustees,” most of whom are wealthy businessmen or political appointees, to play such a role?
The arrogance here is mind-boggling. Is this not yet another case of rich people, the 1%, claiming for themselves the right to meddle in the affairs of everyone else, with little to no justification? Ultimately, it is the faculty that best understands a university’s academic mission. We don’t always agree with each other about that mission, which is fine. We can’t claim to be correct all the time. I would match the faculty’s record against that of university trustees any day.
Finally, it would be remiss not to note what may be the single most remarkable feature of this report: its curious silence about what is perhaps the most troubling development in higher education and arguably the gravest threat to academic freedom today: the increasing reliance on temporary and part-time instructors. Nowhere does the ACTA report recognize the gross unfairness of a situation in which nearly half the teaching faculty must survive from term to term with inadequate compensation and degraded working conditions (which, as is often said, are also students’ learning conditions). An increasing number of reports and studies demonstrate how these conditions negatively impact student learning and retention.
Reading this report, one would never recognize that this issue, perhaps above all others, is what is currently roiling the academy. It may well be one of the main reasons that, in the report’s own words, “the future of higher education as an element of America’s global leadership...is in jeopardy.” That silence is, perhaps, the most powerful indication that this is not a report that will be helpful in addressing the challenges we in higher education must address.
Hank Reichman is first vice-president of the AAUP and chair of its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay. A previous version of this article was published on the American Association of University Professors’ Academe Blog, at tinyurl.com/Reichman-ACTA.