Culture clash

By Roger Bowen

On one side, you have the arcane practices of shared governance, academic freedom and tenure, all notions central to the operation of higher education for the past 100 years and that are embraced by university faculty across the nation. On the other side, you have university system administrators decrying budget deficits on campuses and aggressively seeking ways to cut costs. The clash between these contrasting positions has hit the University of Southern (USM) Maine loud and hard. Fifty faculty members at USM stand to lose their jobs and the University of Maine System (UMS) will “save” an estimated $6 million as a result. A different bottom line: public higher education is not a privately owned paper mill nor should it be treated like one.

First to the arcane: Shared governance is the best practice of college administrations consulting with faculty colleagues on all matters pertaining to the educational program. Academic freedom is the legally protected right of faculty members to teach in their field of expertise without fear of censorship. And tenure is a status earned by faculty that ensures their academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which I headed for several years, exists largely in order to ensure that universities and colleges have policies in compliance with these three key practices. It is easy to predict that the planned mass terminations of faculty at USM will prompt an investigation of the USM and UMS administrations by the AAUP if what has been reported is true, namely, that the cuts to faculty ranks and programs at USM were done without consultation with the faculty.

What seems clear in the case of USM is that the interim president, himself from the corporate world and having no experience inside the (admittedly) peculiar academic culture, decided to direct his administrative team to decide where the cuts were to be made; and then give the faculty less than two weeks to respond. Sorry, but this is not shared governance; it is rather the sort of “down-sizing” common to the corporate world. Hence, we have a genuine and profound clash of cultures.

USM faculty are protesting, but to whom can they protest? Certainly not to the UMS Board of Trustees, which is, after all, composed of “citizen trustees,” meaning they are neither expert in university management nor in academic matters. Most of them have a business background where profit-loss issues dominate. Cutting your workforce in order to balance your budget, to increase your profits or cut your losses is standard operating procedure. Think paper mills in Maine.

Top-down management of the University of Maine campuses is problematic. Our campuses, unlike the paper mills, have a tradition of designated autonomy in mutually agreed upon areas of operation. When a campus suffers a structural deficit that accumulates over time, as USM has, guidance from the chancellor or board is needed well before the board steps in — more than a day late and a dollar short — to force immediate cuts. Unlike our state’s paper mills, which are privately owned, the UMS is a public good built by public dollars and providing investment returns that are difficult to measure in strict profit-loss terms but are nonetheless demonstrable in terms of the accrual of intellectual capital that enriches our culture, civic life, and the economy. Instead of resorting to draconian cuts of our campuses’ human resources, the UMS trustees and the system administration need to make a firm determination of what resources each campus will be given over a five-year period, and after reviewing and approving each campus’s five-year plan, permit each campus to raise or lower its own tuition, cut costs, reallocate and make the program changes required to stay within budget. Feds call this “revenue sharing,” where states are required to balance their budgets, but states, unlike our campuses, have all the authority needed to impose the taxes and fees necessary to reach a balanced budget.

Like it or not, a campus is a community of teachers and learners, and for community members to get along there must be a shared understanding and acceptance of the community’s mission and its various members’ respective roles and responsibilities. That is shared governance. Academic freedom gives teachers the authority to set curriculum and the promise that their disciplinary expertise will not be compromised by political intervention. And by “political,” I mean the supra-campus decision how to allocate scarce resources. Presidents and vice presidents, interim presidents notwithstanding, understand that their own authority rests atop formal recognition that faculty members will participate in setting policy about the allocation of scarce resources.

If the system trustees divest campus administrators and faculty of these long-held rights, they risk undermining presidential authority and spurring faculty resistance and, with it, student resistance. Expect campuses to circle the wagon against what they will claim is unwarranted trustee interference in what should be a community matter. Think “states’ rights.” System trustees, after all, are far removed from the seven campus communities, as is the system administration; think “Washington, D.C.” The latter may have the power to intervene in campus finances but not the moral authority. The University of Maine Board of Trustees needs to work with the seven campuses in the spirit of what they are —academic institutions — rather than as corporate outposts. That is how USM is being treated now, in violation of all that is sacred to higher learning.

Roger Bowen is president emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz and former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors; and currently the director of the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows.

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