Shared Governance, Tenure, and Academic Freedom Are Worth the Trouble

Online learning doesn't have to be a Faustian bargain

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

January 13, 2014

In a recent essay in The Chronicle, Kevin Carey urged readers to embrace technology, not tenure: "Shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom in the classroom are both indefensible and not worth the trouble." The solution to academe's woes, Carey seemed to argue, will involve getting rid of all three, expanding the use of online course delivery (presumably MOOCs), and turning professors—"the good ones, anyway"—into intellectual free agents who sell their expertise on the open market.

Apparently finding support in William G. Bowen's Higher Education in the Digital Age (Princeton), Carey asserts, "Governance is for the governors; it can't really be shared." He argues that the shift toward adjunct labor has been an administrative effort to eliminate the roadblocks created by faculty discontent.

Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New American Foundation, an avowedly nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank based in Washington. While I agree with some of what he says about the deplorable shift toward adjunct labor, I disagree with his claim that faculty governance exists only to "further a posture of official solidarity." That's certainly the worst-case scenario: faculty governance as a rubber stamp for decisions that have already been made, or merely as means of exposing the malcontents.

But I would argue that faculty governanceshould be an exchange of information between administration and faculty (among others), and an effort to reach consensus in the best interests of all parties, especially the students. Without that kind of communication, an institution will rapidly become dysfunctional and, most likely, ungovernable and ineffective at fulfilling any mission that it would espouse in public.

Carey also claims that the "best scholars don't need tenure," and that the vast majority of faculty members don't say anything that challenges authority anyway. Professors "give up hard cash for job security that ties them to a particular institution—and thus leaves them subject to administrative caprice—for life." Tenure, for Carey, is a "symbol of professional status" that might as well be replaced with a "gold medallion."

Like Carey's statement about "the good ones" on the faculty, his definition of the "best scholars" seems troubling: Who will make those judgments once faculty governance is eliminated? In such a system, it would seem that the "best scholars" are likely to be those who serve the interests of an institution's owners—probably a combination of business and political interests—rather than the standards of legitimate scholarship. Beyond that, the "best scholars" may be defined by student-consumer demand: professors who teach popular topics, who have charismatic presentation styles, and, arguably, who lower standards and inflate grades.

We'd all like higher salaries and greater institutional mobility, but giving up tenure seems more like a means of turning almost all academics into contingent workers with multiple jobs, poverty-level incomes, no benefits, and, of course, no academic freedom.

According to Carey, academic freedom is "just ridiculous" in the classroom because every institution needs to have common "theories and standards and practices." He approvingly quotes the University of Chicago's longtime president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who said professors should not be allowed to "follow their own bents, gratify their own curiosity, and offer credits in the results." Of course those common values, while often flexible, rest upon the protections afforded by tenure and faculty governance. One wonders what Carey thinks of the recent decision by the Kansas Board of Regents essentially canceling academic freedom by allowing employees to be fired for improper tweets.

At this point in his essay, Carey's citation of Bowen becomes more pointed and alarming: Academic freedom, even where it exists, does not cover methods of instructional delivery. In other words, faculty members cannot oppose the adoption of online learning, and, perhaps, the outsourcing of the curriculum. That, Carey argues, will become one of the "battle lines of early-21st-century higher education."

(I suspect that Carey is alluding to the recent showdown between the president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, and its governing board after the board attempted to oust her over not moving quickly enough to shift the curriculum toward online learning. But it is worth noting that the attempt was unsuccessful thanks to a groundswell of support from faculty members, alumni, and students. That support portends a different future than Carey suggests may be inevitable.)

As far as I understand it—and perhaps the devilish details are yet to be presented—Carey's proposal is to use technology to create free-agent academics who, as autonomous knowledge workers, will provide services demanded by students in the open market. To me, Carey's proposal seems similar to those made by many advocates of for-profit education. While it has been profitable for shareholders and administrators, the results for students and faculty members at such institutions are not promising, to put it mildly.

I am not opposed to online approaches to course delivery. I have designed and taught online and hybrid courses since 2006, within the context of a liberal-arts college that makes strong teaching a priority. I like the idea of developing hybrid courses in areas such as lesser-taught languages that allow small institutions to work together (like the Sunoikisis model, a national consortium of classics programs).

But, in general, I am not a supporter of MOOCs, except, perhaps, as an occasional teaching approach in unusual circumstances. I remain convinced that the widespread adoption of MOOCs will lead to the deprofessionalization of the faculty, the impersonalization of learning (to say nothing of higher dropout rates and lower outcomes), and, of course, the undermining of the unique and valuable missions that justify the existence of many colleges and universities.

Adopted cautiously, in an evolutionary, decentralized way, a variety of online approaches to learning can allow faculty members to improve their teaching by placing lecture content online and using classes for high-impact experiences (consider the examples provided by José Antonio Bowen's Teaching Naked), allowing professors and students to interact more with each other.

Hybrid approaches across institutions can allow faculty members to leverage their specialized knowledge to benefit a larger number of students. And—by making it less necessary for students to transfer credits for entire courses from outside parties—online courses developed within an institutional context can preserve rather than undermine our unique missions.

On the whole, Carey provides a sketchily defined utopian vision, or perhaps a Faustian bargain. He promises more mobility, higher wages, better teaching, and lower administrative costs, as well as an end to the "grotesqueries of intercollegiate athletes." That sounds great. All we have to give up is everything that makes higher education different from the neoliberal, corporate world that is turning virtually everyone into precarious, disposable labor for the benefit of a few at the top of this new system.

It seems problematic at best—Orwellian at worst—to say that eliminating faculty governance, tenure, and academic freedom offers a "new freedom." I suspect that the real impact of Carey's argument—which he unfortunately sets in the context of an endorsement of online learning, which can be a good thing—would be to foster more strident rhetoric about the "unsustainability" of tenure, academic freedom, and other such pillars of U.S. higher education. In the process, he and other like-minded critics seem to ignore and discredit the positive impact we are seeing across academe as online approaches to teaching and learning are adopted in ways that respect the role of the faculty in developing course content and deciding how it is delivered.

Carey's plan is not clear, but his targets are: the foundational principles of higher education.

William Pannapacker is a professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.