The Death of Shared Governance at the U. of Southern California

In November, Mai’a K. Davis Cross filed a federal discrimination complaint against the University of Southern California for denying her bid for tenure, arguing that the institution had a history of denying tenure to women and members of minority groups in the humanities and social sciences.

Earlier this month, a grievance panel at the university found procedural defects in how Cross, an assistant professor of international relations, had been evaluated. Its report has now been forwarded to the institution’s president, who is free to accept or reject the panel’s findings.

Regardless of the president’s decision, the handling of Cross’s case by the University of Southern California—both during the tenure process and in response to charges of discrimination—raises important questions about the direction of higher education in the United States. The policies on which the university has relied testify to the continued erosion of faculty governance and the increasing corporatization of institutions everywhere.

Cross and her lawyer have contended that her tenure case included procedural violations by a former dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences—for example, that he, under the authority of the provost, made “cold calls” to scholars outside Cross’s field. In fact, though, the manual for the University Committee on Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure provides loopholes to circumvent the exacting standards and procedures that have long been nationally recognized as helping to ensure equal opportunities to candidates seeking tenure and promotion. In other words, “procedural violations” are, as it were, written into the handbook.

The manual invests extraordinary powers in the dean. In a section of the manual that calls for letters of reference to be solicited by departments from experts in the candidate’s field, the manual says that the dean must review the list of referees in advance and instruct the candidate’s department to find additional references if the list is inadequate. Then comes this rather offhand sentence: “If the dean consults with additional referees …, the communications should be fully documented as part of the dean’s memo.”

According to the provost, writing in a letter to Cross made available to The Chronicle, those “communications” may consist of phone calls or “face to face” meetings; while there are “templates” for letters of reference, there are no “templates for phone calls” or other “communications.”

Such power is clearly open to abuse since deans are not often experts in the candidate’s field. When questions about the candidate’s qualifications arise, surely the senior faculty members in the candidate’s department, who know more about the candidate’s field than most administrators are apt to know, ought to be the ones instructed to seek supplemental supporting letters using the approved templates.

Without proper vetting, a dean could call upon people who are not considered by authorities in the field to be among the most knowledgeable. The power conferred on the dean to engage in all manner of “communications” with unvetted, or inadequately vetted, individuals could easily lead to the reinstatement of the “old boys’ network” and to the kind of informal canvassing that AAUP guidelines were put in place to supplant, so as to create a level playing field for all tenure candidates, regardless of such categories as race, gender, or ethnicity.

But that is not the worst of it. A careful perusal of the promotion-and-tenure manual reveals that the lengthy document is, after all, entirely moot. For in the very first section there appears this line: “The provost may authorize exceptions or waivers to this manual or other policies.” In other words, there are no policies because all can be overridden by provostial fiat.

The University of Southern California and other colleges and universities continue to pay lip service to the idea of faculty governance or “shared governance.” At USC, the notion has undergone serious erosion. Not only the provost but also the president of the Academic Senate and the faculty member who leads the promotion-and-tenure committee signed off on the 2011 version of the manual. It is a shame to see faculty members giving their “share” of governance over to the administration, which is now, in effect, an autocracy.

I am not suggesting that USC is alone in moving away from faculty governance. It is a commonplace that American universities are becoming increasingly corporatized, organized from the top down. I am writing about my institution because it is the one I know best.

The university’s Office of Equity and Diversity, which in its letter to Cross assured her that an investigation had revealed no bias and no violations of procedure, has in my experience been ineffective in dealing with charges of discrimination. (In her complaint, Cross cited data showing that white men in the humanities and the social sciences had been promoted at much higher rates than did women and members of minority groups.)

The letter advised her to consider getting counseling to help her through this difficult time and informed her that if she wished to pursue an appeal, the number of the appropriate federal agency could be found “in the telephone directory.”

Notwithstanding the university’s discouragement of those who engage in open dissent about the matters I have discussed, I write in the hope that my remarks will prompt professors and administrators at my institution and at others across the nation to engage in dialogue about how faculty members—who are, after all, the experts in their fields—may regain their share of authority in the American system of higher education and how we may continue to work together to create an environment free of discrimination and fear of reprisal.

Tania Modleski is a professor of English at the University of Southern California.

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