Higher Education

It’s the Governance Structure, Stupid

by Lisa Duggan


Mark Taylor’s NY Times op ed, “End the University As We Know It” borrows its title from the Clintonian call to eAfter the Drag Queens' Ball December 2008nd welfare entitlements, a significant way station in the process of eroding New Deal social supports.  But to bastardize another Clintonism, Taylor’s op ed inclines me to respond, “It’s the Governance Structure, Stupid.”

The problem with ending welfare as we knew it was the failure to provide any other more adequate support for workers in a low wage, no benefit economy.  And so the problem with ending the university as we know it, along Taylor’s lines, is that the entire authority to remake the university is left in the hands of administrators and trustees.  Taylor would abolish, along with tenure, all modes of democratic accountability within university decision making structures.  Faculty governance, already in decline and never a transparent structure of democratic accountability in any event, depends on an independent faculty.  Without any form of protection from administrative whim or vengeance, faculty become insecure employees.  With the seven year contracts advocated by Taylor, faculty participation in reorganizing department structures and curriculum is effectively abolished.  And there is, of course, no attention to the employment and decision making roles of staff or students.  Nor any discussion of the funding sources that underpin any governance structure–the elephant in the room when any reinvention of the university is under discussion.

Under current conditions, as Miranda Joseph notes on this blog, the sciences are generally the best funded and most inventive sites for interdisciplinary restructuring.  Meanwhile, the social sciences and especially the humanities retrench to established disciplinary structures as their funding sources shrink–however unevenly across different fields and institutions.  Interdisciplinary projects in the arts and sciences remain insecure, especially during this economic crisis.  However creative and attractive to students and faculty an interdisciplinary project (such as those on Taylor’s wish list) might be, it will likely be low on administrators’ priority lists.  Interdisciplinary programs are generally not rated the way the disciplines are, and administrative managers earn brownie points by moving up the ratings of their departmental charges.  And they seldom attract deep pockets of funding beyond the university’s budget.  As long as this is the structure within which we operate, we can imagine the New University all day and all night, but we can’t bring it into being.  New governance and funding structures will be required.  We must ask, Who will decide? How will we pay for it?  before any of our dearest wishes for reinvention can become realizable.

To make kings of administrators and trustees, while leaving the current privatization of funding for higher education in place, is to be certain of making a bad situation far worse.    To end the university as we know it, and build the university with the broadest public benefit in its place, we need more  democratic governance, and an expanded public funding base most of all.

2 replies on “It’s the Governance Structure, Stupid”

“To end the university as we know it, and build the university with the broadest public benefit in its place, we need more democratic governance, and an expanded public funding base most of all.”

I absolutely agree with this. I think that Taylor’s proposals, if acted on, would steer the universities toward primarily solving problems that are profitable, at the expense of the ones that aren’t (i.e. the ones that actually need solving).

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