The University Record, March 18, 2002

Faculty Perspectives: Efficiency and the University Mission

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From the Executive Committee of the AAUP

As the U-M Board of Regents changes its internal organization and structure in parallel with the selection process for a new president, we are hearing a great deal of commentary about “efficiency.” That term is not new at the university, but it becomes ever more pervasive in direct proportion to the differential growth in numbers of non-faculty professional administrators and administrative staff relative to faculty. With this growth, academic institutions conform ever more to the models of corporate business.

At the Wolverine Tower on South State Street, visitors to the U-M Office of Human Resources and Affirmative Action find its conference room walls papered with handwritten exhortations about institutional “mission” and about the importance of responsiveness to the “customer.” Recently, one of the professional administrators was asked who exactly he meant by “customer.” He replied that all of us are customers and that in particular the citizens of the State are customers. That claim prompted variation on a sound bite that scored many minds during the past U.S. presidential election: “Since this is a public university, you would think the citizens own the store.”

At the core of this rhetoric is a serious question about the mission and purpose of the U.S. university, and specifically the great American public universities. Corporations and corporate business practices are great things for America, and have been the engines for prosperity and opportunity. It is hard not to agree with Coolidge that “the business of America is business” and therefore why should we not shape the American university in the mold of bare-knuckled capitalism, with a healthy bottom line. Maybe efficiency means more degrees granted per dollar, more net tuition revenue per course or maybe just doing the same work with less expense and less personnel, but it is a good thing whatever.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has been promoting standards for sound academic practice for nearly a century, and disseminates accumulated philosophy and wisdom through its handbook “Policy Documents and Reports,” now in its ninth edition. The index to over 300 pages of text does not include an entry for “efficiency.” Proof that professors are out of touch with modern thinking and modern needs, you might say.

Not so. The American university has many duties to citizens, but there is one that stands first because without it, the sponsoring society itself faces jeopardy. Our universities must ensure that there is forever a cadre of educated citizens who can reason for themselves, understand issues, draw conclusions from facts and evidence, and communicate their reasoning to others. Those graduates are the insurance against demagogues who would trick or frighten the public out of its freedoms and choices. The highest duty of the university is to protect American democracy.

The university cannot fulfill this duty if it is molded into a top-down corporate model. Corporations do not protect democracy, nor do they sow the seeds of future liberty. Perhaps that is none of their business. At the AAUP we understand that the university community benefits when the governing board engages with elected representative groups on issues of institutional importance. There is nothing more emblematic of a university’s image of commitment to noble goals and celebration of democratic spirit than the process whereby it selects its president. The selection process can be a communal renewal and opportunity for introspection. We ensure democracy by practicing it in reality.

One should not forget that the American business model, for all its attractions, faces the perennial test of the business cycle, whereby prosperity alternates with austerity. Survival of capitalism through the hardest times has required robust democracy and elected leadership by educated self-thinkers. Because the defenses of democracy must never be weakened, especially not during the hard times, the business model favoring top-down administrative command and control is not the appropriate way to cultivate the minds and voices who may be most needed at such times. Free thinking and free expression should not be limited just to times when nothing is wrong.

We read with great concern the exchange of communications between 16 U-M deans and Regent L. B. Deitch, as published in the Sunday, February 3 edition of the Ann Arbor News. Without inserting ourselves into any contretemps between those administrators and the governing board, we need to point out that there is indeed fundamental reason to question or disapprove of this presidential selection process independent of the individual who is ultimately chosen.

In our “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities” we advise that the selection of a university president “should follow upon a cooperative search by the governing board and the faculty, taking into consideration the opinions of others who are appropriately interested.” Further, “The president should have the confidence of the board and the faculty.” The “faculty” in this regard applies to those representatives who have been freely elected by the faculty community at large into roles of governance. At the U-M, under Regental Bylaws this body includes the Faculty Senate Assembly and its elected executive committee, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA).

In presidential searches preceding the term of former president Duderstadt, the Regents invited SACUA and Senate Assembly to construct a faculty advisory committee, and they invited similar advice from the alumni and student representative organizations. Subsequently, including in the present search, the Regents have handpicked the advisory committee members. Doing so has eliminated the element of institution-wide ownership in the ultimate candidate, and it has narrowed the process into an administrative exercise. We think it is not coincidental that recent presidents have served shorter terms and frankly have seemed to us more detached from long-term core institutional issues.

In early October 2001, both SACUA and the U-M chapter of AAUP sent communications to the U-M Regents urging the board to return to its former practice of democratic inclusiveness. Neither group ever received a response, but subsequent actions demonstrate that the advice was not heeded. The result is a process that can be perceived as a closed one, despite any amount of protest to the contrary and regardless of who is selected. Our concern is about a failure of duty in the highest sense.