Sunday, March 10, 2013

Trouble in the Faculty Lounge

This post is in response to an article in Socialist Action (SA) entitled SF City College threatened by privatization. The article isn't really very informative. For a better account of the troubles at SF City College (CCSF) see this piece at InsideHigherEd (IHE).

Academia has long subscribed to a principle known as shared governance. The idea is that the faculty and the administration share the task of managing the university. The faculty make their contribution through a series of committees collectively known as faculty governance. While the details of faculty governance vary from institution to institution, the practice is nearly universal in American higher ed, and certainly has existed at all institutions to which I have been affiliated.

Lest those of you outside the ivory tower think this is just another undeserved perk awarded to spoiled professors, please think again. As both a faculty member and as a one-time college administrator, I have strongly supported shared governance, and for very practical reasons. One hires the faculty because of their expertise--e.g., math professors are hired because they know something about mathematics. The math faculty have to design and implement the curriculum, along with the degree requirements, the prerequisite chain, and so forth. No administrator can do that for them. Thus all things curricular ultimately start with the faculty, percolate up through the faculty governance bureaucracy, and finally land on the desk of the administration. This is the very reasonable premise for shared governance.

However reasonable, shared governance presents problems. Let me point out two big ones (among several others). First, even acknowledging that most faculty are hard-working, conscientious, and honest, there is a small, persistent, built-in bias in their judgement. They tend to confuse what they want to teach with what is important to teach. I had a math colleague who joked about having a PhD in "abstract nonsense." Now his expertise wasn't really in "nonsense," but instead in a specialized, esoteric field of mathematics. He realized how inappropriate it was for the undergraduate curriculum, and changed his teaching mission accordingly. Unfortunately, most other math faculty lack that wisdom--inspired as they are by "abstract nonsense," they orient their teaching around precisely the esoterica to which they've dedicated their scholarly lives. And so the curriculum goes off the rails.

The second problem is financing. Faculty do not have enough distance to make the cost/benefit choices that budgeting requires. Professors always think they're understaffed. Their solution to student performance issues is frequently to insert another class into the curriculum--at additional expense--rather than modifying the existing classes. The result is a proliferation of new classes--if you leave it up to faculty, the ideal class size is about three. Similarly, they will tend to hire people like themselves, i.e., a department that specializes in "abstract nonsense" will hire more people with the same expertise.

So the reason governance is shared is precisely to counterbalance these persistent biases. Ideally, students would be the ones to push back, but by definition they don't know enough about the discipline to be able to represent their own interests. Likewise, taxpayers are in no position to argue with the faculty. Thus the administration is left with the thankless task of keeping the faculty on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, administrators are rarely up to the challenge, especially since many are themselves promoted from the faculty ranks. The result is a large amount of waste, bloat, and inefficiency on college campuses.

So now we come to CCSF, a community college with about 85,000 students, down from 90,000. It is about to lose its accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which would force the college to close.

The problems at CCSF are a perfect storm of dysfunction, resulting from the confluence of three separate problems. First and perhaps most egregiously, the shared governance model completely broke down. While you'll get somewhat different answers depending on who you talk to, my sense from the IHE article is that the faculty essentially had veto power over any administrative action. Curricular authority had morphed into budgetary and staffing decisions, leading to gross overstaffing and a huge budget deficit. These are the complaints of the ACCJC. 

Second, whatever the problems of unshared governance, the administration clearly didn't act competently. IHE remarks that a former chancellor was indicted, and another resigned because of health difficulties. They report that the small number of administrators on a campus so large was bound to lead to oversight problems (though I think ineffective administrators are a worse problem). In short, the administration largely abdicated its responsibility.

The third culprit was California's legendary budget deficits, leading to a $26 million deficit. Neither of the articles says what the total budget for the institution is, but given that many students it likely approaches $300 million--so this represents a 10% cut.

The SA article is wrong on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin. As you might expect with Trotskyist newspapers, much of the content is produced by volunteers, and is thus all over the map in terms of quality (I've read some excellent articles in The Militant). This article comes in near the bottom--it is poorly written and uninformative. If you knew nothing about the CCSF situation before, you won't be much the wiser after reading this article.

They're against any private efforts to improve education. They object to $500 billion in private investment. Their view is that all efforts must be mediated through some government bureaucracy. I guess you'd expect that from a socialist newspaper--but it still isn't very sensible.

They uncritically support the unionized faculty, and equate the interests of faculty with students. Of course this isn't true--faculty and student interests overlap, but are quite distinct and often opposed.

After pro forma slander against Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and the Lumina Foundation, etc., their primary ire is directed at the accrediting agency! This is bizarre--accreditors are voluntary associations of colleges and universities designed to prevent competition from "unaccredited" institutions. As such, accrediting agencies preserve the rights of faculty. Indeed, they are strong supporters of shared governance, and have frequently come down hard on administrators who violate the principle in the other direction. The fact that the ACCJC now criticizes the faculty shows just how untenable the situation has become.

SA argues that the faculty are supporters of "democratic procedures" to administer the campus. Indeed, they blame the accreditor of being "privately run and undemocratic." But this is a very strange form of democracy, where only unionized faculty have any vote. Certainly students are disenfranchised--they're just supposed to pay tuition and shut-up. Indeed, anybody who pays any bills is not part of the conversation. In SA's model, the faculty are allowed to commandeer resources from anybody in society to pay for whatever they deem necessary for "education." How far this is from the original conception of democracy, which includes the idea no taxation without representation.

If this is what higher education has become, then really, it does deserve to be shut down.

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