Governance

One of the many things no graduate school teaches you is how universities work. Because of this it can take many years, even on the tenure track, to figure out exactly what your position entails in the way of power and responsibility within the institution that employs you. Moreover, since your encounters with this aspect of the job generally fall under the rubric of “service” or “committee work”, you — as a researcher and a teacher (generally in that order), not an administrator — have no incentive to develop any very reflective or purposeful approach to it. Your name is made by the research you publish in your field, not by the stances you take at your university. Protect your time. Save your energy. Lest what’s below should look like grandstanding, I should say that I have subscribed to this view as fully as anyone I know.

This sense, if anything augmented by institutional pressure to publish and win grants — things I have also prioritized, and which I of course still pursue — lends an air of unreality to administrative agendas. From the point of view of a scholar busily building a career beyond the bounds of campus, successive Strategic Agendas or Research Plans may seem like so many pointless but harmless and anyway fleeting attempts to impose new corporate or bureaucratic language on the same basic activities that universities must always embody: teaching and research. At worst, dealing with the latest iteration is a problem of translating the substance you care about into the language administrators want to hear.

If this gives you little incentive to meddle in faraway offices of which you know nothing, the risks that critical engagement with governance involves, if you think about them a little, may positively push you the other way. Who doesn’t hope for a grant, a promotion, a sabbatical, or — in non-unionized universities — a salary increase? Who doesn’t need a little capital with the administration? Why give your dean or provost needless headaches? Why suffer them yourself? Besides, they presumably want the same things you do, if you look at the big picture. Why, dean so-and-so came from our own department! (Whenever I hear this, I think of the proverb about the time the trees in the forest first saw the woodcutter’s ax: “At least the handle is one of us.”)

If it ever made sense to take comfort in such thoughts, though, it no longer does; and doing so was part of what got us here. But where are we, exactly?

Well, we’re in a place where partnerships with industry are undermining academic freedom and compromising the integrity of the research produced — where the imprimatur of academic research is effectively for sale to private interests, be they donors or businesses. Need to clean up your industry’s image? Throw some money at a university, and get an expert report to suit your needs. Hell, write it yourself.

We’re in a place where institutional support for research often has more to do with building the university brand than with the imperatives of the work — and where the university’s identity is determined without reference to substantive academic goals. Where even when egregious violations of research ethics are exposed, they can be ignored and forgotten rather than dealt with honestly and responsibly.

We’re in a place where administrative decisions about the university’s policies and academic direction are communicated to faculty by press release, with or without a prior show of consultation; where replacement hires for essential teaching fields no longer exist, but new fields can be invented and positions created to suit administrative agendas; where research centres run by non-academics (or academics in pseudo-administrative, unprotected roles) proliferate at the expense of disciplines and departments; where academic labor is ever more precarious and the quality of academic work diluted by the emphasis on “capacity building”; where the promise of mere growth — more programs, more PhDs — outruns any questions about its value or purpose.

We are, in short, in a bad place. And I think that to at least some extent, we tenured faculty, we academics with some power and a lot of responsibility, put ourselves here — ourselves, and our colleagues, and our students. How many new policies or plans strike us as misguided or counterproductive or positively harmful? How often do we organize to fight them? How often are we even aware that they’re coming? I came late to the practice of scanning strategic plans myself, and I’m sure others have yet to bother.

I don’t believe that some new wave of faculty activism will solve the shortage of tenure-track jobs. Nor will it get rid of budgetary problems or perverse government policies. On the other hand, we are at the point where the core functions of the university as a research and teaching institution — the things we more readily identify as our “real” jobs — are increasingly compromised from within our own universities, by plans and initiatives to which we are often, it seems, only semi-conscious parties. (How many of us make a habit even of reading each new policy or plan that comes our way?) We can only protect the things that purportedly justify our glaringly privileged existence if we are as concerned with governing our institutions as we are with building our careers.

I do not suggest martyring yourself to service or killing your career to prove a point. But from what I’ve seen — and I’ve seen enough — the academic drive to get along with the higher-ups is often unhealthily strong; more than once I’ve watched people check their own (or their constituents’) concerns at the door of a meeting simply to avoid a fight, or hold their tongues rather than ask a hard question — or, worse, call their leadership out on a lie or a violation. Unanimity is not a value consistent with the spirit of critical enquiry that supposedly characterizes scholarly institutions. “Collegiality” too often implies silence. If we want to keep our institutions, this has to stop.

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