Faculty Vetoes: Powerful and Impotent

The incident was one for the history books. In April, Brandeis University, a school created after the Holocaust for Jews who faced bias at Ivy League schools, rescinded its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to be a commencement speaker. Hirsi Ali is an activist for fair treatment of women around the world.

It wasn’t only students and faculty who opposed her—they gathered 6,000 signatures, most of them from outside Brandeis, on a petition objecting to her “Islamophobic” beliefs.

The rejection of Hirsi Ali illustrates, to an extreme, how difficult it is for universities to accomplish anything that elicits opposition.

In their book Presidents Derailed, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and his colleagues write, “Presidents can readily find themselves in a setting where the probability of success approaches zero.” They list the potential “constituents” and “stakeholder” groups at universities: “board members, faculty, staff, alumni, students, donors, the community and political leaders.”

Of all those with veto power, the faculty have the most. A no-confidence vote can derail presidents. Such a vote contributed to Bob Kerrey’s decision to retire as president of the New School and the threat of a no-confidence vote influenced Larry Summers’ decision to resign from Harvard.

This political ailment is called the “anticommons.”

The term “tragedy of the commons” is a familiar one. Coined by biologist Garrett  Hardin in 1968, it refers to a resource such as a grazing commons or a fishing area that is open to everyone. The tragedy occurs when people overuse the resource because there are no owners to protect it. Grazing land becomes denuded and the fishing area overharvested.

Less familiar is the term “tragedy of the anticommons,” identified by Mark Heller and analyzed by the late Nobel laureate James Buchanan and Yong J. Yoon. In the purest sense, there are too many “owners,” each one unable—or lacking the motivation—to take action alone, but all having veto power. Buchanan and Yoon call the two concepts symmetrical and say that the  anticommons is a source of “major value wastage in modern regulatory bureaucracy.”

Heller, the author of Gridlock Economy, developed the concept while visiting in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union. The streets of the city were filled with people buying and selling at kiosks scattered along the sidewalks. Lively street action took place in front of empty, locked buildings that should have been turned into shops and boutiques, but weren’t.

Heller discovered that the property rights affecting the buildings were in disarray—most of the buildings had several owners. For example, the central government may have owned a building but a local administration had managed it. A new “owner” could sell or lease it, but only if the other owners approved. And when one person had the right to lease the property, someone else typically had the right to the revenue!

It was a nightmare, he said, because there were many constituents who had little or no incentive to overcome the vetoes and arrange a new system. So, for years, market exchange in Moscow took place in the street.

Thus, in contrast to the tragedy of the commons, overuse, there was the tragedy of the anticommons, or underuse.

So, while faculty opposition is nothing new, the idea that it may be contributing to underuse of educational resources is perhaps a new way of thinking about it.

Certainly, we see underuse of both human capital and physical resources throughout higher education. Is one major reason the ability of interest groups to block efficient use?

Consider space utilization. On any weekday, half the classrooms are not in use on most campuses (and don’t even think about Saturday). Classes cluster in the middle of the day, the most attractive time for most faculty (and students). Such wasted space forces construction of unnecessary and costly buildings.

It happens because faculty, who are in charge of curriculum, can veto efforts to make them teach at less convenient times.

When economist Ronald G. Ehrenberg was a vice president at Cornell, he tried to allocate office space more efficiently. Valuable office space was being used as if it were free (which it was to the users). He proposed charging the budgets of academic departments for their work space. But he failed. “Too many objections were raised . . .  to assure that the approach would have enough support around the campus to be adopted.”

Office space allocation must have “enough support around the campus”? Talk about veto power.

Could implied faculty vetoes explain why the number of courses that professors are expected to teach has declined over the past few decades? Or why a UNC law school professor earns $205,000 to teach one class a semester?

Recently, a series of faculty no-confidence votes occurred at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and a vote against the president was barely averted. Why? As discussed by Inside Higher Ed, St. Joseph’s costs outpace revenues, and the school is reducing the number of adjuncts and increasing class size. “Some faculty say they might be willing to go along with some of what the university has proposed,” writes author Ry Rivard, “but that the administration has done little but present them with faits accomplis.”

Surely, however, administrators recognize that involving the faculty would have been just as frustrating and perhaps equally futile.

As higher education enters a new era of competition, colleges’ costs must go down. That will require changes in workloads, construction of campus buildings, technology, and more. If faculty don’t want those changes, they may veto them. What will administrators and trustees do?

The answer is far from clear. Heller says in Gridlock Economy that “people don’t have the knack for overcoming anticommons dilemmas as smoothly as the equivalent commons tragedies.“ In Russia, Moscow’s buildings were privatized through a grim process of “contracts, bribery, violence, and regulatory tinkering”—money flowed to those with political power.

If administrators and trustees don’t want to accept gridlock, here are a few approaches that administrators or trustees might take to repair the anticommons:

  • Tell faculty to do what you want them to do.

The only successful example I know is Brigham Young University-Idaho, which completely changed its organizational setup, getting rid of the agrarian calendar, creating hybrid classes, and building competency-based modules that provided certificates if students chose not to get degrees. But the university is an arm of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which seems to have a lot of control over the school.

  • Motivate the faculty to do what you want them to do.

Faculty can be paid extra for teaching online classes, more courses, and big “gatekeeper” courses such as introductory political science. (All of this assumes that funds are available.)

One successful example is the online MBA degree at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business. The administration persuaded faculty to teach online by additional compensation. Participation is voluntary. The funds are available since the online program costs students $96,775 and it appears to be popular.

  • Terminate faculty.

Faculty are hard to fire. Quinnipiac University has just laid off 16 full-time (but not tenured) faculty, leading to an outcry, and we will see if the layoffs “stick.” In April the University of Southern Maine rescinded plans to fire a dozen faculty members.

It is possible to close down entire departments or programs, as Southern Maine still plans to do. But when William Peace University terminated its musical performance major in 2012, it was sued by three faculty members and settled.

  • Work around the faculty.

Southern New Hampshire University, a private school, has created a new, online school, the College for America. Traditional faculty aren’t involved. The school is so successful that it subsidizes the residential portion of the university.

The anticommons—where saying “no” dominates, unlike the commons, where too much “yes” prevails—provides a lens for understanding aspects of higher education. It has been around at universities a long time even though it hasn’t been named that. It seems intractable.

But as economist Herb Stein said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” At some point, the veto power will have to disappear.

We at the Pope Center will be watching.