Did You Know? The Higher Ed Bureaucracy Won the Pandemic

An ill wind has buffeted higher education in the year of the plague. Workers have been laid off, the ranks of the professoriate have shrunk, and enrollment declines across the industry threaten the long-term finances of all but the most prestigious institutions.

While the pain has not been as deep as some experts feared, a new report from the American Association of University Professors highlights an important change: the decline of shared governance. Faculty power is fading as administrators and the bureaucracy take more and more control.

As Neetu Arnold wrote for the Martin Center last November, “consolidation and centralization will continue as faculty fade from influence in governance decisions.” The AAUP report showed how the balance of university governance has shifted thanks to “opportunistic exploitations of catastrophic events” and focused on eight institutions to highlight the general trend:

  • Canisius College (NY)
  • Illinois Wesleyan University
  • Keuka College (NY)
  • Marian University (WI)
  • Medaille College (NY)
  • National University (CA)
  • University of Akron (OH)
  • Wittenberg University (OH)

Problems at these eight institutions (and others not included in the report) varied, but the AAUP found some commonalities:

  • “Faculty members at the investigated institutions faced the dilemma of either participating in ad hoc governance processes they knew to be flawed in the hope of shaping their outcomes or refusing on principle to participate at all, thereby allowing administrators and board members to move forward without them.”
  • “The policies and procedures at the investigated institutions were generally adequate, yet boards and administrations, in the interest of rapid decision-making, chose to ignore, revise, or circumvent them, including those relevant to areas where the faculty exercises primary responsibility.”
  • “Academic governance has been under severe pressure since the onset of the pandemic. Though it would be premature to say that we have entered a new era of institutional governance in advance of what some observers are calling ‘the great contraction’ in American higher education, the evidence already before us suggests that this has been a watershed moment.”

The recommendations from the AAUP can be summarized as “faculty need to stand their ground to preserve shared governance.” The rise of adjuncts and the fall of tenured faculty in recent decades (though the trend has slowed in recent years) has meant that faculty with institutional power have been less common as the bureaucratic ranks have grown. Professors have benefited from this to an extent: administrators do much of the work professors did in the past. But as the pandemic forced a financial crunch, many institutions were quicker to cut from the faculty ranks than from administrators. The influence of the bureaucracy has come at the cost of professors.

Reform-minded conservatives and liberals have warned about the problem of ideological conformity and the provincialism of academia. Yet, as governance shifts away from faculty, the rise of bureaucratic power in the university presents a new problem in an interest group that’s even more united politically, and is slow to cut its own budget. The AAUP report is a glimpse into the future.

Anthony Hennen is managing editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.