Shared governance key to academic freedom

By Craig

During a period of increased concern about our international competitiveness, America’s higher education is seen as the best in the world. What explains our position of worldwide leadership? I believe it is the strong tradition of academic freedom and shared governance that has shaped American colleges and universities for most of the 20th century.
These issues are of special concern to faculty at the University of Minnesota. Last June the Faculty Senate adopted a number of changes to the University’s tenure code designed to reflect the realities of future financial uncertainties and the demand for greater public accountability. Over the summer the regents, working with consultants from Washington, D.C., produced their own tenure code proposal. The regents’ proposal, introduced at the board’s meeting in Morris on Sept. 5, has produced a storm of controversy both on and off campus.
Faculty are upset about both the substance of the regents’ proposal and the closed process by which it was developed. The Faculty Consultative Committee, the elected steering committee for the Faculty Senate, expressed its strong concern that the board’s proposal “undermines the commonly accepted principles of academic freedom.” This is not a view that is restricted to faculty at Minnesota. Commenting on some of the specifics of the regents’ proposal, the national office of the American Association of University Professors said, “These and other recommendations reflect a dramatic departure from past practices at the University of Minnesota and at major research universities elsewhere.”
University President Nils Hasselmo wrote the board, “With the Faculty Senate’s modified revisions of the Tenure Regulations, the University is in the mainstream of comparable institutions with respect to such provisions as the management of programmatic change.” He went on to say that the regents’ proposal “would substantially weaken tenure at the University of Minnesota, and move us far to the right of the mainstream of comparable universities.”
Why are strong protections for academic freedom and shared governance so important to the University and to the citizens of Minnesota? Guarantees of academic freedom represent a social compact with colleges and universities that society will benefit by insuring the right and ability of scholars to engage in teaching and research free from external or internal threats and intimidation. Guarantees of academic freedom, secured by a strong tenure code, play a critical role when recruiting and retaining the very best scholars, individuals whose work by its very nature often finds itself in the midst of controversy and challenge.
Threats to academic freedom are not idle concerns or things that happened only in the distant past. I have a colleague, a Regents’ Professor and distinguished scholar, who, while a young scholar, was subjected to intimidation attempts by a U.S. Senator. She has a colleague who lost her job at another institution after a similar attack. I have another colleague who came under personal and political attacks because of his views on the North American Free Trade Agreement. I know two colleagues who found their positions at the University threatened by a powerful state official after they responded to a request from the state to help it figure out how to deal with state deficits.
Firm guarantees of academic freedom can only be secured by a strong tenure code. Strong tenure codes are part of the social compact that secure for society the advantages of free and open inquiry. They play a social role similar to First Amendment rights for freedom of the press and the attorney-client privilege in the legal system.
Tenure is earned only after rigorous post-graduate study that may last as long as ten years, a probationary period of an additional six or more years and an intensive review of a candidate’s scholarship and teaching effectiveness. In my own department, fewer than half of the individuals hired as assistant professors over the 27 years I have been at the University have earned tenure here. In some cases there were negative decisions on the basis of the intensive review. In others, individuals chose to leave when they understood that their record would not support a positive departmental recommendation for tenure.
Shared governance is the other essential underpinning to the American tradition of excellence in higher education. While deans, presidents and regents have the ultimate authority for most institutional decisions, the tradition of shared governance recognizes the importance of meaningful consultation with faculty and students as issues are formulated and before decisions are finalized.
While colleges and universities would not exist if it were not for students, their most important assets are not their buildings, but rather the intellectual capabilities of their faculty. It is the work of the faculty that is the driving force behind programs of teaching and research. It is the work of the faculty as scholars, in the classroom and in one-on-one instruction that attracts students. It is the work of the faculty that attracts research contracts and grants.
Colleges and universities with meaningful systems of shared governance and clear commitments to protecting academic freedom through a strong tenure code are the ones that are most likely to attract the best scholars. When these elements work successfully, as they have in the past at the University, they result in an institution that can make important contributions to its community. In the case of the University, these contributions include almost $300 million of non-state research money; education programs that have produced alumni and faculty who have founded or own over 3,000 companies that employ over 100,000 Minnesotans; contributions to the artistic and cultural life of the state that range from the nurturing of major artistic organizations in the Twin Cities to performances in local communities across the state; and outreach and distance education programs that bring the work of the faculty directly to the people of state.
If we are to succeed as a state, we must do so by using our wits. A strong system of education, from K-12 to higher education, is essential to the social, cultural and economic vitality of the state.
Craig Swan is a professor and the chair of the department of economics. He is also a member of the Faculty Consultative Committee, a member of the board of directors for the Twin Cities chapter of the American Association of University Professors and the vice president of the state council for the AAUP.
This piece originally appeared Sept. 29 in the St. Cloud Times, and is reprinted with permission from the St. Cloud Times.