It is now commonplace to declare―sometimes with all the glee that technophiles can express but, more often with trepidation if not in outright apocalyptic jeremiads―that higher education is undergoing/undertaking a massive transformation. At their most puerile, advocates of change speak of “rebranding” and at their most incoherent, they boast of innovative (largely technological) adaptations to new economic realities that bring with them demands for reinventing education to meet global market needs. Meanwhile, critics are predismissed as curmudgeons stuck in a congealed romantic nostalgia for an academy that never was or, worse, engaged in a subversive (largely obsolete Marxian) Luddism that allegedly has much to do with their psychological incapacity for change or their simple incompetence in a world of electronic information processing.
While the critics may attempt to link new educational fads and foibles to corporatist organization and the political economy of late capitalism (hence the connection with Marxism), neophiles rarely speak of social relations of power within the academy. They are content to comment that new teaching methods, putative alterations of “learning styles” and “expectations” among putatively “tech-savvy Millennials” and others require with teleological certainty that teaching and learning adapt or die.
In all of this, slightly more abstract or even “philosophical questions” of authority are rarely addressed. Authority, of course, is different from power. Power commonly involves the coercive capacity to control the attitudes and actions of others. It may arise from indoctrination and/or brute force. Authority, on the other hand, involves power―the ability to control people and events―but it is not the ability to rule through compulsion, intimidation, suppression and propagandization; rather, it is legitimate in that it is at least tacitly or contractually accepted with the consent of the ruled.
All educators from senior governmental officials, granting agency executives and upper-level administrators in institutions of higher education down to professors (with or without tenure) and the vast and growing number of contingent faculty (the “reserve army” of underemployed teachers) spend their lives enmeshed in power relations. A smaller number dominate or are dominated within arrangements in which authority is clearly defined and generally accepted as legitimate. On the contrary, although shrouded in comforting workplace banalities, most of us experience life in which power is exercised in an inherently adversarial relationship between employers and their agents on the one side and employees and their collaborators on the other. We are normally content if frictions are kept to a minimum, each “side” attends to its own “business” and reasonably fair rules for conflict resolution are articulated and obeyed. It isn’t always so and, in fact, cordial relationships seem in decline as management makes budget cuts and teachers react with intimations of resistance that can, where collective bargaining rights have been won, result in strikes or other job actions.
In Locus of Authority, Bowen and Tobin take on the question of authority. Their contribution should be welcomed by all, theorists, practitioners and advocates alike. Descriptive accounts of who holds what powers are helpful, but thoughtful discussion of the many-layered question of why the governors exercise power over the governed are crucial if the tensions and, from time to time, the transition from seething resentment to outright conflict, are to me “managed” (so to speak) in the interests of society, higher education and the executives, faculty, staff and students within each of the many categories of academic and training facilities.
Bowen and Tobin, it should be made clear at the outset, are men with long and well-respected careers in the higher ethers of the educational atmosphere. William Bowen is president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University. Eugene Tobin is senior program officer for higher education and scholarship in the humanities at the Mellon Foundation and a former president of Hamilton College, a small liberal arts establishment in Clinton, NY, which has a distinguished record dating back over 200 years. They are plainly on one “side” of the discussion.
In presenting their analysis and assessment of the current “challenges” facing higher education,the explicit question is whether the “shared governance model” that they say has defined college education throughout the twentieth century is up to the task of meeting twenty-first-century needs. These needs, of course, include increased efficiencies and the related matters of school retention and graduation rates, plus fiscal problems from declining public funding to issues of affordability and accessibility for middle-class and working-class students.
On the surface, these concerns are wedded to the liberal values of American education and society. Bowen and Tobin appear sincerely concerned with questions of educational integrity and social equity. Colleges and universities are being required to open their doors wider, to expand their capacities and to offer meaningful educational experiences not only to the traditionally well-to-do and ambitious others eagerly seeking to improve their socio-economic status and optimally fulfill the American Dream, but also to any number of non-traditional demographics including new immigrants, visible minorities, previously dispossessed and disadvantaged people. Moreover, the authors are not just concerned with higher education as a democratizing process intended to assist everyone in the quest for personal development; they also understand the crucial role education plays in overall cultural improvement “as an engine of progress,” material, social and even spiritual.
The question they pose for themselves and for us is this: Can higher education meet its challenges, solve its problems, maintain academic standards, promote equity and cost-efficiency in turbulent times of massive, transformative change and still operate within a governance model that allows and even encourages a sort of limited participatory democracy to determine its organizational decisions. Colleges and universities must, they believe, be flexible, agile and preferably proactive―anticipating needs and meeting them before they become crises. Above all, they need to build an organizational culture in which special internal interests such as departmental silos must give way to collaborative planning to address changes in missions and methods for making the inevitable “hard choices” that can quickly overtake, undermine and ultimately render (almost) any institution irrelevant.
Some of the decisions that have implications for vested interests include the promotion of technologically enhanced education in terms of “curriculum delivery” in the several forms of online education including “distance learning,” the development of “blended” learning environments, the use of MOOCs (already “yesterday’s news”?) and the transformation of classrooms (where necessary), online discussion groups and multiple modes of electronic student assessment.
Others concern labour relations within and among institutions as “tenure” (where it remains) is brought under systematic attack and “seniority” (where tenure is absent) is undermined by the relatively sudden but now apparently persistent and possibly permanent trend toward “adjunct” (permanent part-time) faculty.
Still others directly involve the processing of students as fast-changing curricula in response to perceived changes in the nature of the “skill sets” demanded by commerce and industry increasingly make traditional academic disciplines seem outdated as students are encouraged to substitute “portfolios” for transcripts and teachers to provide lists of the learning outcomes that their graduates have achieved and the “competencies” that they have mastered instead of saying simply that they had obtained an “A” in Organic Chemistry, a “B” in Accounting or a “C” in “Women’s Studies.”
The dilemmas and conundrums that attention to such issues produce are, of course, the “meat of the matter.” Most college teachers, I think, may be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about. Bowen and Tobin are plainly focussed on four-year and post-graduate institutions with long traditions of “academic freedom” and at least the illusion of an a collegial model of governance that assumes some effective involvement of professors and others in the management of the institution or, at the least, the running of their own departments. In most two-year “community colleges” and related “institutes,” such models are far outside the experience of the faculty. At best, they are fading recollections of what they might have experienced as graduate students if they had been blessed to obtain their early exposure to “professional” work before the onslaught of neoliberalism in full spate. For the past thirty or forty years, however, authoritarian, top-down models adapted from the previous century’s practices on industrial practices organized upon Taylorist principles of “scientific management” have been dominant. Still, in light of the singular shake-ups that are rumbling through post-secondary systems, it would be prudent to continue to pay attention.
Bowen and Tobin employ the preferred “business school” method of case studies. They do not indulge in the usual exercise of treating decision-making structures as lessons in the management “style” of senior executives, board chairs, presidents and so on as biographical accounts of political and industry leaders from Abraham Lincoln to Lee Iacocca have managed to do. It’s not all about them (or, at least, not all of it).
The willingness to treat authority as a systemic and not merely an individual factor is to be applauded. Unlike garden-variety hagiographies of “champions,” the book invites us to take it seriously. Accordingly, Bowen and Tobin press on to discuss some “strong” institutions with “strong” decision-making methods where there the corporate culture excludes us-versus-them thinking. The case analyses are drawn from the City University of New York, the University of California and Macalester College (a small, private liberal arts college in Minnesota – tuition a shade under $50,000 a year, and Princeton University where Bowen earned his Ph.D. in 1958, taught economics until 1972 and served as president until retirement in 1988. In those splendid sixteen years, Bowen seems to have practiced what he is now preaching, but he admits they were the “glory days” before the reduction of public funding precipitated much of current crisis. Now, he sees no option but to attack structural problems (both fiscal and organizational) head on.
Doing so, Bowen and Tobin declare, demands that the inherent efficiencies in online education be more fully exploited. In doing so, it is inevitable that faculty members will lose the authority to determine curriculum, pedagogy and student assessment. The authors, however, expect the teachers to do so “cheerfully and not grudgingly.” Instead of having the power to do as they please within their specific organizational niches, they (or those that remain) would be compensated by being invited to take a chair at a larger corporate table. The alternative, of course, would be to lose all access to decision making since the current (allegedly obsolete) model isn’t working and the practical minds that can be found in the Boards of Trustees and Governors are fed up with the ways that educators govern themselves. New means to speed up change, to react nimbly to external conditions and to get out of dysfunctional academic ruts must be found, embraced and legitimized.
The result of this almost metaphysical transition would be a reconstitution of faculty “input.” No longer would faculty autonomy be tolerated, but a new form of (they insist) horizontal decision making would emerge. Faculty advice and opinion would be solicited not only on academic matters, but on managerial ones as well. Means would be found to have a say in the selection of institutional presidents, for example. Of course, that’s pretty much where involvement (with no assumption, much less a guarantee, that faculty opinion would be taken overly seriously, much less prevail) would end. To allow, for instance, teachers to have a faculty presence on governing boards would be a huge mistake because it would create “conflicts of interest and … put a faculty representative in an awkward position [italics mine].”
At this point, I confess to uneasiness. My college is not Princeton, but we have an elected faculty, a staff and a student representative on the Board. I can assure Bowen and Tobin that no one takes them seriously and any “conflict of interest” they experience is chiefly a concern for them and their consciences; no one else cares. More important, however, is the fact that merely claiming that the Board and the employees have different (and implicitly conflicting) interests leads to the unavoidable conclusion that in the colleges and universities (just as in the military, the civil service, the private sector and even non-governmental organizations, charities and the like) it is disingenuous to speak of horizontal relations when the entire corporate premise is vertical. Absent a kind of anarcho-syndicalist collective or a “primitive” and certainly pre-capitalist mode of production, every relationship in which authority is exercised by some and not all is by definition not horizontal, and we may rest assured that it will remain disingenuous to claim that any institution of higher learning in any imaginable (post)modern society would permit authentic democratic procedures.
Bowen and Tobin, of course, are not interested in promoting a justification for tyrannical, ultra-authoritarian management. They truly understand the importance of winning authority by consent. So, far more than leaders in junior institutions, they speak generously of respecting the roles that teachers play in faculty recruitment and peer assessment, in curriculum development and so on. They refuse, however, to speak of faculty rights as matters of principle. Instead the argue for what amounts to a revised “social contract” as foundational to any employment contract, whether individual or collectively bargained.
In the end, they play an elegant bait-and-switch. Their own “authoritative” summary from Princeton University Press makes the point clearly; Bowen and Tobin say that:
- successful reform depends on the artful consideration of technological, financial, and cultural developments, such as the explosion in online learning.
- they do not want to diminish faculty roles, but to facilitate their most useful contributions;
- we need to explore whether departments remain the best ways through which to organize decision making and if the concepts of academic freedom and shared governance need to be sharpened and redefined.
If these points are played out, we shall see the end of what’s left of higher education as we once knew it. Bowen and Tobin have constructed a Managerial Manifesto. The authors, for instance, would like to reduce or eliminate autonomous academic departments, get rid of the plethora of faculty committees and bring everyone and everything into a large academic tent where, of course, decision making would become far more centralized, tightly controlled and corporate-friendly.
Such measures are part of an overall strategy to give credit to teachers (as long as they allow themselves to be incorporated into institution-wide common or core programs and missions) and to involve teachers in reorganization processes that will simply assume the necessity of restructuring employment to provide needed flexibility by terminating tenure and optimizing the efficiencies of adjunct faculty. In the process, it will ensure the evisceration of dissenting academicians and the elimination of oases of sanity in the intellectual desert. All of this, of course, will be facilitated by centralized structures for setting industry-determined research agendas to provide maximal funding in an era of spending restraint and to tie the entire education project more closely to the “end consumers” of education’s main product—job-ready graduates selected and groomed to fit noiselessly from “dark satanic … digital diploma mills” (apologies to William Blake and David Noble) into the cogs of the global corporate wheels.
I opened by suggesting that The Locus of Authority should be welcomed for bringing to the attention of the reading public an analysis of contemporary postsecondary education that discusses in a robust fashion the actual issues with which college educators from the Board Rooms to the classrooms must deal. I hold to that view. Bowen and Tobin have stated the case for a change in corporate culture and structure. It is written clearly and openly expresses important ideas about the present and the future. It also reveals between the lines a significant statement of the ways in which its solutions to current and impending crises will be designed and imposed. Only experienced advocates could have presented such a coherent message. They have played their hand cleverly and I am happy to tip my hat to them for a task well accomplished.
It is now time for teachers and others interested in better solutions to read and appreciate Bowen and Tobin’s contribution to the debate about the future of higher education, to realize it is a potentially ferocious debate and to understand that there is more than one other side of this multi-faceted coin. I look forward to rejoinders that take into account issues that Bowen and Tobin ignore—not least that of the quality of education, a subject they described as too “complex” and “tricky” for them to examine, though they had no trouble at all talking about the priority of upgrading “faculty quality,” apparently a simpler and undemanding subject.
Howard A. Doughty teaches Cultural Anthropology and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org