By Richard Vedder
The University of Toledo is having internal warfare over an unpopular dean, and the top administration's contempt for the faculty comes on the heels of similar problems in the opposite side of the state, at Ohio University.
At Toledo, the faculty voted no confidence in the dean of the arts and science college. Student investigative reporting revealed that the president and provost seemed to agree that the dean needed to go --but that they were in a dilemma because they did not want to appear to be agreeing with the faculty. In other words, "the faculty members are right, but if we agree, they may get uppity and think they run the place."
At Ohio University, last year both the students and faculty overwhelmingly supported no confidence votes in the president. The Trustees ignored the vote, and this year issued a contract that gives the president virtual tenure (employment to his 65th birthday) and a raise of nearly 30 percent in a time of budget stringency. The faculty response is to start the ball rolling towards unionization, a usually disastrous outcome for universities, raising the cost of doing business and reducing the role of merit and accomplishment in university affairs. NO distinguished American university has a collective bargaining agreement with the faculty.
Both incidents raise an important issue --who "owns" and controls the university. The answer is frankly ambiguous. Presidents regard themselves increasingly as "CEOs" in the corporate model, and faculty as merely paid staff. Trustees sometimes view themselves as cheerleaders for the administration, although occasionally they fire a president, so they cannot be ignored. Historically, faculty made major decisions, and at the better colleges (e.g., top private schools) they still do. Generally speaking, the more prestigious the school, the greater the faculty influence.
I am somewhat conflicted on this issue. Just as I feel that physicians in medical care organizations should not be treated as mere employees, and accountants in accounting firms treated similarly, so I think faculty in universities should be accorded a greater role in institutional governance than mid-level employees in a typical corporation. The faculty does the teaching and the research that is the raison d'etre of universities. At the same time, institutions need direction, faculty members are notoriously self-serving and opposed to change, and unaware of the broader public that finances their comfortable existence but who want accountability and results. In general, I favor a strong president model with real, meaningful trustee oversight based on multiple channels of communication with the faculty as well as the administration. But there is no single model that works in all university cultures. And the emails between the president and provost at Toledo show contempt for faculty that is very troubling.
At the same time, we need more faculty accountability as well. Tenure serves to reduce the effectiveness of efforts to reallocate resources and change missions, things that have to be done to remain effective. Faculty often look at university presidents as persons whose job it is to find money to allow them to continue in their old inefficient ways, doing little teaching and writing obscure papers that few read and fewer believe are important. True reform will require modifying the role of faculty in university governance, but ignoring strong signals of problems from the core of the university community --students and faculty --is usually counterproductive. More accountability is needed at ALL levels, and the lack of clear ownership rights on campuses blurs lines of authority and reduces efforts at meaningful accountability --a problem that does not exist in the same magnitude at, say, the University of Phoenix.