The Competence Curse

Against the Current, No. 219, July/August 2022

Purnima Bose

May 9, 2022 special faculty meeting at Indiana University to support graduate student unionization and to demand no retaliation against strikers. The line to enter the meeting extended several blocks. IGWC-UE

CONTRARY TO THE cliché that universities are ivory towers disconnected from everyday matters, they are microcosms of the societies in which they exist.(1) The larger cultural and political ethos permeates universities, which are subject to shifts in what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feeling,” emergent ways of thinking not yet codified in policies or regulations.(2)

Over the last few years, aspects of the former Trump Administration’s disdain for expertise has infected the upper echelon of management and governing boards of institutions of higher education, resulting in the “competence curse.”

By this term, I name how expertise and experience in university settings has become a liability, even disqualification, for landing a position as a dean or top-level administrator. “In recent years,” Lee Gardner observes, “higher education has experienced a vogue for ‘nontraditional’ leaders, especially politicians, former military leaders, and businesspeople.”(3)

Why should it matter if top-level administrators are recruited from outside academia? When upper administrators lack academic expertise and university work experience, faculty governance and academic freedom suffer. In turn, this undemocratic model spreads beyond the university. Universities not only reflect, but also shape the societies around them.

In the United States, a large percentage of the population over 25 years of age has spent time in college; 42% of that demographic has earned an associate, bachelors, graduate or professional degree.(4)

Institutions that educate and train such a significant percentage of the adult population deserve our attention because college graduates play an outsized role in businesses and public life even as the university experience can be formative in their lives.

What Kind of Model?

Universities not only seek to impart analytic skills and the content of different disciplines, but they also provide spaces for civic and international engagement through classroom discussions, sponsorships of speakers, extra-curricular student groups, and a multitude of service learning courses and internships opportunities, among other things.

What kind of democratic model do we set for our students, many of whom will become leaders in their communities, when we have limited sovereignty in our work places? How do faculty inculcate civic values such as freedom of speech and the right of association in our students when those are increasingly challenged by administrators hired from the outside bent on curtailing the agency of those they purportedly serve?

The current infatuation with hiring campus leaders from the military, government, and the private sector is fueled by corporatization. As Eva Cherniavsky argues in this issue of ATC, faculty governance has a long history of being constrained by the structural limits imposed by capital.

The slow creep of the corporatization of universities in the last few decades has augmented those constraints.(5)

Some of the tangible manifestations of the contemporary corporate university include the conceptualization of academic units as revenue centers, the pressure to churn out mission statements and strategic plans, the creation of managerial bureaucracies, and the ballooning of administrators.(6)

I want to focus on how mission statements and strategic planning documents, in particular, erode faculty governance through blueprints for the creation, restructuring and elimination of academic programs under the guise of “maintaining excellence,” “innovation,” and increasing institutional efficiencies.

The structural reorganization of traditional academic departments into new professional schools has meant the creation of more administrative positions whose ranks are increasingly filled by candidates from outside academia.

An Invented “Fiscal Crisis”

At Indiana University (IU), where I work, the former president appointed a committee in 2010, the New Academic Directions Committee, largely consisting of administrators, whom he charged with asking “hard questions about [the university’s] academic structures to ensure they are of the highest quality, that they best serve the broad mission of the University and that they function in the most efficient and effective ways.”(7)

The committee nominally sought input on the strategic plan from faculty through a website. As my colleague Scott O’Bryan remarked, all faculty input “disappeared into a big gaping maw of silence.”

At the time, we were two years into the 2008 Great Recession, and IU’s state appropriation had dropped precipitously. Perhaps for these reasons, the committee represented the College of Arts & Sciences as a problem in its final report, pointing out that the College’s “market share” of credit hours had declined.

Even as the committee claimed the College was fiscally unsustainable, it acknowledged that “the College does not face a near-term fiscal crisis. In fact, over the last decade the College has eliminated a large accumulated debt and has gradually enlarged its cash reserves, so that it is now in compliance with the minimum cash reserve guideline set by the IU Trustees.”(8)

As a response to this invented fiscal crisis, the committee recommended a number of new, smaller schools be created within its administrative structure. The end game appears to have been that these new schools would eventually spin off into their own revenue centered units, thus, effectively heralding the slow death of the College.

The report generated by this committee resulted in a Bicentennial Strategic Plan that mandated the creation of the School of Public Health, the School of Informatics and Computing, the School of Global and International Studies, and the Media School.

Several of these schools siphoned core humanities faculty from the College and received significant support for additional hiring, which was curtailed for most of the College. The new schools are by-and-large professional schools geared toward undergraduate education that is oriented to the market. The creation of these new schools offers two lessons.

Marketing Interdisciplinarity

Lesson number one: Be wary of new institutional arrangements that tout interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity as a selling point.

At my institution, the creation of these professional schools has been internally marketed in part by appeals to the interdisciplinary nature of these units and claims that they are on the cutting edge of research. Over the years, I have become cynical about interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary academic programs, which seem to offer avenues to exploit faculty labor.

Programs at IU such as Cultural Studies and Southeast Asian & ASEAN have elaborate websites advertising numerous faculty and dynamic degree certificates, all of which enhance the university’s academic reputation. In actuality, most of these programs have no dedicated faculty lines and rely on a beleaguered graduate assistant or staffperson to run the quotidian operations.

They also depend on the goodwill of faculty members, who, because of their intellectual commitment to interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, contribute service to these programs on top of their responsibilities in their home departments. (These programs can be important intellectual hubs provided they are adequately resourced and not subject to the capitalist-administrative imperative for continuous growth, along with expectations for unrealistic outcomes.)

The creation of professional schools and new departments also relies on this type of goodwill, much of it coming from associate professors, whose research agendas can be sidelined out of a desire to be good institutional citizens and the excitement of creating seemingly dynamic new programs.

One consequence of the added service burden of interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity is that many faculty are too exhausted by the frantic pace of the academic calendar, and the unrelenting stress of the daily requirements of professional life, to have the energy, let alone the desire, to organize against encroachments on faculty governance or to agitate for a more equitable workplace.(9)

What I have described is an indirect effect on faculty governance of interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity; a more direct example inheres in the creation of funding mechanisms for clusters of faculty across disciplines.

In theory, collaboration between colleagues and departments is a good thing. However, such initiatives can also be a method to bypass departments for the determination of hiring priorities.

In 2016, as part of the Bicentennial Strategic Plan, the university announced the Emerging Areas of Research initiative, which would award about six multi-disciplinary projects upwards of $3 million.

The grants were to demonstrate the university’s commitment to investing in those familiar buzzwords, “innovation” and “excellence” in research. Each grant also enabled the research clusters to hire 1-3 tenure track faculty.

As a department chair, I was astounded to learn that several research clusters had proposed faculty hires in my department without first consulting with our elected Executive Committee or me. Hiring priorities are typically generated in departments on the basis of discussions to determine field needs, a protocol which the Emerging Areas of Research ignored.

“Qualified” Without Credentials

Lesson number two: Pay attention and participate in the appointment of administrators to head these new units. Many large institutions hire headhunting firms to produce a slate of “qualified” candidates for upper administrative posts. For professional schools, that slate is likely to contain candidates from outside academia, who do not have PhDs or any experience of academic institutions.

University presidents and provosts seem enamored by finalists who hail from inside the DC Beltway. Lawyers and former government officials increasingly comprise the ranks of upper administration. I have been astonished that the administrators with JDs (Juris Doctor — ed.) often seem careless with procedure or devise ways to circumvent it in order to achieve their desired outcomes.

Administrators who arrive on campus with Washington experience on their resumes can be disdainful of faculty expertise. Such disdain is particularly alarming among those who oversee tenure and promotion committees even though they themselves do not have doctoral degrees. They seem to distrust the collegial goodwill and judgment of the faculty they oversee, believing they have a better sense of curricular matters and hiring decisions.

As in the upper reaches of the former Trump Administration, expertise has become a liability. Those qualifications that would seem essential in a university administrator — namely, an advanced degree and experience in academia — now appear to be disqualifications. I have yet to see someone removed from upper administration as a result of a poor review, or a university president or a provost admit that academic restructuring was a mistake.

An Action Program

In light of these grim realities, I want to make five suggestions for enhancing faculty governance.

First, when faculty challenge initiatives, we are often told that resistance is futile and the train has left the station. Our responses are often too belated: we are running down the platform, chasing a train that has left us far behind.

More of us need to be vigilant and willing to become active earlier in the process even if that means cutting into our research time and creative activity. We can’t always expect the same small number of colleagues to organize around issues; more of us should enter the fray.

Second, we need to create alternative networks committed to faculty governance and institutional equity across campus.

As both Cherniavsky and Ben Robinson argue in their contributions to this issue, the older model of governance through committee discussion is ineffective; we need independent bodies to advocate for the interests of faculty and our academic missions.

Local chapters of the American Association of University Professors can provide an independent framework for organizing around campus-specific issues, with the added benefit to the membership of being able to draw on the experience and expertise of staff in the national AAUP office.

The creation of a local chapter or some other group outside the official governance structure of the university means getting to know colleagues in other departments and having an infrastructure in place to mobilize faculty around specific issues. (Listservs are essential organizing tools.)

Third, we should reclaim our faculty senate or similar governing body. This body has been officially sanctioned to function as our representative, but all too often becomes the place to park ineffective colleagues who seem to have the time to attend endless meetings and engage in pointless discussions.

We need to elect competent colleagues to our senates so they can set agendas in the interests of our academic mission and a more equitable institution.

Fourth, we should subject vision statements and strategic plans generated from the top to peer review. Here I am taking my cue from Amitabha Bose, the former president of the faculty senate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who responded to a 2014 university strategic vision plan which bore little resemblance to the initial one created by the faculty. (Full disclosure: Amitabha is my brother.)

He sent the plan to 16 colleagues in different departments across campus, asking them to write a reader’s report on it. The senate president then presented the provost with the list of reviewers (all highly respected on campus) and their reports, which were submitted anonymously. Taking these reviews into consideration, the provost revised the strategic plan, which the senate as a whole abstained from approving because of the provost’s earlier violation of procedure.(10)

While the university did implement the revised plan, the provost was put on notice that he must consult substantively with the faculty, and that they must have considerable say in academic matters.

And fifth, we should agitate to have faculty representation on Boards of Trustees, which are generally composed of political appointees drawn from the corporate world.

These governing boards typically also include student and alumni representatives, but no faculty members.

It is a strange irony, and yet another example of the expertise liability, that the boards overseeing institutions of higher education noticeably lack members with graduate degrees or concrete experience with the challenges facing universities today. (Fewer than 10% of trustees on these boards have any professional experience in higher education.)(11)

Faculty are thus doubly cursed by (in)competence. Academic expertise renders faculty unfit to serve on governing boards, while the lack of such expertise among board members makes governance less competent.

Most faculty know that we do not have the expertise to run a corporation. Robert A. Scott points out that “It is hard to imagine a Wall Street firm or a Silicon Valley company declaring that 90 percent of its directors have no experience in the core activities of the enterprise.”(12)

Why then should business executives feel they know how to oversee a university?

Notes

    1. My thanks to Keera Allendorf, Jeffrey L. Gould, Ethan Michelson, and Scott O’Bryan for comments on drafts of this article. I take full responsibility for its contents.

    2. “Structures of Feeling,” Oxford Reference, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100538488

    3. Lee Gardner, “’Demanding Times for System Heads’: Political Interference is Making one of Higher Ed’s Jobs Even Tougher,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 21, 2022. https://www.chronicle.com/article/demanding-times-for-system-heads

    4. Jessica Bryant, “How Many Americans Have a College Degree?” July 1, 2021; updated November 11, 2021. https://www.bestcolleges.com/news/analysis/2021/07/01/how-many-americans-have-college-degrees/

    5. For more on the historic relationship of capitalism and academia, see Christopher Newfield’s Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University 1880-1980 (Durham & London: Duke UP, 2003), Marshall Sahlin’s “The Conflicts of the Faculty” (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 4 [Summer 2009]: 997-1017), David Shumway’s “Disciplinarity, Corporatization, and the Crisis: A Dystopian Narrative” (Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 32, No. 2/3 [Winter-Spring 1999]: 2-18, and Henry Steck’s “Corporatization of the University: Seeking Conceptual Clarity” (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 585 [January 2003]: 66-83.

    6. Steck, “Corporatization of the University,” 75. For a more recent analysis of the rise of administrators at universities, see David Graeber’s “Why are Bullshit Jobs Proliferating?” Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018): 145-192.

    7. “Investing in Excellence: The Importance of Strategy and Flexibility,” The Final Report of the New Academic Directions Committee of Indiana University, March 21, 2011: 3. Please Note: Committee Members are listed on page 42 of the report. https://institutionalmemory.iu.edu/aim/bitstream/handle/10333/3344/new-academic-directions-final-report.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

    8. “Investing in Excellence,” 31.

    9. Purnima Bose, “Inside the Corporate University: Problems of Faculty Activism,” Against the Current, (July/August 2013): 11-12.

    10. See NJIT Faculty Senate Minutes, Agenda Item 6, October 22, 2014, https://www5.njit.edu/facultysenate/sites/facultysenate/files/lcms/docs/2014/10-22-14-FS-minutes-final.pdf and the NJIT Faculty Senate Minutes, Agenda Item 7, December 11, 2014, https://www5.njit.edu/facultysenate/sites/facultysenate/files/lcms/docs/2014/12-11-14-FS-minutes-final.pdf

    11. Robert A. Scott, “Leadership Threats to Shared Governance in Higher Education,” AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, Vol. 11 (2020): 2. https://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/Robert-Scott.pdf

    12. Scott, “Leadership Threats,” 2.

    July-August 2022, ATC 219

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