“I’ve got to get my feet back on the ground.”

9 07 2012

Looks like I have a newer, new hero now: Leslie M-B from the Clutter Museum, who just kills it in an epic post that you should read in its entirety right here.* Like she says, she’s untenured and she’s taking on the President of her own university, blogging under her real name. One of those presidential links about the need to change the concept of shared governance today in our ever-changing world is my starting point here:

Historically, the faculty have control of the curriculum, but it is becoming increasingly clear that new mechanisms of shared governance must be invented to assure that decisions are made in a timely fashion that respond to changing student demands and needs. Apparently, the University of Virginia President spent too much time justifying the status quo decision-making apparatus of the University and the Board sought new leadership with an urgency about how the University responds to its environment. Makes sense to me.

Wait a second! I thought universities have survived for centuries without responding to outside demands in a constantly changing environment. Here’s Sebastian Thrun again (via Historiann):

“[T]he world’s first university appeared in Bologna in 1088. “At the time, 350 years before Gutenberg, the lecture was the most effective way to convey information.” Then came the printing press, industrialisation, celluloid, the web. “And miraculously, professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago! The university has been, surprisingly, the least innovative of all places in society.”

Really? The oldest (which are often the best) universities must have been doing something right in order to have survived for so long. Otherwise, our ever-turning world would have swept them away. No, I’m not a conservative. I’m an historian and I think a little historical perspective actually helps here.

Successful universities are designed for the long run. They don’t get distracted by all the latest educational fads because they have a core mission that they’re trying fulfill – Remember education? – and fad following distracts from that core mission. Shared governance exists in part so that faculty can remind administrations and adminstrators about what really matters.

The average tenure of university presidents these days is eight and a half years. Tenured faculty, on the other hand, tend to stay put for much longer. As a result, we’re the ones with the greatest interest in keeping the university’s feet firmly planted on the ground. Thanks to tenure (since we aren’t all as brave as Leslie), we’re the ones who are most likely to actually tell the emperor that they have no clothes.

Yet if lack of clothes were the only problem involved, the emperor could always put a new suit on and the problem would be solved. However, once you drive off the faculty (and perhaps students) by nickel and diming the physical campus to death and turning your institution into an eminently flexible cyber clown college, there’s no going back. The status quo decision making apparatus is designed to prevent that sort of thing from happening, like it seems to have done at the University of Virginia after it got bypassed initially.

The world may be turning, but there’s no reason that higher ed necessarily has to follow every little turn with it. Instability may par for the course in the business world, but I certainly hope that most universities will last a little longer than the latest Internet bubble.

* Yes, she’s very nice to me too, but come on! Read the whole thing and you’ll see why I would recommend it even if I didn’t get mentioned at all.



6 responses

9 07 2012
tom abeles

When I was on the faculty at a graduate university, the president and I were walking down the hall discussing the latest faculty grumblings. He said “when the faculty is ready to run the university, I will be happy to turn it over to them.

9 07 2012
Leslie M-B

Thanks, Jonathan. I think it’s less bravery that drives me than frustration. 🙂 Keep up the good fight!

9 07 2012

Thanks for the heads-up, Jonathan. Are you back in Colorado yet? I’m on my way soon.

9 07 2012

(That was me, Historiann, but my login info got cut off.)

9 07 2012
Jonathan Rees

I’ve got a couple of weeks left in Korea. Shortly thereafter though I’ll but up your way to drop off my kid at Baa Ram U. Look for a note before I leave so that I can introduce you to her.

16 07 2012
“Oh dear, how I wish had wings.” « More or Less Bunk

[…] for professors to cause trouble on campus. After all, we might demand crazy inefficient things like shared governance and other lost relics of a bygone age like tenure, health insurance and a work/life […]

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