At Oberlin, a long tradition of shared governance is ended

The appointment – despite the faculty’s strong objection – of Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska as the new president of the University of Florida in November is only the latest example of a board of governors overstepping the tradition of collegial or bicameral college and university governance that has predominated in North America for more than a century.

Other recent examples of boards of governors or trustees running roughshod over long-standing governance structures have occurred at Oberlin College, located in the leafy Ohio town of Oberlin, and at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta.

Governance of most North American institutions of higher education differs greatly from, for example, France, where university administrators and faculty are civil service employees and where the Minister of Education maintains tight control of the nation’s universities, including such famed schools as La Sorbonne or Sciences Po.

Through the last quarter of the 19th century, as North American colleges and universities, following the lead of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, restructured themselves along the lines of German universities, professors with PhDs came to be seen as professionals with expertise in defined subject areas.

This, in turn, led to a reconceptualisation of colleges and universities as both sites of advanced teaching and of the production of knowledge.

Concomitantly, faculty senates were invested with important functions, including evaluating the academic qualifications of prospective colleagues and their peers (for tenure). Additionally, faculty senates took on the primary role in determining an institution’s curriculum, course offerings and academic standards.

The boards of governors or trustees, the other ‘chamber’ in the bicameral system of college governance, were responsible for setting the budget and, in concert with the faculty senate, choosing the president (and, in some instances, other senior administrators).

The American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, largely written by University of Chicago philosopher and education theorist John Dewey, insisted that while faculty members were appointed by trustees (or their administrative agent), they were not “in any proper sense employees” of the board.

Faculty governance evolved over decades

This independence from the board of trustees is not only one of the bases of academic freedom, it is the foundation stone for the faculty’s self-government and role in the collegial governing of colleges and universities.

According to Larry G Gerber, professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, and author of The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance: Professionalization and the modern American university (2014), the “increasing professionalisation of college and university faculty and their achievement of significant autonomy in regard to academic matters paralleled the increasing professional autonomy being won by lawyers and doctors in the second half of the 19th century”.

“In each case, a recognition of special training and expertise was the basis for professional autonomy and institutional self-governance. The development of faculty governance as an accepted norm for American higher education evolved over many decades,” Gerber added.

“The publication of the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which was jointly formulated by the AAUP, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the American Council on Education, marked the high point in this development.

“However, in recent decades the increasing de-professionalisation of college and university faculty, characterised by the employment of more part-time and contingent faculty members, and the application of corporate models to the governance of higher education, has significantly undermined the traditions of faculty governance.”

A history of progressive firsts

Founded in 1833, Oberlin College has long been one of America’s most progressive institutions of higher education. Four years after its founding, the college became the first American institution of higher learning to admit women.

In order to entice the famed evangelical abolitionist Charles Grandison Finney to come to Oberlin to teach and establish its theology department, Oberlin’s administration agreed to his two demands: that faculty have internal control of the new college and that African Americans be admitted.

Under the so-called ‘Finney Compact’, while the trustees retained ultimate legal authority over all aspects of the college life, in practice they delegated academic affairs to the faculty.

“How Oberlin Works”, a history of the college written in 1991 available on its website, notes that the Finney Compact granted faculty “an advisory role in budgetary and administrative matters”. The history further declared, “At Oberlin, the principle of faculty self-governance has been vigorously upheld.”

According to Gerber: “Oberlin was a bit of an outlier in the first half of the 19th century because few other colleges entrusted faculty members with as much self-government prior to the last decades of the century. Boards of trustees were generally more intrusive in college governance, even in matters of curricula and student discipline.

“To the extent that governing boards delegated authority, it was typically the college president who was the beneficiary of such delegation. Faculty senates with significant authority did not become common until the late 19th or early 20th century.”

A change in the bylaws

This past October, Oberlin’s 187-year-old tradition of shared governance came to an end when the board of trustees voted to change the bylaws, despite strong opposition from faculty (and students). While both the new bylaws and the 1903 version (that codified the Finney Compact) assign management of the internal academic affairs to the faculty, the sentence structure of the new bylaw effectively reverses the logic of the Finney Compact.

Under the compact, the faculty had to “obtain the concurrence of the trustees in order to introduce any important changes affecting the established methods or principles of administration”. Under the new bylaws, the decisions of the divisional faculty bodies are “subject to the guidance and approval of the Board of Trustees”.

In addition to being concerned about the reversal of the logic of the Finney Compact, Classics Professor Kirk Ormand told University World News that “the new language restricts the areas of responsibility of the faculty. We used to be in charge of, or at least we were authorised to speak about, the internal affairs of the college”.

“Now we are told that our areas of responsibility are the curriculum, educational policy, research and the evaluation of our peers for promotion and tenure. That cuts out, as I see it, us having a voice in the operational or strategic direction of the college, as we used to have. These changes are directives to faculty to ‘stay in our lane’.”

Depending on whether the administration and the board view admissions as falling under educational policy, these changes, Ormand continued, could remove the faculty from their traditional role in admissions decisions.

Oberlin’s faculty does not accept the argument Lillie Edwards, vice-chair of the board of trustees and an Oberlin College alumna, advanced for, in their eyes, gutting the Finney Compact.

“We face economic, administrative, regulatory, statutory and even political constraints that were unfamiliar decades ago. In recent years, a lack of clarity in our bylaws regarding institutional governance and delegation of authority has hampered our ability to respond nimbly to extraordinary challenges (like a pandemic) and plan responsibly for the future,” wrote Edwards in The Oberlin Review last September.

Edwards did not respond to my request for the instances she was referencing. When I asked Andrea Simakis, Oberlin’s director of media relations, for examples of when the college was unable to respond ‘nimbly’ (under the older bylaws), she responded that she had “nothing to add to Dr Edwards’ statement”.

The nimbleness argument

Ormand was dismissive of the imputation that the requirement to involve the faculty meant the college could not respond “nimbly”.

“The word ‘nimbly’ began to appear in boards of trustees’ statements about four years ago –before the pandemic. They apparently all went to the same webinar,” said Ormand. “This [the nimble argument] is a kind of a trope: ‘We have to undermine faculty governance because we have to be nimble’.

“In point of fact, over the last five years, the board of trustees has asked our faculty governance system several times to make quick decisions, and we have always responded ably.

“The board says it wishes to be nimble. They promised us 10 years ago that they would do something about our salaries. A year ago, they decided to commission a study of our salaries. Is that nimbleness?” he asked sardonically.

Though Oberlin’s decision to contract with the Catholic-run Bon Secours Mercy Health system to provide on-campus health care occurred before the bylaws were changed, as far as Ormand knows, it was taken without faculty or student input and doesn’t bode well.

Shortly after the contract with Bon Secours Mercy Health, students and faculty made their displeasure known, which, Ormand said, “blindsided the administration”.

The row was because, since Bon Secours Mercy Health follows Catholic teachings, it would not provide birth control, abortion or gender affirming counselling. The uproar forced Oberlin to contract with Family Planning Services of Lorain County to supply these services.

Faculty also fear that Oberlin’s tradition as one of the nation’s most progressive institutions is at risk. Had faculty not been intimately involved in the admissions process in the 1970s, Oberlin would not have adopted the policy that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The faculty is also concerned that lurking behind the words “economic, administrative, regulatory, statutory and even political constraints that were unfamiliar decades ago” is a pro-business ethos hitherto absent from the college.

Ormand worries that now the faculty would be frozen out of decisions, such as one made in 2021 to be carbon neutral by 2025.

“That decision came to the full faculty. We discussed it and we voted on it. The policy that was eventually adopted was created largely by faculty. That sort of decision no longer needs to come to the faculty since it doesn’t fall under educational policy or curriculum.”

Quality at stake

Though the new bylaws state that the faculty is responsible for Oberlin’s academic life, the faculty remain concerned – not so much about the changes leading directly to interference in what the faculty teaches and how it teaches it, two tenets of academic freedom as defined by AAUP and by the US Supreme Court in 1967, but rather, that strategic decisions of the board of trustees might well affect the quality of education at Oberlin if, for example, the college continues to admit larger classes but does not hire more faculty.

Larger class sizes require the faculty to stretch to cover them. Under the new bylaws, Ormand explained, faculty will not be part of those decisions.

The change in the bylaws, Ormand believes, will have the insidious effect of lessening faculty’s investment in Oberlin.

“I used to feel that Oberlin was my institution because I was an essential part of its governance. I now feel like a factory worker producing knowledge widgets.”

Next week: The second in our series on the crisis in governance in North American colleges and universities: What does Ben Sasse actually know about the university? The case of the University of Florida, United States.