Caleb’s Corner: Dual governance is dead, and it’s the faculty’s fault

Caleb Headshot Xander Opiyo/THE REVIEW
Editor in Chief Caleb Owens.

BY
Editor in Chief

My editorship is waning, we had a page to fill last-minute and there’s still one large group of people that I haven’t used this column to piss off. So here goes nothing:

There is a longstanding delusion in higher education, tracing to some of the earliest universities of the late Middle Ages, that faculty play some role in governing university affairs. The modern manifestation of this delusion can be seen monthly, usually in Gore 104, when the Faculty Senate convenes for its monthly showcase of drool-inducing pedantry.

The principle behind the Faculty Senate, as many faculty senators will proudly inform you, is dual governance. The idea that administrators, especially today, ought to be subject to certain checks and balances. That faculty are entitled to a say in directing university operations, and that certain administrative actions should not proceed without formal deliberation among faculty.

Sounds good. In 2019, as administrators at research universities like our own wield unprecedented levels of power and money, often demonstrating an inability to use either very well, some kind of check is required. And, particularly at our own university, where the quasi-democratic student representative body is both limited in power and displays regular incompetence, the Faculty Senate would seem to be the final bastion of semi-popular sovereignty preventing the Board of Trustees and Assanis administration from world domination.

(There is, of course, another, less democratically pure notion beneath dual governance — namely the belief that university faculty, dwelling generally in obscure corners of academia, are qualified by virtue of professorship to make decisions on everybody else’s behalf, coming in and out of the cave to rule like Plato’s philosopher kings. There is not, for instance, a “Staff Senate,” a body that would in my judgement do a far better job of actually accomplishing things and making informed decisions — staff, after all, are here five days weekly at the front lines of university policy, unlike faculty, many of whom spend at most three days on campus per week — and a body I am confident the Faculty Senate would scoff at the very mention of.)

But recently, our faculty have indicated that they, too, are unqualified to make decisions for the university. Judging by several recent votes, it appears that the Faculty Senate is interested not in serving as a check on administrative overreach, but rather as the administration’s subservient organ. With three decisions in particular — to pass the graduate college bylaws, to eliminate the history and foreign language major and to raise the Dean’s Lists threshold — the Faculty Senate has proven itself untrustworthy and unable to exercise judgement that accords with the university’s alleged values.

Let’s begin with the graduate college. This idea, as I’ve discussed elsewhere at greater length, is patently idiotic. It will do nothing to benefit undergraduates, will cost more than anything ought to and its details remain a mystery, as I presume they will continue to. There was, admittedly, a heartening degree of preliminary resistance to the plan, but that resistance fizzled out of existence the minute the time came for a vote. A college conceived solely for the enlargement of administrative egos, salaries and resumes will now be with us forever, and the Faculty Senate is at least in part to blame.

I do not know why a strong majority of the supposedly smartest people in the country voted in favor of this bright and shiny contraption, but I have several guesses. Many faculty are, after all, addicted to the same empty notions of success and prestige as our administrators, who were themselves faculty members once upon a time. Moreover, to faculty already convinced that their modest teaching loads are unacceptable — I invite them to spend one week teaching high school, or just as an adjunct — and that undergraduates are unworthy of a place in their labs and classes, I’m sure the prospect of Assanis’ “graduate city,” with all of its TA’s and lab labor, was met with the same giddy fervor that flickers in administrators’ eyes at the idea’s every mention.

Now for the second, more contemptible vote to eliminate the history and foreign language major. This one was justified by the fact that, for several years, nobody has enrolled in the major, and that the program therefore ought to be destroyed.

This logic and the precedent it sets are beyond perverse — they are plain dangerous, and ought to terrify students and faculty alike. Enrollment in various programs fluctuates with the times. Since the Great Recession, enrollment in humanities programs has declined dramatically, with students opting for degrees that guarantee employment, which, at the moment, are fields like nursing and engineering. But, just over a decade ago, humanities enrollment was at nearly twice its current level, and perhaps on the rise, and this could very well be the case again within the next decade. Surely it will be the case sometime in the next 275 years, the timeline for the university that keeps getting put forth publicly.

(One of the majors swept away by this, it’s worth noting, is Classics. Francis Alison is rolling in his grave.)

Should we be eliminating programs simply because, over a brief several-year period, they are unpopular? Should we, as Delaware’s principal large(ish), well-financed state university, be eliminating intellectual options for current and future students? And what’s next? Not to give anyone any ideas, but one of my majors — philosophy — typically graduates no more than 15 majors per year. Should we therefore begin thinking about eliminating the philosophy major? The department? This would be the death of the university, the point at which it could no longer justify itself as a place for education, higher or lower, and it feels disturbingly possible.

And, although the humanities are currently suffering, we could very well (in the next decade or two) be nearing a point of market saturation in fields like engineering and nursing, and these programs could conceivably witness their own sharp drops in enrollment. I invite engineering and nursing professors to ponder these prospects.

And lastly, the raised Dean’s List requirement. I happen to agree with this, though not at all for the reasons cited by faculty senators. Drawing on a favorite line of administrators, the increase was justified as a way to catch up with so-called “comparator institutions.”

And this is certainly not the first mention of “comparator institutions” in the Faculty Senate. Like the administration and Board, often incapable of introspection and intent on plagiarizing other universities, the Faculty Senate does not appear interested in focusing on our university — its resources, its advantages, its culture and tradition. Instead, it looks to hardly comparable comparators, like the University of Michigan (I think most students would laugh quite hard at this comparison), engaging in the same hopeless, uncreative fantasies I’ve grown so weary of hearing out of Hullihen.

When the Faculty Senate does get fired up, it is only after affronts to its precious dignity. Take last year’s non-discrimination policy fiasco. Never before have I witnessed so much fuss simply in the interest of affirming the right to look at an administrative policy before having it signed into action. (This is, of course, important, and was in clear violation of the recently signed Collective Bargaining Agreement, but I stand by the point nonetheless.) What the Senate desires is nominal recognition of its authority, only so that it can subsequently do whatever the administration requests.

A university is supposed to value the growth of knowledge and education in itself, irrespective of a given discipline’s market value at a given moment. A university is supposed to figure out how it, not its competitors, can best provide education and opportunity for its students. A university is supposed to see past the fantastical intoxications of money and prestige. These are the very values that something like a faculty senate is supposed to protect from the insatiable, prestige-driven appetites of administrators. But, at present, our faculty and administrators seem to be in synch, and yet another of our few remaining representative institutions appears to have fallen.

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