Campus Hourglass

March 17, 2004

Who will guard the guardians? This common saying applies to American higher education, where professors and administrators are normally exempt from the scrutiny given to other public institutions. A tradition of academic freedom, flowing from the belief that the faculty’s training in their academic disciplines equips them to decide what to teach, has protected the autonomy of American colleges and universities and helped make them the envy of the world. But the principle of academic freedom can be subject to abuse, particularly in personnel and curricular matters, where personal and ideological agendas can intrude in such a way, ironically, to deny intellectual freedom to others.

In their analysis of the excesses of campus speech codes, Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate have recommended, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." Extremes of political correctness are frequently so indefensible that they cannot withstand negative critical review. For instance, after the University of Virginia attempted to mandate "diversity training," the student-led Individual Rights Coalition demonstrated the incongruity of the university founded by Thomas Jefferson imposing thought control; an embarrassed Virginia administration suspended implementation of the scheme. But while courageous students can expose such hypocrisy, faculty members and administrators interested in subverting academic quality often mask their agenda with educational doublespeak, hoping that phrases such as "education for the 21st century" will reassure students and parents that such programs are academically sound, even desirable.

Fortunately, another avenue exists to ensure transparency and accountability on campus. All universities have boards of trustees, charged with providing students affordable but high-quality education and their instructors with opportunities to carry out the scholarship upon which such education rests. In this sense, trustees’ primary responsibility is to ensure the academic integrity of their institutions. Though traditions of shared governance and academic freedom appropriately grant professors primary control of course content, broad and constructive oversight can prevent pedagogical fads from devaluing an institution’s degree. One recent example came at New Century College, an autonomous unit of George Mason University. New Century was organized around a fuzzy, feel-good theory called Learning Communities, which in its most advanced form envisions a curriculum composed entirely of team-taught, interdisciplinary courses focused either on students’ personal experiences or on content that seemed more tendentious than academic. One New Century course asked students to express their feelings about math; another offering revolved around such questions as, "How do I learn something now?" With a content-empty curriculum threatening to render a George Mason degree meaningless, in 1999 the institution’s Board of Governors properly terminated New Century’s autonomy.

Trustees failing to exercise their authority can have an equally dramatic effect. As former Bucknell and Rochester president George Dennis O’Brien has written, the principal contemporary threat to academic freedom comes from professorial ideologues and the supervisors who refuse to curb them: for all the emphasis on "diversity" on today’s college campuses, the term is more understood programmatically than lexically. A case in point came in 2002 at the University of California, after the English Department scheduled a course designed to teach writing skills entitled, "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," whose description initially stated that conservative students should not enroll. Rather than expressing outrage at the excesses of a professorial ideologue applying a political litmus test to a skills course, the Berkeley faculty senate revised the university’s policy on academic freedom to allow professors to bring their political opinions into the classroom. Then, unlike at George Mason, the trustees went along.

The ideal university structure resembles an hourglass: at one end, trustees articulate broad policy; at the other, faculty focus on academic matters. There are times, however, that trustees need to assert themselves to ensure that ideas flow freely in both directions. At Stony Brook, for instance, the faculty curriculum committee balked after the SUNY Trustees, intending for all graduates to obtain a breadth of knowledge about the United States, mandated that SUNY students complete at least three credits in American History. The committee attempted to fulfill what it termed an "old-fashioned" requirement through a course category with narrow offerings dealing with politically correct topics. When informed criticism of this scheme understandably emerged, committee members considered pushing "our view, despite the threat of SUNY rescinding degrees awarded to our students." Eventually, the campus administration, working cooperatively with the trustees and some local faculty, reached a compromise in which all such courses would incorporate a basic narrative of American History and cover basic institutions of American politics, society, and culture.

Meanwhile, at Brooklyn, the campus administration earned national scorn for regularly seeking to employ on faculty personnel matters a criterion of "collegiality," which the institution peculiarly defined as agreeing with the political or curricular opinions of senior professors. More criticism arrived when administrators advocated transforming the school’s nationally respected Core curriculum into one with courses based on "diversity skills" and modeled on an already existing Brooklyn curricular project that includes assignments such as journal entries "about involvement in social advocacy groups." At the other extreme of such faddish, warmed-over goals came the proposals of the CUNY Board of Trustees and Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, who have worked to end the institution’s "culture of mediocrity" by demanding a more rigorous CUNY curriculum and ordering colleges to emphasize accomplishments in research and teaching in faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion matters. Over the past 18 months, Goldstein and the trustees have intervened as necessary to annul Brooklyn decisions that contradicted CUNY’s policy goals, thus ensuring that CUNY students do, in fact, receive a quality education from an accomplished faculty.

In instances such as at Stony Brook, where large numbers of faculty members virtually abandoned their prerogatives to exercise critical oversight of curriculum, or Brooklyn, where academic administrators either supported questionable faculty initiatives or actively initiated them, every reason exists to believe that, absent sustained and rigorous oversight, problems will recur. In the end, then, though they might be more comfortable in the role of fiscal watchdogs of colleges and universities, trustees must act as academic fiduciaries in the name of the public-and students-whose interests they ultimately serve.

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Schools: University of Virginia George Mason University Stony Brook University University of California, Berkeley