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Campus Cancel Culture Freakouts Obscure the Power of University Boards

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tags: University of North Carolina, free speech, academic freedom, 1619 Project, colleges and universities, Cancel Culture, Nikole Hannah-Jones



Asheesh Kapur Siddique is an assistant professor in the Department of History at UMass Amherst.

Do American universities lack ideological diversity? Are they bastions of left-wing thought and hostile to conservatives? In early April, the Crimson, the student newspaper of Harvard University, published an article asserting that the university’s conservative faculty are “an endangered species,” which quickly animated establishment concerns about the alleged lack of ideological diversity on American college campuses. But the right is not underrepresented in higher education; in fact, the opposite is true: The modern American university is a right-wing institution. The right’s dominance of academia and its reign over universities is destroying higher education, and the only way to save the American university is for students and professors to take back control of campuses.

Conservatives continually cite statistics suggesting that college professors lean to the left. But those who believe a university's ideological character can be discerned by surveying the political leanings of its faculty betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how universities work. Partisan political preferences have little to do with the production of academic knowledge or the day-to-day workings of the university — including what happens in classrooms. There is no “Democrat” way to teach calculus, nor is there a “Republican” approach to teaching medieval English literature; anyone who has spent time teaching or studying in a university knows that the majority of instruction and scholarship within cannot fit into narrow partisan categories. Moreover, gauging political preferences of employees is an impoverished way of understanding the ideology of an institution. To actually do so, you must look at who runs it — and in the case of the American university, that is no longer the professoriate.

Faculty once had meaningful power within higher educational institutions. In 1915, faculty at American universities organized themselves into the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which championed academic freedom and significant faculty participation in the administration of appointments, peer reviews, and curriculum — a principle that came to be known as “shared governance.” Though it was resisted by administrators and boards of trustees for much of the early 20th century, the shared governance model was cemented within the modern university in the post-World War II era. This was especially apparent in the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, issued jointly by the American Council on Education, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the AAUP, which specified that faculty, administrators, and boards of trustees formed a “community of interest” that should share responsibilities to produce well-governed institutions.

But from the mid-1970s on, as the historian Larry Gerber writes, shared governance was supplanted as the dominant model of university administration as boards of trustees and their allies in the offices of provosts and deans took advantage of public funding cuts to higher education and asserted increasing control over the hiring of the professoriate. They imported business models from the for-profit corporate world that shifted the labor model for teaching and research from tenured and tenure-track faculty to part-time faculty on short-term contracts, who were paid less and excluded from the benefits of the tenure system, particularly the academic freedom that tenure secured by mandating that professors could only be fired for extraordinary circumstances. 

At the same time, Gerber details, the makeup of university boards of trustees became stacked with members from corporate backgrounds who made opposition to academic labor organizing part of the contemporary university's governance model. These boards exercise enormous power: controlling senior administrative appointments, approving faculty hiring, dictating labor policies, and, most importantly, controlling the university’s annual budget and setting tuition and fees. (Case in point: The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees recently declined to appoint Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones to a tenure-track position following conservative outcry over her work on the 1619 project, documenting the history of slavery in the U.S. As one board member told NC Policy Watch, “This is a very political thing. …There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”)

Read entire article at TeenVogue

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