BY ALEX ZUKAS
In the latest act in a continuing coup against the faculty at National University that started in spring 2020, the interim president and board of trustees just imposed a faculty handbook that defines academic freedom and shared governance in ways that are unrecognizable to AAUP members as it completely hollows out those concepts. With regard to academic freedom the handbook asserts,
“The University supports academic freedom as a right and a responsibility within the academy. As a right, academic freedom ensures the freedom of thought and expression as it applies to the artfulness of teaching, as well as discipline/subject content publication, oral presentation, and extramural activities. Academic freedom as a responsibility include specific, intentional learning-science based strategies and andrological interventions, which will be designed collaboratively across academic stakeholders. While faculty members have the right to choose and use external, third-party materials . . . those material, syllabi and all content must adhere to the design standards as outlined by the president and provost office” (2).
In sum, the handbook gives complete academic freedom to the president and provost and curtails academic freedom of the faculty. What could go wrong? With regard to shared governance, it maintains,
“National University’s model for Shared Governance is one of Participatory Governance . . . Faculty participate in formal governance committees. Including but not limited to the University Senate and the Academic Affairs Council . . . The University Senate is forum for faculty, staff, and administrators’ input on matters of significance to the University . . . Each School will elect three (3) full-time faculty as nominees to the University Senate. The Dean will select one (1) of the three and propose that member to the provost for approval” (12).
Notice how faculty nominations have become rebranded as an “election,” while the dean and provost select the actual member who will represent faculty at the senate but is not directly elected by the school faculty. To call this patronizing and denigrating hardly begins to cover the outrageousness of an arrangement that is nothing more than administrators selecting faculty members (who are supposed to represent the views and opinions of faculty) to a purported shared governance body. It even gives fig leaves a bad name. Selection of faculty to the Academic Affairs Committee (14), which includes members of the faculty, staff, and administration and oversees all academic matters at NU, follows the same condescending and demeaning procedures as the university senate. The only constituents of these faculty senators are the dean and provost. The faculty did not vote for them, and they have no responsibility to represent faculty views and interests since they are not accountable to the faculty.
The handbook is a travesty, developed by a committee of appointed administrators and faculty, vetted by deans, the provost, and the interim president, who could suggest changes. Faculty did not vote to accept the handbook, as had been past practice with the previous faculty policies for twenty-five years. Faculty members were allowed to make suggestions but almost none of them made it into the final version vetted by administrators and the board. So, we can already see how this new “shared governance” system will work: faculty will be canvassed for opinions but the administration will decide the extent of academic freedom for faculty, how faculty get reappointed (or not), and what passes for shared governance. It is a form of institutional despotism that is trying to look benevolent but is transparently not.
The interim president and board of trustees look at National University as a business first and an educational institution second, and they run it like a business: they are the bosses and the hired hands do not talk back or control any aspects of their workplace. The handbook concentrates decision-making power around curriculum and faculty status in the administration. Department chairs are now faculty “supervisors” (see “Human Resource Management” in Appendix 3). This dystopian vision for higher education is a travesty. National University’s faculty policies once cited the AAUP Redbook in its clauses on academic freedom and shared governance. The new faculty handbook takes the deskilling and degradation of the faculty to a new level. Every faculty member I know is demoralized and looking to leave. The strange thing is that the administration and board are so callous and enamored of corporate practices that they don’t understand why faculty are disaffected: aren’t they just employees who are told what to do and accept the tenets of a hierarchical, capitalist workplace where power flows from the top and obedience from below?
The travesty that has happened to National University is also a result of a broken accreditation system. The NU faculty senate and the NU AAUP advocacy chapter filed complaints with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) outlining the violations of shared governance, the breaking of faculty contracts, and the impact on student learning. WASC drew out its investigation of the senate complaint and did not meet its own deadlines for responses. In the end it found the university to be “in technical compliance” and vowed to visit the institution in a year. WASC has yet to respond to the content of the advocacy chapter complaint and is also not adhering to its deadlines for notification and resolution. It looks to many of us that WASC has been subject to regulatory capture by the very institutions, like NU, that it is supposed to oversee. As noted by Michael Itzkowitz in “The Accreditation System Is Broken,”
“The accreditation system is broken. Accreditors regularly approve colleges that have no business operating. Without major changes in the system, they will continue to do so. While the short-term consequences of these unmerited endorsements are bad — particularly for the students who will probably have little to show for their time in college besides a heavy debt load — the long-term consequences could be devastating. Rubber-stamping inferior institutions devalues a college degree and threatens the entire legitimacy of higher education.”
This is a cautionary tale. NU had a robust shared governance structure for over twenty-five years. Under the cover of COVID, the board of trustees broke faculty contracts, fired about 20 percent of the faculty, issued new temporary contracts, abrogated the negotiated faculty policies, unilaterally imposed a new faculty handbook, demoralized the remaining faculty, and have wrecked the curriculum at NU. I suspect that what the faculty at NU experienced is part of a new playbook circulated by the forces that are corporatizing higher education. The AAUP’s report from a little over a year ago, COVID-19 and Academic Governance, highlighted the erosion of shared governance at National University and several other institutions of higher education in the United States. Your institution, like the University of Akron may be next.
Read the full National University faculty handbook approved by the Board of Trustees on July 29, 2022. You can compare all of its articles and provisions to those of the National University faculty policies approved by a vote of the faculty senate (now abolished), the faculty, and the board of trustees in 2018.
Alex Zukas is a retired professor of history at National University and Past President of CA-AAUP.