Saturday, June 18, 2011

Which side are you on?



In academia, this old question of labor-management relations has an especially odd twist.

Stanley Fish recounts a recent dispute over the reorganization of Idaho State University from seven to five colleges:
The story is a familiar and dispiriting one: the administration is accused of imposing its will in the face of strong opposition from the faculty, and the faculty is accused by the administration of being obstructionist and standing in the way of needed reforms.
For whom do you work? In almost any other line of work, the answer is clear: A "jeweler or accountant or court clerk" works for the owner of the enterprise, or at least the government agency, that issues her instructions and pays her for services properly rendered. Academia, for good or for ill, operates under no comparable clarity.

I leave to Stanley Fish the task of describing all the details of the Idaho State controversy. The crucial question was whether Idaho State's president has "the authority to try" to reorganize his university and to "live or die by the results," or whether instead he must "receive the faculty’s permission before he exercises his administrative judgment, the judgment for which, one assumes, he was hired?"

The American Association of University Professors and other proponents of shared governance demand much more than consultation. Shared governance rests on the notion of academic expertise. Precisely "because academics are experts in their subjects and in the art of teaching," shared governance assigns to faculty members the responsibility to make "core academic decisions." The question, as Fish poses it, is whether "academic expertise extend[s] to the planning and construction of buildings, the projection of budgets, the intricacies of the legislative process, the presentation of the university to the general public, the interface with industry and the relationship between university organization and budgets?"

The AAUP's report on the Idaho State affair leaves no doubt of that organization's answer: “It is no coincidence that many who seek to reduce higher education to a form of narrowly conceived job training are also in the forefront of efforts to replace shared governance with a corporate style of management.” One presumes that even the most diehard members of the AAUP hope someday to retire on the strength of corporate management, if only at TIAA-CREF and the publicly traded companies whose securities populate TIAA-CREF's mutual funds. I'll leave the solution of that conundrum as an exercise for the reader. This much is clear, though. When it comes to labor-management disputes, in academia as in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.

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