There is an interesting new book on higher education, William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin, Locus of Authority, in which the authors argue that more authority must be given to presidents and administrators, given the new environment in which universities operate. The argument runs that faculty tend to be “conservative” about change, that is, resistant to it, but that the higher education landscape necessitates changes and flexibility. Hence their proposal. George Leef at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, in North Carolina, reviews the book, and I quote from his review:
What’s wrong with letting those highly educated, devoted people have a major say in how their colleges will operate? However liberal most of them may be politically, when it comes to their jobs, they are very conservative. Those who have succeeded in obtaining faculty positions are not apt to want experimentation or change, unless it means more money, a lower teaching load, or other benefits for them. And that faculty conservatism often becomes a roadblock when change is needed. When it comes to cost controls, say Bowen and Tobin, most faculty members are averse to even talking about them. When revenues decline, they would rather take (the authors here quote Clark Kerr) a “wait for the sun to shine again” approach (Pope Center, October 9, 2015).
I agree in part with the thesis of the book, but I also have reservations. They mainly concern first the motives that may (or may not) drive administrators that conflict with genuine higher education and second, the problem of bureaucratic governance and its tendency at times to “major on minors,” to resort to paper pushing that has little relevance or importance to the central mission of the university, and in the process, to stifle creativity.
First on motives, placing more or most authority in the hands of administrators is a two-edged sword. It does enable change to be enacted more quickly than endless faculty committees, etc. But it also places the full determination of what decisions are made with administrators who may at times have very different ideas about what constitutes a real education. It is possible to ruin a university, objectively speaking, if an administrator decides all programs should be offered on-line or that no general education curriculum is necessary. How do we resolve that tension?
Second, how do we hold administrators accountable for the use of their authority and how to we avoid the problem of bureaucratic decision-making. The only way these problems can be addressed it seems is “constitutionally.” That is, formal checks and balances have to be established that delineate the scope and substance of authority of administrators—I am not addressing trustees here. Some things are simply not within the necessary purview of administrators—leave things alone. If they attempt to usurp authority or claim new kinds of authority, some mechanism must be available to stop that action. Moreover, it is also important that the overall size of a bureaucracy be limited, as well as its authority. Anthony Downs, Gordon Tullock and others have given us ample evidence of what happens in large bureaucratic structures—and “size” here is relative. Information gets distorted, and thus decisiosn are distorted, minor “rules” are magnified into major compulsions, everything can become a matter of mere survival, not thriving, as faculty are buried or harried into obsequious obedience on every small matter that in reality doesn’t matter. Bureaucrats are people too—no less and no more self-interested, even as Christians sometimes, than faculty. In their zeal to “do something” or appear to be “doing something” they may—and if they have too much formal authority, they will-engage in “mission creep.”
So I would prefer some balance of authority, but especially an overall clearly defined set of authorities for both faculty and administrators. And the rule should be, if the “charter” is silent, you cannot do it. If it is silent for both parties, no one can do it. We need the “energy” of the executive to get things done that should be done quickly to respond to changing conditions. But we need “deliberation” for issues that should not be rashly decided. I am borrowing here from the Federalists, Madison, Hamilton and jay, who well-understood these things. Generally, administrators provide the energy, the fast action, while faculty provide the conservatism of deliberation when needed.
How exactly this would look depends both on the particular university and the objective considerations about which powers should rest with executives and which with deliberative bodies. I would recommend on that topic the general political-economic study by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent, 1962. But even more to the point, look to Scripture to be reminded on human nature and the incentives and disincentives that arise in different institutional settings (different rule environments). If we are aware of this common nature we all possess, even as redeemed people, then we are in a better position to design our governance structures better.