PASSHE Secession Legislation Leads Down Exploitation Road: A Historical Perspective on University Governance

Photo credit: Derek Bridges |Flickr

Editor’s Note: Raging Chicken Press received this submission from a faculty member at West Chester University yesterday. Because the faculty member is “untenured,” we were asked to publish it under the name ““untenured and deeply concerned faculty member.” While we generally want to attribute all authorship and encourage people to seek “safety in the public light” – that is, to publicly claim rights of free speech –  and in this case of academic freedom and union solidarity – we also recognize the very real consequences for individuals who choose to speak up – especially when they are in more insecure employment situations. In this case, we felt that this piece certainly advances the story about Tomlinson and Dinniman’s secession legislation and we wanted to respect the author’s real concerns about retaliation. 

When university administrators and senators address faculty, staff, students, and the working people of PA in general, assuring us that we are all in this together and that legislation such as Senate Bill 1275 (PASSHE Secession legislation) represents genuine efforts to ensure that we can remain economically viable into the future, should they be believed? A historical investigation into the origins of the American university system’s governance structure offers some enlightening insights.

Dating back to the colonial era the power and control of colleges were vested in a non-resident and non-academic board of trustees and their resident representative, the college president. According to John Brubacher and Willis Rudy in their book on the history of American higher education,

all…American colleges and universities…ultimately followed the same characteristic form of college government. This involved government by corporate boards of nonresident trustees and by resident administrative officials known as presidents.

Expanding on this context they note that,

since American college boards of trustees were non-residential, they were obliged to delegate a large part of their power over the immediate problems of academic administration to college presidents, who thus came to possess important continuing authority…[Consequently] to some foreign observers the American college president’s powers have seemed too autocratic.”

Similarly, in The Shaping of American Higher Education, Arthur Cohen and Carrie Kisker  note that as American capitalism continued to develop after the American revolutionary war and exercised growing influence over higher education,

the president increasingly came to be seen as the representative of the trustees, less as a member of the faculty. Many presidents continued teaching, but more devoted most of their time to fundraising and community relations.

Over time, as professors gained a significant degree of control over curriculum and the hiring of colleagues, they never gained power over the appropriation of funds or the management of the institution. Consequently, “from the professors’ point of view the president was the spokesman and representative of the board of governors, not the leader of the faculty.” 

Reflecting this capitalist relationship between a profit-driven CEO or president and the workers or professoriate was the degree of exploitation that existed well into the nineteenth century. Consider this statement from Cohen and Kisker:

One of the aspects of the professoriate that retarded its professionalization was [the] exploitation in the name of a higher calling…As long as the supply was greater than the demand, and as long as their were no contracts to enforce payment of a living wage, the colleges lived on the backs of their staff members.

Campus Equity Week ButtonWith the rise of adjunct or contingent faculty in the contemporary era it is clear that the university is once again living off of the backs of professors (and students). Our APSCUF contract protects us from this tendency. The business model for higher education, to be sure, has in no way retreated, but has steadily grown and developed with capitalism more generally. According to Cohen and Kisker, in the years leading up to WWII, for example, “the trustees became corporate directors responsible for institutional maintenance; and the administrators became business managers” leading to “governing boards” shifting “as businessmen were appointed in greater numbers.” 

The power and nature of the modern university president would solidify tending toward certain critical characteristics outlined by Cohen and Kisker:

They tended to be pragmatists, empire builders, fundraisers, and experts at public relations. Although on ceremonial occasions they espoused individualism, academic freedom, and noble virtues, they were more likely to value those policies that brought prestige and, above all, income to the institution.

As a result, “the vision of faculty and students meeting with the president to discuss academic affairs fell into the realm of nostalgia.”  In the neoliberal era these tendencies have intensified suggesting that administrative public discourse, in general, serves a propaganda function.

Again, this analysis points to fact that the university president does not represent the interests of faculty and staff, or students, but the Council of Trustees, and their corporate friends.

It is no wonder that Senate Bill 1275 provides the Council of Trustees of “transfer institutions” increasing power and control, and thus greater flexibility, as a result of moving from being “state-owned” to “state-related.” It is clear that going state-related would not increase the independence and flexibility of faculty, but it would increase the power of the Council of Trustees, whose economic interests to increase profit margins are in direct contradiction to the interests of faculty and staff whose unions stand as a major barrier to higher rates of return.

If the nightmare comes true and Senate Bill 1275 passes, and the Council of Trustees at eligible PASSHE schools decide to go state-related, we can expect at those institutions the current CBA-enforced 25% rule concerning the proportion of adjuncts will be permanently eliminated. This, undoubtedly, will lead to a proportion of adjuncts that more closely reflects the national average (between 40% and 60%) driving down the cost of professor labor at those universities. We can also expect a major increase in student tuition, moving further away from the worlds’ norm for modern, civilized nations that provide free higher education to its citizens. In effect, an affordable high quality public higher education will fade into the past despite the lofty rhetoric coming from the other side of the table. If 1275 passes, will WCU’s Council of Trustees, for instance, decide to go state related? Knowing that one of WCU’s Council of Trustees, Senator Tomlinson, co-authored the Bill, should be a clear indication of what to expect.

The people of PA must let their government know that this Bill, in any form, under any name, should never be voted into law.

Featured Image Credit: Derek Bridges |Flickr


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About Editor, Raging Chicken Press 483 Articles
Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. When he's not rabble-rousing on Raging Chicken, he's teaching rhetoric and writing at Kutztown University.

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