/R.I.P The University, b. 1088, d. 2020, of Covid

R.I.P The University, b. 1088, d. 2020, of Covid

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

I just read a very saddening story in the Wall Street Journal: “Hit by Covid-19, Colleges Do the Unthinkable and Cut Tenure.” The headline is a bit deceptive; the real issue is not doing away with tenure, but changing the governance structure of the university to a corporate model, where the administrators run the institution, with the President as CEO, and faculty are at-will employees. The first university as we know it was founded in Bologna, Italy in 1088; the Università di Bologna still exists today, so institutionally it must have something going for it; 2020 – 1088 = 932 years, a little shy of the Roman Empire’s lifespan. But all that is solid melts into air.

I am a child of university professors, and I grew up in university towns; my father got his doctorate thanks to the GI Bill, and as a family we rode the wave of mass higher education in the post-war Golden Age. I’m sure there’s a word for the cognitive bias where institutions like the university assume their ideal types in a child’s mind, and the adult experiences only decline from that high point, but I think in fact that ideal type was as real as an ideal can be. Big budgets and lots of students will do that.

Part of the ideal was stability, of course: A place to live and work. But central to the ideal were teaching and scholarship, two activities few are simultaneously good at, but, for the student, averaging out in the end. Central to teaching and scholarship are, or were, intellectual integrity: The freedom to tell the truth of the work as one sees it, whether of a student or in the library or the field or the lab. (The testing regimes pursued by the suppliers of cladding and insulation for Grenfell Tower were the opposite of all that.)

Freedom to tell the truth was built on the foundation of academic freedom, meaning in practice that the faculty governed itself — including hiring and firing and the curriculum — while the administration took care of the buildings and grounds, much as, in the Congregational Church at least, the minister handled the preaching and counsel, and the Vestry handled the roof and the boiler. (All this was the ideal, of course, and even as a child I knew the real fell far short of the ideal. My father called the office the “orifice,” a joke I didn’t understand until much, much later.) One way of looking at academic freedom is that you get to be a whistleblower all the time, with little consequence outside academic politics[1]. The life of the whistle in the corporate world, where all are slaves to profit, is very different. Again, an ideal, I know.

Which brings me to the Wall Street Journal article. Faced with a financial shortfall caused by Covid, here is what Kenneth Macur, President of Medaille College, did:

Dr. Macur saw what he considered an opportunity: With the approval of the board of trustees, he suspended the faculty handbook by invoking an “act of god” clause embedded in it. He laid off several professors, cut the homeland security and health information management programs, rescinded the lifelong job security of tenure and rewrote the faculty handbook, rules that had governed the school for decades.

In other words, the President of a university became the CEO of an institution we don’t yet have a name for. (A diploma mill?) Putting aside for now castigating the trusting fool who put let that “Act of God” clause slip by, Macur has turned the faculty into employees at will. He’s also taken over control of the curriculum by eliminating entire schools. Macur, in short, eliminated any institutional basis for academic freedom. You will note also that Macur did not cut his own salary, or slash the administration[2].

The Journal goes on:

Dr. Macur and presidents of struggling colleges around the country are reacting to the pandemic by unilaterally cutting programs, firing professors and gutting tenure, all once-unthinkable changes. Schools employed about 150,000 fewer workers in September than they did a year earlier, before the pandemic, according to the Labor Department. That’s a decline of nearly 10%. Along the way, they are changing the centuries-old higher education power structure.

The changes upset the “shared governance” model for running universities that has roots in Medieval Europe. It holds that a board of trustees has final say on how a school is run but largely delegates academic issues to administrators and faculty who share power.

This setup, and the job protection of tenure, promote a need for consensus and deliberation that is one reason why universities often endure for centuries

So much horse-shit. The small pile: The “tough personnel decisons” should be which administrators to fire first, and after that, scholars and teachers (ideally, I would say today, via sortition rather than seniority). The big pile: “react quickly.” Three hundred or so years into its existence, the University of Bologna survived the Black Death. The University of Paris was founded in 1150, and survived, albeit in abeyance, the Revolution of 1789. These medieval institutions survived crises far worse than Covid. “Tough decisions” and “react quickly” are trigger words for smooth-brained MBAs, not analytical categories.

As it has in so many other ways, Covid has accelerated processes already underway:

Today, about 30% of faculty nationwide are tenured or tenure-track, compared with greater than 70% in the 1970s. Tenured professors have been replaced with contingent faculty who often work part-time, cost the university far less, can be easily fired and typically have little or no say in how the school is governed.

In a generation, tenure and tenure-track professors will be reduced to about 10%, and more faculty will have multiyear appointments, predicts Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

Presumably there’s some precedent, somewhere, for a corporate model of the university that performs teaching and scholarship? Hamburger University? Disney University? Defense Acquisition University? Those institutions don’t teach. They train.[3]

* * *

Well, it’s sad. For me, anyhow. Corporate schools with lavish gyms, dorms, and dining facilities, where there’s no scholarship and classes are taught by an ill-paid underclass of over-qualified and precarious curriculum slingers, isn’t my idea of a place to go to hear the truth spoken. The University of Bologna was founded by students who wanted to be educated. Via (sorry) Wikipedia:

The university arose around mutual aid societies (known as universitates scholarium) of foreign students called “nations” (as they were grouped by nationality) for protection against city laws which imposed collective punishment on foreigners for the crimes and debts of their countrymen. ars dictaminis (scrivenery).[15] The lectures were given in informal schools called scholae. In time the various universitates scholarium decided to form a larger association, or Studium—thus, the university. The Studium grew to have a strong position of collective bargaining with the city, since by then it derived significant revenue through visiting foreign students, who would depart if they were not well treated. The foreign students in Bologna received greater rights, and collective punishment was ended. There was also collective bargaining with the scholars who served as professors at the university. By the initiation or threat of a student strike, the students could enforce their demands as to the content of courses and the pay professors would receive.

I don’t see any reason why a similar process couldn’t be initiated once again. Yes, there’s no tenure (tenure as we understand it today was invented in the 1940s) but I’d certainly rather take my chances with student “mutual aid societies” rather than vicious and reprehensible parasites like Macur. Both my parents were much-loved by students, despite being rigorous, so I know its possible.

The article concludes:

[Macur] said he has received about 30 inquiries from leaders at other schools who wanted to better understand his strategy.

I’ll bet. I would imagine, as corporate universities find real scholars and teachers increasingly surplus to requirements, there’ll be plenty of academics looking to do the work in a new way. Perhaps if they encounter today’s form of student mutual aid socities, a spark will be struck.


[1] In this post, I will take as read the convulsions of the 60s and onwards. Obviously, scholarly abilities have nothing to do with ascriptive identity, and to the extent that they are made to seem so, that’s an infringement of academic freedom, not its fulfillment. Yes, the horrors of bad mentors, tenure defenses, academic politics, and so on. Everyone has their own special delusion, as Catullus says.

[2] Macur might also have considered unloading the The Medaille Sports Complex, for which Google says the college is known for. Google also says the college isn’t known for giving value for money. So we’ll see what effect Macur’s actions have on that.

[3] University Board members like training, especially training for firms and lines of business they run, and most especially training that will not cause inventive minds to create competitors for them.

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