Tag Archives: freedom of speech

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The Challenges of Running a University

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CEOs can more easily act alone. Legislators can assume that applies to all leaders. But college presidents must show more forbearance.

If we thought making a corporation secure in the 21st century was difficult, we should acknowledge that the folks that manage large and small institutions of higher education have it even tougher. Recent and over-covered protests at Columbia, UCLA and elsewhere have added to these administrators’ woes. The job of president at a large university has become almost impossible because the contradictory demands of the stakeholders. There is a widespread misperception that the leadership at most schools can simply enforce policies that they establish. That may be true at Space X or A.T &T, but that is not usually how academic governance works.

The best -run campuses have a governance structure more complex that the standard corporate model of a board and senior management, where a top-down pattern still exists. Corporate rhetoric includes a lot of talk of “teams” and “creative units.” But the gap between academic and corporate governance is huge, except in the exceptions of some religious colleges and, more generally, on issues related to finance and budgeting. The idea of “faculty governance” means less in those cases, but extends to most other functions within a university.

This idea of joint deliberation means that many decisions affecting academic research and teaching programs are made in consultation with faculty and staff. This requires a lot of committees, time, and patience. If it works, the university functions like a big machine with many motors pulling mostly in the same direction. A president typically manages the managers (typically, the provost, various student service units and deans) who help sort all of this out, again, with considerable faculty input.

Robert Hutchins, a widely admired president of the University of Chicago in the 1930s and 40s.

All of this is one reason it was cringeworthy to recently see members of Congress treat college a handful of college presidents with disrespect. The accusation: not taking a definitive action in response to evolving campus protests. They wanted the kind of decisive decisions that only a simpleton would expect from a diverse and more democratic enterprise. In the process, they ignored the values of academic freedom, the fostering of diversity, and a long-standing tradition to make the campus a place of open inquiry. The reductive nature of those questioners was breathtaking, but brutally effective in ending the careers of presidents at Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania.

There is a degree of arrogance in play when a legislator in a “hearing” uses it to abuse a leader trying to juggle the needs of a diverse constituency. Hearings are often opportunities for “show horse” legislators to give angry speeches masquerading as questions. Individuals in big deliberative bodies have little power by themselves, but they can parade their best version of a ruthless interrogator in a committee hearing. In our deteriorating political culture that is frequently enough. And that is what we got when some small-minded McCarthys made accusatory statements to some college presidents about alleged support of antisemitism on their campuses. In the process, Representatives Virginia Foxx and Elise Stefanik in particular ignored the machinery of collective governance that is still in place on most campuses. They wanted to hear about orders that were unilaterally carried out. They wanted to see faculty firings and student dismissals.

The spirit of collegial problem-solving is a frail notion that is easily crushed by such bullies. A person can demand that a student who made racist comments be expelled from a University, but strict enforcement of such a rule would end the careers of more college students than we might think. Intellectual and academic freedom needs a softer touch. CEOs can act alone, and legislators can pretend that all leaders can. But college presidents must demonstrate more forbearance.

Endless Challenges.

As a faculty member I probably showed too little sympathy for our presidents and provosts. But even a cursory glimpse makes it clear that their responsibilities have become tougher. A growing number of students with serious mental health challenges have added a degree of dread in administrative offices. No one wants to call a parent to report that their young person has overdosed or taken their life. In addition, many Americans have soured on the liberal arts, replacing the goal of nurturing intellectual curiosity with an emphasis on “customer service.” Discovery and curiosity have declined as goals that should flourish. Meeting poorly conceived job expectations has partly replaced them. In my college years almost before the discovery of electricity my friends would have been mortified to have our parents call a dean or a President to challenge some aspect of our education. Now, some young adults seem to expect to be parented for most of their lives.

Additional challenges face college leaders today, among them: the decline of public respect for public institutions, the need for more onerous campus policing, and a reluctance in some states to sufficiently fund colleges. One result is the requirement that a president be good at the retail politics of seeking financial support from various constituents. At many institutions they must also raise enough money to support the next class of increasingly scarce first year students.

And then there are campus sports. Participating in a sport can anchor a student. And many presidents lavish praise on their university teams as assets that everyone can rally behind. But I have taught many students whose only reason for being on campus was to play on a varsity team. And because some teams raise money for their institutions, presidents must sometimes function as de-facto managers of sports franchises. Generally speaking, our European cousins have been smarter by keeping American-style professional athletics separate from the life of a campus.

It is increasingly the rare individual who welcomes the challenge of building bridges manage all of the needs of those who feel that a university is their place. There seem to be fewer days when Presidents can focus on leading a great institution engaged in fostering great academic advances. A campus is now the world in miniature, with more of their leaders preoccupied with defusing an endless series of social, political, and economic tensions.

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In Praise of Some (Polite) Hell-Raising

Wall at the Newseum, Washington, D. C.
Front Wall at the Newseum, Washington, D. C.

The First Amendment is the best part of our flawed constitution. It’s also an essential license needed to secure the discussion that every society needs in order to renew itself.

I don’t share the unqualified enthusiasm that others express for the timeless relevance of our Constitution.  It’s enumeration of congressional and presidential powers is badly out of sync with our political times. And as a roadmap for a republic, it retains some of the offenses to the idea of direct democracy that were built in its earlier iterations. For example, Article One enshrines the fact that states like Rhode Island and California will have the same levels of representation in the Senate.  Irrespective of population size, all states get two Senators. But in terms of modern ideas of direct proportionality, California should have at least 35 more members in that body than the lovely but minuscule Ocean State.

In addition, the elaborate checks and balances the founders wanted as a remedies against warring political “factions” have produced just the reverse.  For many reasons gridlock is now structured into the system. The young adults I teach may represent the first American generation to never see the kind of Congressional leadership that was capable of partnering with a President to effectively govern. Examples of impressive Senate leadership–Johnson, Fulbright, Baker, among others–come from the not-so-recent past. Little wonder that for my students the body politic barely has a pulse.

What saves our Constitution is mostly its liberalizing Amendments, with some (The First, Thirteenth and Nineteenth) much better than others (The Second).

One could argue with some oversimplicity that, along with the idea of the national parks, the best idea we have given to ourselves and the world is The First Amendment. Its wording is refreshingly simple and free from a long list of exemptions. The Founders never gave the world a better model for freedom than this short and unambiguous paragraph.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is a good time to celebrate the Amendment, which has most recently given aggrieved citizens in Ferguson Missouri the right to march and be heard. Members of the community knew they had that right, and so far many–though not all–have exercised it reasonably. As in Ferguson, the challenge is to restrain the natural but sometimes misplaced interest by law enforcement officials to rein in crowds with uncertain intentions.

Sometimes the Amendment is used to justify vast and uneven distributions of media power, as in the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United vs. the F.C.C. ruling. The decision essentially the use of money in a campaign as a form of speech. Even constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, who inexplicably likes the ruling, concedes that the court’s obliteration of legal limits on campaign spending will give the wealthy vastly greater access to America’s voters.

I think Abrams is wrong to accept the court’s logic. Who knew the Justices could so blithely misread the Amendment as a franchise to the wealthy to dominate campaigns? So far most corporations have been more or less circumspect about funding the “superpacs” the decision allows.  But we’ll be lucky if our democracy survives the tsunami of campaign cash that will come to favored candidates from trade and ideological groups.

All the more reason, perhaps, to raise a little hell as invited by The First Amendment.  We are free to rally, march, write, publish, blog, carry signs, hold meeting and vigils, criticize, seek out lawmakers, pray and meet with who we please.

Of course, anything like throwing explosives at party-goers should not be a protected. That bit of misplaced hell-raising is part of my family’s lore. Many years ago my uncle supposedly made his way into Denver from the family mine in the nearby mountains to register his frustration over the slight of not being invited to a party.  He scattered the crowd quickly by tossing a lit dynamite starter on to the dance floor at a downtown country club. In his mind he was perhaps just using the tools for the family trade to register his objections.  But “speech” it wasn’t. I’m proud to report that he later redeemed himself as a prodigy geologist at The Colorado School of Mines, moving on just before he died  to help Japan set up its own Bureau of Mines.

But the point remains. The First Amendment is the best instrument for a vigorous civil society in an otherwise flawed constitution. It’s also an essential license needed to secure the right of discussion that every society needs in order to renew itself.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu