Thursday, June 28, 2012

UVa Aftermath: Founding of a New Republic?

The Chronicle has a pretty good story about one of the major effects the Teresa Sullivan affair has had on the UVa campus: the sudden awareness of the power of the faculty:

UVa's Faculty Leaders Gain New Power After President Is Reinstated

The only thing I would quibble with here is the word "new". In point of fact, the "newfound" power which the UVa faculty new finds itself wielding was there all along. Despite administrators' and boards' occasional protests to the contrary, the faculty really are the university - as I wrote yesterday:
[I]n the end, the faculty win, because administrations don't educate students - faculty do.
I say this as an academic administrator who has spent most of his adult life as a faculty member. Unionized or not, tenured or not, faculty are tremendously powerful on any campus, because they produce the primary "good" for which people are willing to pay money.

This is not to say that other things that universities do - research, community service, "co-curricular" programming - are not important. But none of those enterprises could sustain themselves on the basic market principle of people being willing to pay for them. Some research could come close on the basis of grants, but research usually demands a steady supply of student workers - and what brings the students there? The promise of being educated.

So why do faculty so often feel powerless? Because power is not a commodity that you are simply handed, as someone might deposit money in your bank account. Power (that is, influence over outcomes) comes about only through action. Abilities, capabilities, leverage - these are all simply the antecedents to power. If you actually want to have an impact on the outcomes that matter to you, you have to use these things.

So why don't faculty use their leverage more often and more effectively? For two reasons. First, because it is difficult for any large group to use its leverage collectively. It's particularly hard for faculty - the problem my friend Steve Saideman referred to recently as "herding cats, dogs and birds" - because academic training is fundamentally about dissent and argument, not about consensus-building and agreement. The challenge for any polity is how to discern "the will of the people"; the challenge for faculty is how to do so in the face of an essentially argumentative and individualist culture.

The second reason rests in the psychology of perception. Simply put, faculty act powerless because they think they are. The visible symbols of "being in charge" rest in the hands of the administration - begin the spokesperson for the university, chairing or running important bodies, talking to important people. It's the same dynamic that makes people think that the President of the United States is far more powerful than Congress - because he looks more powerful. Many administrations play on this, and send subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages that they are "in charge" and the faculty are "merely employees". A great many faculty internalize this message, and it shapes what they are willing to do or to try.

At UVa, the firing of Teresa Sullivan blew both of these obstacles aside. The faculty had an immediate and obvious common interest - no need for lengthy debates and deliberations to determine what they wanted, it was obvious from the beginning. And the immediacy and severity of the crisis shattered the inertia of perception, and demanded that faculty do something. As the president of UVa's Faculty Senate put it, "We didn't know we could do all this." Usually, that's enough to keep a faculty body from trying. The nature of the crisis demanded that they try anyway, even as they expected to fail.

In this case, the Chronicle article has gotten the lesson about right: faculty are a lot more powerful than they think they are. That doesn't mean that they can win every battle or control every outcome - power is not absolute in any situation. And it doesn't remove the difficulty of organizing around common interests and agreeing on what they want. But it may be that the UVa case will teach some faculty to stop thinking of themselves as powerless. At least at UVa itself, they have now learned their lesson well - hopefully they can use it to build a stronger, better university.

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