The question of rising costs in higher education is a perennial one. It's certainly interesting at the broadest level - how many other industries can raise their prices 5%-7% per year for decades and claim "rising costs" as the reason? There are lots of arguments about where those costs come from, some of which I've written about before.
So I read with interest this article in the Chronicle listing suggestions for how to bring those costs under control. Much of the discussion is well-reasoned, and there are a lot of good ideas in it. I want to comment on only one of the author's suggestions - because I think he's missing an important variable.
In his list of suggestions for reining in costs and controlling unchecked expansion, the author includes this:
As a committed democrat (small d) who believes in participation, I like his idea about making agendas, minutes, and curricular proposals public so as to get the broadest possible participation. However, there are a couple of reasons that doing so won't have the cost-saving and expansion-checking effect the author wants:
1) In circumstances of mutual accountability, it's very easy for a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" culture to develop. In an environment in which expansion and empire-building is in the individual's interest (from the faculty member who wants a new course in the field he really likes to the chair who wants to grow her resource base), everybody will at some time or another want approval for their new thing. That makes faculty reluctant to veto others' expansion plans, knowing that others may do the same to them tomorrow. I've seen this at all levels, from faculty committees to statewide governing boards between universities. It is a powerful dynamic, not to be ignored.
2) Using technology to get proposals out there assumes that faculty a) care and b) know enough about the broader curriculum and mission to be able to say something sensible. The latter is, as the author points out in other parts of the article, largely not true - faculty often don't understand the curriculum beyond their own small corner of it. Fixing that problem would require a massive public education campaign at any college or university. The author's blithe assertion that "we know how to do this, folks" isn't true for large swaths of faculty.
Even if the faculty can be brought up to speed, getting them to care enough to go read and comment on proposals is likely a Sisyphean task. In my experience, faculty governance tends to end up in the hands of a few faculty in large part because most faculty really aren't interested and can't bring themselves to pay attention to the minutiae necessary. If I say "they don't care", I'll get berated by faculty who insist, "of course we care!" But that "caring" doesn't translate into time or effort - other things (research, teaching, other forms of professional service) tend to take precedence. As the old saying goes, don't pay attention to what people say - look to what they do. Most faculty (beyond governance geeks like me) just don't want to get involved in this stuff.
I think the author's logic is sound - getting faculty on board the project of checking expansion and reigning in what a former provost of mine called "course inflation" is key. I'm just not that optimistic about the success of such an effort, and anybody who tries should at least know what the obstacles are.