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The Edbiz

Alvin G. Burstein

Professor emeritus, University of Tennessee

Professor and Head, Psychology, S. E. Louisiana University (retired)

President, Louisiana Conference, AAUP


On June 9, 2007, the American Association of University Professors voted to censure four New Orleans universities, Loyola, Southern University, the University of New Orleans and Tulane, at the recommendation of the Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The recommendation in turn was based on a lengthy investigation by a special committee, reported in the Association’s journal, Academe (http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/protectrights/academicfreedom/investrep/2007/katrina.htm). The investigation focused on actions taken by the various university administrations in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the subsequent levee failures of 2005, events which devastated the area. The report describes termination and furlough of faculty, including tenured and tenure track faculty, without adequate notice, the termination of academic programs without adequate faculty input and a general disregard for involving faculty in planning and implementing responses to the situation.

Chaos reigned in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe.  Mass evacuations, collapse of communication systems, massive physical damage, lack of access to the sites involved all contributed to an understandable feeling on the part of many administrators that the alternative to panic was strong leadership. One is reminded of Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s assertion of command in the wake of the shooting of President Reagan.

The perceived need to take control overrode longstanding practices of faculty participation in institutional decision-making and of due process in faculty terminations, bulwarks protecting academic freedom. It is for this reason that the AAUP censured the administrations involved. The administrative justification has been that the situation made business as usual impossible, that institutional survival depended upon robust action.

Although clearly some actions, such as announcing delays in beginning classes, had to be taken immediately, that is not so clearly the case with others.  And, what is equally important, there is a backstory that is crucial to understanding the positions taken both by the AAUP and by the censured administrations.

The backstory is evidenced in a decision by Raymond Lamonica, General Counsel for the Louisiana State University System, to announce the furloughing of faculty on the basis of “force majeure” exigency.  “Force majeure” is a term well known in business law as a basis for holding a contract to be non-binding if an act of God renders the contracted acts impossible to perform.  It was invoked by Lamonica to justify terminating the salaries of LSU Health Science Center employees, absent functioning health care facilities and patient fees, but was quickly cited in other settings. 

The concept of force majeure, rooted in the business world, had never before been invoked at a university.  Universities, instead, include in their by-laws, faculty handbooks and the like, procedures for declaring “financial exigency” as a means of coping with a financial crisis.  AAUP’s Policy, Documents and Reports “RedBook” makes explicit recommendations for such procedures.

The critical difference between the force majeure procedures promulgated by the LSU System and financial exigency procedures advocated by AAUP and contained in many university bylaws and faculty handbooks is that the former is a management device imported from the business world in which workers play no role, while the latter specifies a faculty role in deciding when exigency exists and how exigency should be dealt with.

The reliance of New Orleans universities on force majeure rather than financial exigency as a justification for terminating or suspending faculty pay and other highly consequential decisions (e.g., program terminations) reflects a major redefinition of the role of faculty in university decision-making, and, in fact, a major redefinition of the nature and purpose of a university. However, this redefinition, while it is the backstory of the AAUP's censure of the New Orleans campuses, did not begin in the post-Katrina period and is not restricted to Louisiana.

Partly because of our county’s birth in the midst of the Enlightenment, the United States has regarded education as a public good; education, including higher education, has traditionally been supported here by taxes and civic minded philanthropists. The Land Ordinance of 1785, the Land Grant Act of 1862, the GI Bill following World War II and generous overhead allowances in federal research and training grants beginning in the 1950’s all reflect an uncontested statement of the merit of public support for higher education.

The 1970s and following decades saw a challenge to that view. The University of Phoenix constituted an alternative model, a university intended to be run like a business, and, like a business, to earn profits for investors.  Phoenix is now owned by the Apollo Corporation; its stock, traded on the NASDAQ, has strongly outperformed the overall market (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i36/36a04001.htm).  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Phoenix and other for-profit universities now enroll about a million students, with annual enrollment increases predicted of 10-17% for the immediate future (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i18/18a01302.htm ).

For-profit universities see courses as a product designed to meet consumer demand.They  rely on specialization of labor, with course construction, lecturing, sales and management all handled by different specialists. In this model, teachers are seen as piecework laborers hired to deliver course content that is identical in all offerings of the same course. Faculty members play no role in managing the business or in developing the courses they teach.  They play no role in the discovery of new knowledge, seen as irrelevant to the delivery of information discovered by others. Cost control, uniformity of product and profitability are key. It might be regarded as assembly line education.

The situation in traditional, not-for-profit, state-assisted universities aimed at the public good rather than at profit, has been quite different. Faculty were seen as central, responsible both for creating new knowledge and transmitting knowledge.  Because both scholarly work and teaching are central in this model, freedom of inquiry and teaching are deemed worthy of being protected by the tenure system and by the faculty's role in the management of the university, hence AAUP's commitment to shared governance and academic freedom, and hence its censure of New Orleans universities.

Since the 1970s, changes in the political climate have resulted in declining tax support for higher education. For example, The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the percentage of the costs of higher education in public universities covered by federal appropriations fell from 2.6% in 1980 to 1% in 2000; over the same period, the percentage covered by state appropriations fell from 44% to 35.6%  Such changes and the challenge from and example set by for-profit universities has led to increasing financial pressures on higher education and increasing interest in making universities more “businesslike.”  Reactions by Louisiana higher education administrations in the wake of the 2005 storms sharply accelerated that trend by failing to involve faculty in decision making and disregarding the importance of academic tenure. AAUP censure recognizes that those steps accentuated this tendency to make universities more businesslike...and perforce less academic.. that had been gathering force nationally. Academic tenure, for example, has been steadily eroded by an increasing reliance on part time instructors, who now constitute about half of the national faculty workforce.  On the Louisiana campus from which I retired, the administration regarded tenure-track faculty as probationary employees subject to dismissal without cause and without peer involvement. A Google search of “student credit hour production” reveals the degree to which production, as opposed to educational value, is being counted in traditional universities.  In short, universities are becoming more businesslike.

Some might argue that making universities more businesslike has merit. However, there is room for some misgivings as well. For example, some of the current concerns about financial ties between universities and student lenders (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i32/32a00101.htm ), between universities and study abroad programs (http://chronicle.com/news/index.php?id=2864) and between textbook publishers and faculty authors provoke reservations about motivations that are primarily cost and profit oriented. 

However, there is a deeper issue. That issue is the role played by relationships beyond the professor’s reciting facts and citing figures in teaching and learning.  There is no question but that new technologies are adding to the means available for information transfer. But web based courses and piecework instructors hired by the course do not play the same role as guided reading courses, individually supervised research and the “inquiry based teaching” recently  described in the Chronicle of Higher Education  (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i48/48a01601.htm ) In such contexts, and other mentorships, teachers play an inspirational role, attracting students into scholarly careers, and inculcating, by example, values of intellectual rigor and skepticism and the importance of an examined life. Only an intellectually unfettered full time faculty involved in academic work with individual students in ways that include but transcend the classroom can perform this function. This is the faculty role that James Angell, then president of Yale, was thinking of when he defined the purpose of higher education as the unsettling of minds. It is what Cardinal Newman had in mind when defined the goal of a university as cultivation of the intellect for its own sake. It is the role that Robert Hutchins had in mind when he described the university as a community of scholars.

No doubt universities will continue to play a role in credentialing professionals, creating new technology for transfer to industry and, alas, supporting farm teams for professional sports. If universities are also to play the role that Newman and Angell and Hutchins thought important, the faculty must be more than assembly line workers concerned with wages and struggling with a management concerned with costs.  Faculty must be central to the university, with a crucial role in the university’s governance. Academic freedom, buttressed by academic tenure and shared governance, must be protected. That is why AAUP’s defense of academic freedom in Louisiana is so important.