Academic freedom and principles of shared governance — in which the university administration and the faculty collaborate on matters of policy and procedure — are increasingly under attack across the United States. In response, faculty nationwide and at the University of Michigan are organizing, working together with organizations such as the American Association of University Professors.
When the Board of Regents of Georgia’s public university system enabled tenured faculty to be dismissed without faculty involvement last October, the AAUP launched an investigation, noted that the policy “effectively abolishes tenure,” and censured the university system. A bill introduced in South Carolina suggests that other states are following suit, leading to opposition from local AAUP chapters.
Meanwhile, efforts to curtail the ability to teach the history of race and systemic racism are spreading across the United States. Firm in its opposition to these policies, the AAUP has brought media attention to the issues and supported local chapters in their efforts to challenge them.
Such responses are sorely needed at U-M, where the weakening of shared governance has contributed to major crises.
Multiple cases of sexual assault have come to light, involving serial predators whose actions were known to administrators for years, even decades, before assault victims themselves had to force the university to a reckoning. The leadership’s insistence on in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic increased risks to instructors, especially for those with severe illness or vulnerable family members.
Individual faculty have been sanctioned for expressing political views; an overdue analysis of pay disparities among faculty has been repeatedly postponed; and certain policies antithetical to diversity and inclusion have been put in place without expert faculty input. In 2020, the Board of Regents approved a measure making it easier for the U-M president to suspend a tenured faculty member’s pay even before a hearing committee comes to a conclusion about guilt.
Under former President Mark Schlissel, the U-M administration has been a cause, enabler or accomplice of these problems in spite of advocacy by a range of U-M stakeholders. By the time the regents terminated Schlissel, many university constituencies had expressed dissatisfaction with him, such as through an unprecedented vote of no confidence in his leadership by the Faculty Senate.
Nationally, this state of affairs has led some faculty to “check out” and leave the running of the university to others. We believe, on the contrary, that now is the time to check in.
Recognizing that at least some of these crises could have been avoided or mitigated had shared governance been a reality, members of the AAUP at U-M Ann Arbor revived the local chapter last August, and efforts are also ongoing at UM-Flint.
In the 1950s, the AAUP played a key role in U-M’s tenure policies: When the university suspended three of its faculty (Chandler Davis, Clement Markert, and Mark Nickerson) wrongfully and without due process, the U-M AAUP chapter protested together with the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and the Senate Assembly. Eventually, a sanction by the national AAUP organization led to the creation of U-M Bylaw 5.09, which requires a hearing by a faculty committee before the university can dismiss faculty.
How does the AAUP differ from U-M’s faculty governance bodies, such as the Senate Assembly and SACUA? We often care about the same things; and collaboration between the groups was the norm, as we hope it will be in the future. The chief difference is that the AAUP chapter exists independently of the university. Even as its membership is drawn from U-M affiliates, its basis is the AAUP organization, not U-M bylaws.
On the one hand, SACUA and the Senate Assembly are guaranteed audiences with U-M leadership; on the other hand, the AAUP has more freedom to challenge the administration when needed. There are also differences in whom the bodies represent. AAUP membership is open to all instructors who teach or conduct research, postdoctoral appointees and graduate students. Faculty Senate membership, decided by Regent Bylaws, excludes lecturers and clinical faculty (but does include librarians, curators, and archivists, which the AAUP does not).
In any case, just as with a healthy democracy, shared governance works better with greater constituent involvement.
Interim President Mary Sue Coleman wrote that she and the regents will prioritize “rebuilding trust” with the university community. We are hopeful for meaningful follow-through. But, if the last few years have taught us anything, it is that enlightened leadership is not a given. If we care about academic freedom and shared faculty governance at U-M, we must advocate for it.
— Kentaro Toyama, Valerie Traub, Leila Kawar, Rob Sulewski, June Howard are officers and members of the recently revived University of Michigan AAUP chapter.
— Faculty Perspective is provided by The University Record as an opportunity for U-M faculty representatives to comment on university issues. Opinions presented are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Record or the University of Michigan. Submissions are coordinated through the Faculty Senate Office.