What would your university look like if you could just say, “no?”

This is the Fourth post in a sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

Sometime towards the end of graduate school, I got it into my head that students should be able to veto tuition hikes. It’s pretty widely known that university tuition in the United States, at both public and private universities has increased far faster than inflation or wages over the last few decades . So, as a graduate student, I and a few of my colleagues had done some research into our own particular situation and found, as you might expect, that tuition had gone up a lot. Our college’s budget in 2013 included a 4.5 percent tuition increase, raising the cost per credit hour to $1,344. One comparison ultimately stood out to us: in this same year, the Graduate Center at the City University of New York’s tuition per credit hour was $465 for in-state students, and $795 per credit hour for out of state students. Now, of course, we might expect a public university to be more affordable than a private university. But we didn’t have just one year of data. We had credit-hour prices going back to 1915 ($6.00 per credit hour, or $138.94 per credit hour in 2013 dollars, in case you were wondering, all this according to the bureau of labor statistics inflation calculator). With this historical data, and with this nifty inflation calculator, we were able to see that tuition was at or below $500 per credit unit for most of the 1970s and 1980s. Prior to 1967 or so, tuition was well below $400 per credit hour, in 2013 dollars. So, I and my colleagues stumbled into the fact that for most of our private college’s history, tuition was cheaper than it currently is at CUNY, even for an in-state student.

Now, there are lots of clever ways to explain the rise in price of college tuition, or the drop in wages to be able to afford college tuition. But that was cold comfort to us. We were mad. We had demonstrable proof that our university had been much more affordable for most of its life. And we figured this was a political problem more than a problem of management or accounting. Simply put, we felt that if students could say no, tuition would not have
gone up the way it did. Full stop 1. So we asked for a student veto over the Board of Trustees budget. And at first our trustees heard us out. Feigned interest. Ignored us. And finally, perhaps inevitably, dismissed us out of hand. Still, I want to stand by this political diagnosis. Tuition would not have been where it was if students could say no. We had no power, and were treated as such.

What is more, I don’t think this inability to say no just applies to students. I think this is a faculty problem as well. The university at which I currently work has enriched executives at the expense of students and faculty in fairly dramatic fashion over the last decade. First, in the wake of the 2007/2008 crisis, the university suspended its contribution to faculty retirement accounts for a year. At the time, it was projected that this would make up $7.4 million of a projected $8.9 million shortfall. At the time an executive vice president and chief operating officer of the university said that this was, “the most equitable and least bad of the options” that the university had. Five years later, on January 2, 2014, the University paid its former president $4.9 million, $4.1 million in deferred compensation and $811,000 for untaken sabbatical. Moreover, the compensation agreement with this president seemed to have been signed shortly after the university stopped paying into faculty retirement accounts. While the University has since revised it’s compensation policies as well as added faculty to the compensation committee, a few weeks ago the faculty senate passed a resolution of “broken trust” with the university administration.

What, then, do we make of this? These are admittedly extreme and particular examples. Yet, I suppose without too much imagining, we could all come up with a number of ways universities would be different if students and faculty had vetoes over spending. Would we pay football coaches as much as we do? Or university presidents, for that matter ? Would we have had the decline in tenure track faculty and the rise of adjuncts ? Would we have a debt-financed, unsustainable tuition model? Students and faculty, the heart and soul of the university, generally have no say over how much money the university demands for an education, or the basic policies of hiring and firing the administration.

I suspect we could wax lyrical about the routinization of charisma, the growth of the bureaucracy, audit culture, and so on. But this has all been said, by folks more competent than I. What I want to illustrate, though, is one way in which this sort of power structure gets perpetuated and identify a potential place where we could change things. I want to look at university accreditation. Specifically I want to look at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ (NEASC)Commission of Institutions of Higher Education (CIHEuniversity accreditation standards, as effective July 1, 2016. These are the accreditation standards that apply to my current employer as well as most other universities in the region.

Who and What are these People?

In the United States university accreditation happens via independent organizations that are self-organized by the universities seeking accreditation. They are not government agencies. Each state has its own separate process for the founding of universities as corporate entities, with all the tax and property benefits that goes with incorporation, that, insofar as I understand things, has little to do with accreditation. In the NEASC’s own words, from the preamble to its accreditation standards:

NEASC is a voluntary, non-profit, self-governing organization having as its primary purpose the accreditation of educational institutions. Through its evaluation activities the Commission provides public assurance about the educational quality of degree-granting institutions that seek or wish to maintain accreditation.

Institutions of higher learning achieve accreditation from CIHE by demonstrating they meet the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation and comply with its policies.

Indeed the public as well was invited to participate in this process in recognition of the importance of higher education to the individual and  collective well being of our citizenry and for our economy. Thus, the Standards represent the accrued wisdom of over 200 colleges and universities and interested others about the essential elements of institutional quality, and they offer a perspective that stresses the public purposes of higher education.

That last paragraph is key. The NEASC claims to carry the “accrued wisdom of over 200 colleges and universities.” Their policies and procedures are portrayed as common sense, and that which is necessary to gain the trust of the public, whoever that is. And so the NEASC goes on, though nine standards (Mission and Purpose; Planning and Evaluation; Organization and Governance; The Academic Program; Students; Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship; Institutional Resources; Educational Effectiveness; Integrity, Transparency, and Public Disclosure). And while there are point after point after point about evaluation,
standards, auditing, and accountability (a veritable recipe for audit culture), the educational standards are notable, too, for a few absences. Despite claiming to emphasize the “public purpose of higher education,” the NEASC remains agnostic as to whether a university need be for- or non-profit (see standard 9.19). Moreover, despite several pretty paeans to academic freedom:

6.12 The institution protects and fosters academic freedom for all faculty regardless of rank or term of appointment.

9.3 The institution is committed to the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. It assures faculty and students the freedom to teach and study, to examine all pertinent data, to question assumptions, and to be guided by the evidence of scholarly research.

the accreditation standards remain silent as to the necessity of tenure, or the violence a reliance on adjunct and part time faculty does to academic freedom and free inquiry (to say nothing about the lives of aspiring scholars, or the intellectual choices debt-burdened students make).

What Do These Accreditors Do?

Now that we have a sense of how the NEASC explains itself and understands the work that it does, we can ask, how does it maintain a political setup that allows trustees to loot professors retirement to give multi-million dollar golden parachutes to administrators, or more prosaically, put current grad-students in the future poor house? Most simply, it prevents us from running our institutions. Remember, faculty and students can’t say no. Boards are responsible for the hiring and firing of the chief executive officer of the institution, future planning, and approving budgeting and financing. Moreover, boards and the power they wield, must be external.

3.4 The board demonstrates sufficient independence to ensure it can act in the institution’s best interest. The board assures representation of the public interest in its composition and reflects the areas of competence needed to fulfill its responsibilities. Two-thirds or more of the board members, including the chair, are free of any personal or immediate familial financial interest in the institution, including as employee, stockholder or shareholder, corporate director, or contractor.

So, first off, some kind of independence from day to day governance is necessary so that we might, “assure representation of the public interest.” Put another way, have you seen the faculty and the students? You can’t trust the inmates to run the asylum, now can you? This reasoning is patronizing, in the common sense as well as the etymological sense. Universities need patrons. We need aristocrats. We need statesmen and philanthropists. How else are you going to assure representation of the “public” interest and keep things free of conflicts of interest? We can trust you to run your little classes, and lead your little research projects, but leave the money and the job stuff to us. We know better. This insistence on this type of outside leadership starts to explain the board composition
I’ve seen across a number of institutions.

My own graduate university is a great example of what this sort of board looks like in practice. There are 24 members, 7 MBAs, 7 JDs, and only 2 PhDs. The PhDs, too, are in finance and biochemistry and molecular biophysics and are held by individuals whose careers happened largely outside of the university. In terms of occupations, there are 4 lawyers and judges, 2 journalists, a few entrepreneurs, real estate investors, one school administrator, and one physician. But, of course, the majority work in finance–just about half of the board. MBAs, JDs, and careers in finance make up the bulk of the trustees of the University. There are no university-housed, practicing-academics serving on the board of a major research University. And of course, this is ideal at least from the point of view of accreditation.

Students get even shorter shrift:

3.16 The system of governance makes provisions for consideration of student views and judgments in those matters in which students have a direct and reasonable

We clearly didn’t have “direct or reasonable interest” in setting the level of tuition or in university budgeting. Oh well.

I suspect this may all seem an odd thing to get worked up about. I’m sure most students have no awareness of accreditation standards and the like. I’m also sure that a committed faculty member could all but ignore accreditation, save for periodic pro forma reviews and audits, and the odd syllabus proviso about credit hours and the like. Yet accreditation and the academic institution that it valorizes strangles our politics as students and faculty. What is more, we can’t leave and start our own universities, governed by our own lights. If you want accreditation, that is, to be a real university in the eyes of the “public,” you need to accept outside governance for accreditation. Practically, this has meant that we must accept the reign of the business people, the adjunctification of the academy, and the death by debt of our students.

Much of my research has to do with financiers. I conduct a lot of interviews. In the course of my student activism, I often had sense of deja vu. I was hearing similar sorts of explanations for why tuition was the way it was, the necessity for marketing the university brand, and so on, to those that I was hearing justifying a leveraged buyout of an investment company. Perhaps the master’s tools will never do damage to the university we all work in, and this fixation on accreditation is just a distraction from a larger exodus that we might need to consider. Still, it seems like it should be easier for us to leave a university that doesn’t keep with out values and start our own. Just imagine: only full-time faculty positions, reasonable or no tuition, and all on the backs of adjunct-presidents and -football coaches.

  1.  Yes, perhaps this is naive and optimistic. People act against parts of their own interest all the time. Divide and rule is real. When organizing for a graduate student union, there were plenty of departments who felt like they did just fine without collective bargaining thank-you-very-much. You should really suffer for that Anthro PhD…In any event, just go with me on this to develop the idea.