I belong to the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) at Boston University. I have attended meetings in this college where many people have carefully and passionately criticized the university’s plans for the Fall, especially (but not only) the way in which central elements of these plans were put in place with next to no faculty involvement. People are angry and worried, for good reason. Many members of Faculty Council, who come from not just my college, but colleges across the university, are also very concerned; this is clear from the many tough questions they have been asking our university leaders in the last few months.
One of my colleagues in CAS recently asked a few of us an important question: have there been any public objections to the administration’s plans for the Fall from other schools and colleges at BU? It seems, he said, that the letters, petitions, media interviews, articles, etc. have all been coming from or been instigated by people in departments within CAS. He indicated that he is asking this question because if it’s true that all the public expressions of disagreement with the administration are coming from CAS, then this might, at least in part, explain the administration’s hubris and unswerving dedication to their plans. Here is how I answered his question (I am here expanding on the email I sent him):
Yes, CAS has been particularly vocal. We should not pretend otherwise. However, it is important to recognize that in other schools and colleges most or all faculty are not tenured or tenure line. Professors are often on three year or five year contracts. This fact about lack of tenure applies to the College of Fine Arts, the School of Medicine, the School of Public Health, and the College of Communications, for instance (CFA has written a critical letter to the administration, but I haven’t been provided with it because there is a concern about the possible repercussions of making it public; there may well be other such letters). These are all colleges where I’ve heard directly from faculty that they are very worried, and are strongly opposed to the university’s plans, and that they take it that lack of tenure is holding people back from speaking up publicly. (A colleague involved in our recent discussion pointed out that a number of the other colleges are also much smaller than CAS, and are more like large departments, but managed by deans, rather than chairs.)
If I did not have tenure I don’t think I would have done the things I’ve done recently that have involved criticizing BU (writing an open letter, initiating a petition, publishing an article, being interviewed by the media, and writing for this blog). At a time when the university itself has said that lost revenue will lead to people losing their jobs, the personal risks often seem too high for those who don’t have tenure. This clearly makes a huge difference to many people (although it’s worth mentioning in passing that faculty in some other colleges who don’t have tenure are on much higher salaries than those in CAS who do have tenure). This is not to say that there is nobody who does not have tenure that has been brave enough to speak up. We have some good examples of people who don’t have tenure and have still been brave enough to speak up. I’m thinking, in particular, of the several colleagues in the Writing Program who have publicly expressed their views, and, in a couple of cases, made public appearances on NBC News and before the Boston City Council. One also can’t say that possessing tenure guarantees a willingness to speak up when one disagrees with university policies (although it’s important to bear in mind that many people feel helpless to influence policies, a colleague reminds me). In any case, the general incentive structure is clear enough.
Suppose we imagine a version of the university where the tenure system is entrenched in every college to the same (importantly, still incomplete) extent that it is in CAS. I’m a philosophy professor, so I’m drawn to the use of thought experiments like a moth to a flame. Are we entitled to judge that in such a scenario we would see a similar degree of faculty pushback in other colleges that we see in CAS? I think that this is likely, but I can’t be sure. Complex counterfactuals are notoriously difficult to assess. Suppose that my hunch is wrong, and that CAS would still stand out as quite unusual in this respect. What conclusion might we then be entitled to draw? I think we might well conclude that we have encountered (once again) a particularly strong reason to support the humanities: humanities professors and lecturers are particularly well-suited for the task of critically speaking up for moral principles and educational values (including the value of properly respecting and promoting scientific expertise), and for the ongoing relevance and importance of the ideal of faculty governance. This should not come as a surprise.
The ideal of faculty governance is closely tied to the tenure system (or similar guarantees of longterm employment in other countries). A silver lining of our present crisis might be that it demonstrates to us, in a particularly concrete way, how important it is that faculty free speech rights and faculty policy-determining powers be protected, strengthened, and extended. We have seen very clearly that “our” main university publication, BU Today, is not at all interested in representing faculty viewpoints that clash with the public relations story being spun by the university in order to attract student fees. At a time when BU professors are being directed to word their communications to students in ways that smack of PR spin (more on this soon), and when the country is ruled by a leader who cares not a wit for the truth, it is crucial that we all stand up for these crucial aspects of higher education, and our related duties as teachers and researchers. For, as a professor elsewhere recently put it, “Faculty feel… that administrative leaders in general have kind of doubled down on [the] move away from shared governance.”