The “drown the bunnies” scandal at Mount St. Mary’s University has opened a debate about the growing role of college and university presidents who come from outside the academy, especially the business world.*
The problem is, only one participant in the debate, Shelly Weiss Storbeck, even raised the issue of governance. As I see it, the challenge facing colleges and universities is not where their presidents come from but how the institution itself is organized and governed. Without faculty governance—or, in Storbeck’s phrasing, “shared governance”—trustees will hire presidents who govern by decree in order to create and reinforce the corporate university. Then, students will be treated as customers, as passive recipients of an increasingly costly (and debt-accumulating) education, and the members of the faculty will be treated as employees, who in a pact with the devil will be paid to teach and conduct research and stay out of the key decisions facing the institution.
A good example of the real problem is James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville. Ramsey is an economist, not a business leader, who taught at five different universities before being hired as president in 2002. But he has presided over an escalating number of scandals that, while they’re not as dramatic as putting a Glock to the heads of underperforming students, run from hiring and protecting top administrators who embezzled or otherwise misused federal funds through refusing to submit conflict-of-interest forms and yet offering university contracts to friends to sponsoring a basketball program that supplied dancers and prostitutes to basketball players and recruits (not to mention throwing a Mexican-themed Halloween party, replete with stereotypical sombreros and mustaches).
Both Mountain St. Mary’s Simon Newman and Ramsey, like many other college and university presidents, became embroiled in such scandals not because they came from outside the academy, but because faculty governance in the new corporate university has been undermined to the point where it barely exists. Increasingly, trustees and academic administrators make the key decisions and everyone else, including the faculty, is supposed to follow along and just do their jobs as corporate employees.
The problem, in other words, is the corporate model. We know it’s an undemocratic way of organizing enterprises in any sector of the economy. And it’s certainly an undemocratic way of governing the academy, where the main goals are critical thinking and creating an environment in which students and faculty can work together to produce a high-quality education.
*According to a 2012 report from the American Council on Education, “the share of presidents whose immediate prior position was outside higher education has increased since 2006, from 13 percent to 20 percent. Much of this growth occurred in the private sector, both nonprofit and for-profit.”