In his book, Higher Education in the Digital Age, William Bowen (2013), former President of Princeton, details his thoughts on the future of higher education and the traditions that it must leave behind in order to advance. One of the sets of traditions Bowen asks to leave behind involves faculty rights and shared governance. As now an advocate of online learning (he admits early on that he wasn’t always a fan), he believes that strong leadership is what is needed to make “productivity gains from online education” (p. 63). ‘Productivity’ is the real motivator as to why now he feels so strongly about online learning, and so strongly against traditions such as tenure and shared governance. He wonders if traditional shared governance is “well suited to the digital world” (p. 64). He believes that if “wise decisions” are to be made in areas, “such as teaching methods”, that progress can only occur with the involvement of a “mix of individuals from different parts of the institution” (p. 64). Most notably, he warns, that “there are real dangers in relying on the compartmentalized thinking that too often accompanies decentralized modes of organization to which we have become accustomed” (p. 64).
Every institution feels this strain. There are faculty members who feel that administration has too much control and faculty members have too little say, and there are administrators who feel that faculty sit too long on decisions and are barriers to progress. Somewhere in the middle of all this finger pointing, every individual across the institution must recognize that it is not about us, it is about the students. What do they want and what do they need? Asking these questions allows these age-old arguments to progress closer to a solution.
Bowen does not argue for an end to all faculty involvement. Instead, he questions the level of involvement of all parties for the sake of productivity. He calls the world we live a complex age, and the world we used to live a “less complex age” (p. 65). This is when decisions were made about curriculum, governance and welfare. While he states that there is a “self-evident need for consultation with those who are expert in their disciplines and experienced in teaching”, he does not agree that faculty should be able to “veto power over change” (p. 65). Secondly, and especially in this digital and complex age, he signals a limit to freedom of expression. One wise quote, in particular, that should be valued by all is, “if academic freedom is construed to mean that faculty can do anything they choose, it becomes both meaningless and indefensible” (pp. 65-66).
I offer another solution to the dilemma that Bowen posits. What if faculty and administrative roles evolved? What should they look like in this digital age? Would such an evolution put an end the finger-pointing that stands in the way of institutions best servicing their students. In fact, while Bowen does not point directly to this suggestion, it is in line with his final plea, “the adoption of a portfolio approach to curricular development that provides a carefully calibrated mix of instructional styles” (p. 68).
Bowen, William G. Higher education in the digital age. Princeton University Press, 2013.