The case of the disappearing web page: Shared governance at UCONN



Not so long ago you could ask, “What’s black and white and read all over,” and everyone knew you were referring to a newspaper (well maybe a blushing zebra). Since the growth of the web and especially of social media, that old hacksaw of a riddle doesn’t work so well.

The digitization of news has not only affected the finances of the news media, how the media report information, and where people get their news (more people get the news on-line than from either newspapers or TV). It has also affected the ability of the news media and even university public relations departments to edit their own already published pages – to extirpate from the public record information that they don’t want others to learn.

At the University of Connecticut, there’s a new riddle: “What symbol of the centralization of academe has mysteriously disappeared?” The answer: the UCONN Today webpage announcing that on April 24th the Board of Trustees approved the introduction of 18 majors at four of its regional campuses.

That answer is not as cute as the response to the traditional question, but it does capture a truth: The emerging conditions of university life are eradicating shared governance. Apparently someone in the central administration realized that the provost’s office had sent the proposal to the Board without consulting the 18 departments, the schools’ and colleges’ curriculum committees, and even the Council of Deans. On Thursday, April 25, UCONN Today reported, “UConn’s Board of Trustees has endorsed a proposal to expand the number of undergraduate majors available at its regional campuses, potentially providing students with more flexibility and reducing their paperwork, travel, and delays.” By The evening of Sunday, April 28, the story “was disappeared,” as an incoming officer of the UConn chapter of the American Association of University Professors put it. It had been wiped off the website.

“What is this, Argentina?” a former president of the AAUP asked, when he heard about the “disappeared” webpage. To be sure, the reference to Argentina is a misnomer, although some Peronistas remain there. And American universities are not ruled by authoritarian dictators. However, a century-old tradition of shared governance is at risk.

There are many reasons that the UConn regional campuses have so few majors. First and foremost is that they have so few full-time instructors. As true of the branch campuses of economically pinched universities in other countries, such as Australia, adjuncts teach most of the courses. At UConn’s regional campuses, the full-timers teach three courses a semester, but their most important duty is scheduling courses and recruiting adjuncts. On UConn’s Stamford’s campus, when there are no full-timers in an academic discipline, a long-time staff member fulfills that role. Her activities are crucial, for regional campuses offer required courses in fields where they have no full-timers to supervise the temporary help. (“Temporary” is also a misnomer; some adjuncts professors in residence have taught at a UConn campus for years, as have non-tenurable “professors in residence.”)

One reason for so few full-timers at the regionals is that adjuncts are cheap labor. Another is that the departments on the main Storrs campus do not want to hire them. The late Charles “Skip” Lowe, the beloved long-time head of the psychology department, announced to any meeting that was considering the regional campuses that he did not want to hire another full-timer at the Stamford branch, the largest and most profitable of these campuses. In the UConn system, every professor’s academic tenure resides in the Storrs department no matter where she teaches and the rules mandate that to receive tenure, these regional professors must meet the same requirements as those in place at the main campus. Explaining his refusal, Skip had said, “They don’t get tenure.” He added that no matter how hard he tried to equalize the working conditions of psychologists at the regionals with those in Storrs, he had yet to succeed. At these meetings, Skip had insisted that he hated hiring people, asking a lot of them, and then discarding them because their working conditions virtually ensured that they would not be tenured. Much the same considerations had governed the reasoning of the department of sociology, when it closed its major at the Stamford branch several years ago. (The Board had approved that action, but sociology was one of the departments it later approved to receive a new major there.)

The Board had also missed some other details when it announced that, starting in the fall, all campuses would provide new majors in “anthropology, biological sciences, chemistry, communication, environmental science, environmental studies, journalism, mathematics, sociology, and speech, language, and hearing sciences.” Some of the regional campuses do not have labs in each of the sciences; others do not have enough labs to accommodate an influx of students who want to major in science.

It is simple to say that the faculty of the 18 departments might have reminded the central administration of the problems to be faced in introducing new majors. It is more probable that some of these departments would have rejected the expansion that the central administration desired so much that it refused to consult. Meanwhile, though, one must admire the unmitigated chutzpah of a provost’s office that changes the academic landscape without consulting the appropriate departments, committees, or deans.

And I marvel at a new condition of reporting the news. When a central administration realizes that it made a mistake, it can instruct its public relations department to wipe it off the website. The digital media facilitate such practices, but so does the centralization of power that is characteristic of universities today.

Author Bio: Gaye Tuchman is Professor Emertia of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. She is author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (2009) and Making News (1978).