IHL aims for “traditional operations” in fall; do students and employees need better representation?

May 21, 2020

A just-out press release from the Institutions of Higher Learning (“college board”) indicates that the eight Mississippi schools in the system will restart “traditional operations” in the fall.  No doubt the college board, like governors and governing bodies nationwide (and globally), is struggling to balance economic and safety concerns in a radically unstable decision-making environment.

Multiple studies suggest that colleges continuing fully online in fall will invite massive enrollment losses, a truly terrifying scenario for increasingly tuition-dependent public systems.  At the same time, Commissioner Rankins, speaking for the board, is surely sincere in saying “that providing a safe learning and living environment for the students … is paramount … [and] that providing a safe work environment for the system employees … is equally paramount.”  (Let’s not quibble over the logical conundrum of two objectives being simultaneously supreme in importance.)

While giving the board full credit for best intentions, it is nonetheless reasonable to wonder whether university students and employees need better representation than the board presently provides, given that there are precisely zero students or employees on the board.  There is no seat, and therefore no voice, for either of the core constituencies comprising Mississippi campuses.   I can’t know it for a fact, but I’d wager a portion of my largely stagnant paycheck that neither Commissioner Rankins nor any member of the board consulted any students or employees (below the level of a president or provost, that is) before passing their unanimous resolution to resume regular operations in the fall.

I have great respect for President Bennett and Provost Moser, but to what extent do they (can they) represent me or my concerns, or those of my social work students, or of the custodian who dutifully empties my office trash and the iTech worker who resolves my latest computer screw-up?

Johns Hopkins professor of history Francois Furstenberg wrote a scathing condemnation of university governance in the May 19 edition of the The Chronicle of Higher Education.  It’s well worth a read.  A particularly pithy jewel in a field of insightful gems:  “For years, the AAUP and other faculty critics have wrung their hands as norms of shared and deliberative governance disappeared, replaced by the consolidation of administrative power in the hands of corporate executives. With little appreciation for transparency or inclusiveness, and little understanding of the academy’s mission, these managers increasingly make decisions behind closed doors and execute them from above.”

Fortunately, it appears that USM governance remains in better shape than the far wealthier and far more prestigious Johns Hopkins.  But things are not good anywhere in higher education, and the direction of change is not encouraging.  True representation of student and employee interests require a meaningful counterbalance to the consolidation of administrative power and the cancerous growth of managerial culture.

More and more, it’s looking like the only viable counterbalance is an independent “wall-to-wall” organization of all employees – faculty, staff, and student employees.


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