Image: University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting (1889)
In September, trustees at the University of Illinois voted against hiring Steven Salaita as a tenured professor. A lawsuit is coming. Meanwhile, both the Urbana-Champaign campus and academia in general remain divided over this widely reported controversy. But here’s one thing on which everyone should agree: There’s no way this vote should have taken place after the start of the fall semester. Even late July, when the board and chancellor decided that Salaita would not be hired, was much too late.
The timing of the vote had nothing to do with the controversy itself, but it wasn’t exactly an accident. As happens at many universities, the board is required to approve all hires of tenure-stream faculty. That official vote has historically been a rubber stamp, though—so much so that all new hires are lumped into a single vote that usually passes without significant discussion. The board’s vote can take place long after new faculty members have quit their previous jobs, moved to Illinois, ordered books, and even started teaching.
That practice is common at colleges and universities, especially public ones. I conducted an informal survey of institutions across the country, which confirmed the impression that many boards only vote on new hires in June through September meetings. I then called Illinois’ closest peers—other large public universities—to compare practices, and here’s what I found.
Many Big Ten boards review tenure cases in May or June, including for new hires. It would be possible for a hire with tenure to get derailed fairly late in the game, but not disastrously so. Indiana University’s board reviews all new hires at the meeting closest to their appointment date, which seems like the best practice. The University of Michigan and Ohio State University, on the other hand, both match Illinois’ model. Here’s the September agenda for Michigan, including personnel matters for people who have already begun teaching.
Meanwhile, these boards are becoming more active. Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and a well-known writer about higher education (among other topics), wrote about the implications of the veto late in the hiring game. “The loophole in academic hiring that allowed UIUC to de facto rescind an offer by refusing to forward the appointment for approval has always existed,” he wrote, adding: “Previous instances notwithstanding, the process of trustee or regent approval of appointments is now clearly at risk of becoming less pro forma than it once was. Given the general trend to centralize university practice to campus and university system administrators, we should expect to see more of this—or at least, we should not be surprised if we do.”
Bogost is right about the general trends. Boards are getting more active and are, moreover, being encouraged to do so by organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA’s report on Governance for a New Era, released by coincidence in the midst of the Salaita controversy, says, “Trustees should take a more active role in reviewing and benchmarking the work of faculty and administrators and monitoring outcomes.” The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges takes issue with ACTA, but the AGB’s emphasis on accountability over activism still makes one thing clear: The era of the rubber stamp is over.
The appropriate role for governing boards in the modern university is a big question, much too big for this article, and moreover beside the point. If we’re going to have activist or accountable boards, there’s no reason they can’t be a little more active in April or May, and not put off voting on new faculty appointments until September.
Alex McHugh, media coordinator for ACTA, defended the delayed schedule, writing, “Often the process of committee reviews pushes the calendar to a date that really isn’t optimal, but does not readily allow any abbreviation.”
That’s not acceptable. If the faculty hiring process pushes the final review until late summer or early fall, the process has to change.
Even Illinois agrees that there may be a problem. University Spokesman Thomas Hardy wrote, “I think the University of Illinois may foresee changes in how certain hiring reviews and approvals are made but it's too soon to speculate on what those might be. We'll conduct an assessment of our historic processes and the most recent instance, examine practices that may be in use at other institutions, and make some determinations on how best to proceed. The review is being coordinated by the vice president for academic affairs and university counsel's office, with input from the appropriate parties on all three campuses.”
I don’t have a lot of faith in Illinois’ leaders, at the moment, but here is the rare issue where the interests of the faculty, administrators, and trustees are aligned. No one benefits from the current system of procrastinated votes.
It’s time for big universities, disciplinary bodies, accreditation agencies, the AAUP, the AAC&U, ACTA, AGB, and whoever else has an acronym and any kind of voice in higher education to push all institutions to follow these simple guidelines: All hiring reviews for faculty should be completed three months before the start date. No faculty should be required to resign a position more than two months before a start date.
This is a problem we can solve right now, this year, before the big hiring period starts up again.
Then we can go back to work on the deep questions of academic freedom, activist boards, and faculty governance, as we prepare for battle over the future of the university.