Anti-democratic Trends in College Governance Policies and Practices Across the Land

In other papers presented at this site we have shown how Goddard College, a school with a long history of commitment to democratic governance and an exemplary understanding of the educational benefits of such an approach [1], has been reduced to an institution in which decision-making power is centralized in an increasingly autocratic and unresponsive administration and board. [2] How have other colleges fared in the harshly anti-democratic cultural and political climate that brought participatory democracy at Goddard to its knees in the mid-1990s?

Other Progressive Colleges

When, in 1938, Tim Pitkin turned Goddard, a private high school chartered in 1863 by liberal minded Universalists, into a college founded on the democratic educational principles of John Dewey, various innovations were imported from other progressive colleges in the United States.[3] Antioch, Bennington, and Sarah Lawrence offered Goddard exciting new ideas in education: off-campus work programs, counseling programs, and - most importantly - student-dominated community governance structures. [4]

Throughout the intervening years progressive colleges have not only shared new approaches to learning, they have also suffered a number of similar problems resulting from their marginal status in both the educational system and the culture at large. During even the bleekest of political times, however, members of these communities united to fight off political attacks meant to call the very existence of these institutions into question. United, they fought trends that threatened to undermine the integrity of progressive education.

Press clippings show students from Goddard, Black Mountain College, Bennington, Antioch and Sarah Lawrence meeting on the eve of WWII to share with each other the details of how their respective self-governing educational communities operated. [5][6] In the 1980s, when right wing attacks on liberalism attempted to make suspect enlightened educational reforms that had been initiated in the 60s, progressive education took a strong hit. Under the guise of a struggle against 'political correctness' a movement was afoot to purge colleges of policies inspired by left-wing insight into the need for racial justice, gender equity, and class parity in higher education, and for a kind of quality education that promotes individual empowerment and encourages social progress.

During this time, progressive colleges across the land experienced low enrollment [7] and struggled with related fiscal problems [8][9]. The financial woes of these institutions were often simplistically, and mistakenly1, attributed exclusively to decreases in enrollment. The twofold presumption - that 1) no one any longer wanted what these schools had to offer, and 2) that these colleges were being operated by fiscally naive and irresponsible idealists who needed to turn the reins of power over to administrators savvy in the ways of the 'corporate' world - simply ignored the political reality of the time: that the right-wing was making a concerted effort to force into bankruptcy institutions operating on principles acceptible to the left-wing.

This insidious right-wing strategy is still with us today - in the form of the present effort to dismantle public education at the grade school and high school levels, through so-called 'privatization'. The goal is to redirect tax dollars to private schools via various voucher-type methodologies. Like the current initiative to turn funding for social-service programs over to faith-based organizations, this policy intends to transfer the administration of education over to autocratic institutions that value hierarchy and obedience, and have a track record of lacking sensitivity to the issues of individual autonomy and social empowerment.

What happened in colleges during the 1980s and 90s was indeed not unlike what was at the time happening in workplaces throughout the land. Alleged 'fiscal concerns' were being used as a rationale for 'downsizing' - and this, in turn, was being cited as a justification for staff layoffs and the restructuring of organizations so as to weaken unions and concentrate control in the upper echelons of management.

College administrators in progressive colleges succeeded in usurping control from self-governed communities of students and faculty. College presidents accomplished this - as the Goddard case demonstrates - by 1) ensuring that decision-making power was legally concentrated in Boards of Trustees that were unaccountable to the college's students, faculty, and staff, and by 2) recruiting only new board members who would support the administration's efforts to 3) initiate autocratic practices and governance structures, often with the help of highly paid public relations firms.

An interesting pattern - which surely deserves further investigation - has emerged with respect to the personal histories of some of the presidents who were successful in usurping control at progressive colleges. As it turns out, they often had checkered backgrounds at other schools previous to their tenure as president, and undisclosed involvement with the military and/or the military intelligence community. [This paragraph was written prior to recent revelations regarding the role that the current president of the New School University - former U.S. Senator Bob Kerry - may have played in the massacre of women and children during the Vietnam war. It was not he who we here had in mind. But the Kerry case is nevertheless an interesting example of the point; students at the New School, like students at other progressive colleges headed by former military personnel, are beginning to question the appropriateness of such 'leadership'.]

Bennington College

In recent decades, fiscal difficulties have often been cited not only as a reason for, as the euphemism would have it, the 'reorganization' of progressive colleges (as mentioned above), but also as a rationale for ridding these institutions of perceived 'troublemakers' - i.e., individuals insisting on progressive educational agendas. This was the case at Goddard, for example [10], when the administration reacted to a grass-roots effort by students, faculty, staff, and alumni to restore democratic governance by firing a number of outspoken faculty members.

In a similar case, Bennington College faculty recently won a $1.89 million dollar settlement, and an apology, for firings that took place 6 years ago during a sweeping reorganization of that school. The changes were alleged by the college president to have been precipitated by declining enrollment and financial problems - the same rationale used by the Goddard college president for his firings. By reducing the faculty's numbers by a third, and by abolishing tenure, the power of the faculty was significantly reduced. These events - which damaged Bennington's reputation, weakened its commitment to academic freedom, and shattered the very principles on which it was founded - mired the institution in a turmoil that has lasted ever since, according to reporters. [11]

Adelphi University

Although Adelphi, a small liberal arts college located in Garden City, New York, cannot be considered 'progressive' - if, by that word, we mean to imply that it had made a committment to a self-governing body of students and faculty. Adelphi nevertheless did experience problems similar to those that have plagued progressive colleges in recent years, as the result of a college president and a board of directors that overstepped their bounds in an attempt to seize whatever remnant of power the faculty did wield in the early 1980s.

A private university chartered in 1896, Adelphi has approximatly four thousand students. Two thousand are undergrads. It is a college typical of liberal arts schools in many ways, not the least of which is how it had to face the gradual erosion, during the 1980s and 90s, of democracy in academia. In a book entitled When Power Corrupts: Academic Governing Boards in the Shadowof the Adelphi Case [2000, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers], Lionel Lewis, professor emeritus of sociology and adjunct professor of higher education at SUNY/Buffalo, details the eleven year struggle (1985 - 1996) that took place at Adelphi between the faculty, on the one hand, and the administration and Board of Trustees, on the other. The trustees were eventually removed by the New York State Board of Regents and new trustees, appointed by New York State, in turn dismissed the president of the college.

It was Lewis's intention in writing the book to use what happened at Adelphi as a 'backdrop for discussing the imbalance of power and governance in American institutions of higher learning'(p.x). Lewis reports that the imbalance of power, in favor of the adminstration and board, on the one hand, over the faculty, on the other, is indeed 'characteristic of all American institutions of higher learning. It is this common feature that makes the Adelphi case relevant to American higher education'. His conclusion is alarming:

Some, if not all, elements of governance at Adelphi can be found on most American campuses. The particulars of the upheaval at Adelphi may not be representive or generalizable, but they illustrate how this imbalance of power affects academic governance, how it sometimes works in colleges and universities. To characterize this peculiar story as a deviant case (rather than an extreme case), erroneously suggests that the imbalance of power evident at Adelphi is atypical on American campuses. It is not. (p.14)

Russell Sage College

For another example of the manner in which the role played by faculty in college governance has depreciated in recent years, consider Russell Sage College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Faculty members there are presently attempting to unionize in order to regain ground that they lost when their participation in college decision-making processes was curtailed by changes in governance structures and policies that have gradually taken place at their school over the course of the past decade or so.

Although Russell Sage was never fully committed, like other colleges that can thereby be labeled 'progressive', to governance according to the principles of participatory democracy, its faculty nevertheless once did play a significant role in the college's decision-making processes. But not any more, according to faculty who gathered to discuss this issue for a program that was broadcast on WRPI in the summer of 2000. Whereas faculty members were once invited to sit on college committees for the purpose of participating in the school's governance, these committees now merely provide the school's administration with opportunities to hand off routine administrative tasks to increasingly wary faculty members.

Although this trend in the management of institutions of higher education has only recently reached an eggregious pitch, it can be traced at least as far back as the early 1960s. Paul Goodman, in The Community of Scholars, a book first published in '62, quotes studies conducted at the time by Corson and Knapp:

"Decisions relative to student admissions, discipline, recreation, government - fields traditionally subject to faculty control - have been turned over to administrative supervision. Deans of students and their staffs, armed with an increasingly extensive knowledge of psychological tests, have taken over the direction of student affairs." (Corson.) "The evolving role of the college professor in America has been characterized by a progressive decline of his character-developing function ... which is taken up by specialist in guidance, counseling, and psychiatry." (Robert Knapp.) And in strictly curricular matters, by the multiplication of departments and entrenched specialties ... and the strong tendency for the research and informational functions to part company and form two separate callings ... one can keep the faculty out of touch with one another on any real issue whatever, whether what is happening to particular students or what the school is about. (234-5)

Concerned by what he described as a 'community-destroying administrative mentality' that was sweeping the land in the 1950s and early 60s, which manifested in the reorganization of colleges around 'administrations' utilizing autocratic top-down decision-making processes, Goodman compared trends in higher education in mid-20th century America to more progressive approaches that had once prevailed. He was particularly interested in the medieval concept of a 'community of scholars', and Thomas Jefferson's vision of how such communities could indeed act as autonomous leaders in an open-ended decentralized democracy. Goodman sought, in this way, to understand the relatively recent ascendancy of the contemporary college 'administration' in governance, and with it the increasingly powerful role of the 'college president'.

'The community of scholars is replaced by a community of administrators and scholars with administrative mentalities, company men and time-servers among the teachers, grade-seekers and time-servers among the students,' he observed.

Given the broader historical context that Goodman's work provides, it is no surprise that progressive colleges - like Goddard and Bennington - should have eventually suffered a dramatic dismantling of the democratic governance structures on which they were founded. Nor is it surprising that the last vestiges of democratic participation in decision-making is also rapidly disappearing from smaller, conventionally-structured liberal arts colleges like Sage and Adelphi. If this be the case, what chance does the democratic spirit of governance have of surviving, even in theory, at the larger universities - educational institutions which shamelessly pride themselves in operating like traditional corporations, 'administered' in typically heirarchical and authoritarian fashion?

This is a particularly serious concern - not only because of the wholesale disfranchisement of faculty and students that is, as a result, taking place across the land. But also because the decisions that colleges are making will, as a result of the non-democratic processes that are employed, fail to reflect the very real and serious concerns of stakeholders other than college administrators and boards. The entire body of students, faculty and staff that make up the college, and also members of the larger communities in which these colleges are embedded, are likely to be ignored if, and when, by exclusion from decision-making process, they are rendered powerless.

Clairemont College

Recent (3/27/2001) events at Clairmont College [13] in California provide a case in point. [12] Students there recently protested the fact that they were peremptorily excluded from the decision-making process whereby their college resolved to permit the world's first biotechnology graduate school to be built on property it owns. The decision, which was the product of a process that students characterize as 'completely nondemocratic', was made despite widespread student and faculty opposition to the plan. Although those who opposed the idea tried 'in every way possible' to gain access to participation in the decision-making process, according to the students, they were permitted to play no role whatsoever. As a last resort they locked themselves down, in protest, in front of the Clairmont Colleges business office.

Not only are students across the land being excluded from playing significant decision-making roles in college governance, they are also being arrested when they refuse to move their constitutionally protected free-speech activities to special areas designated as the appropriate place for such activity by the college. These so-called 'free-speech zones' have become commonplace on college campuses in the last several years, according to a recent article in the New York Times ['Boxing in Free Speech', April 8, 2001]. The piece mentions the arrest of two students, in separate incidents: a University of Mississippi student, for failing to move his protest to the officially designated area, and a New Mexico State University graduate student for handing out fliers promoting his upcoming free underground newspaper. Students have not only succeeded in challenging, in court, the legality of such arrests, they have also been successful in having these zones abolished on certain campuses and in establishing policies that clarify free-speech rights.

'Officials' at New Mexico State University reportedly insisted that the incident that occured on their campus was a 'misunderstanding', not a suppression of free speech. But given the propensity toward -

  1. a post-Columbine 'zero tolerance' lockdown mentality that now seems to prevail in the administration of high schools and grade schools - which would suspend a six-year old for carrying a plastic axe as part of a fireman's costume (as reported in another article in the same issue of the Times, entitled 'Zero Tolerance Changes One School'), and
  2. new police tactics, according to which it is acceptable to corral peaceful adult protesters in pens (at events such as the recent Presidential inauguration)
one would have hoped that someone in the NMSU 'administration' might have been sensitive enough to the erosion of academic freedoms to have suspected that it would be but one very short step from establishing 'free speech zones' on campus to arresting individuals who would dare to speak freely outside of such officially designated areas.


The attack on democracy in higher education is having a chilling effect not only on progressive colleges - ones that had hitherto formally committed themselves to democratic governance - but also on schools with more conventional governance structures. The havoc that such regressive change promises to wreak, as the effects of the corporatization of colleges continues to ripple through society at large, will include - 1) a loss of opportunities for students to have valuable hands-on educational experience of collaborative decision-making in institutional settings, and 2) an increase in the number of questionable decisions made by colleges administrators who insist on acting unilaterally. Decisions that effect the lives of people in the community at large are in effect being relegated to a small elite, who make their decisions in the absence of the ameliorating influence of a wider group of stakeholders - including students, faculty, staff, and members of the community at large.

Interpersonal interactions don't occur in a vaccuum - they are shaped by the way in which the social institutions in which they are embedded are structured. We develop skill in working together only in situations in which we can actively experiment with cooperative exchange - and this happens only in organizations in which our interactions are self-determined. In the absence of democratically designed organizational structure, our ability to forge consensus atrophies.

The college that does not recognize this can only be one that purports in theory to educate the citizenry, for it will invariably fail in practice to provide them adequate social occasions on which to develop these skills by flexing their decision-making muscle.

One would have thought it unnecessary to have to remind institutions of 'higher learning' of Thomas Paine's words on how wisdom distributes itself throughout a society:

Experience, in all ages, and in all countries, has demonstrated that it is impossible to control Nature in her distribution of mental powers. She gives them as she pleases. Whatever is the rule by which she, apparently to us, scatters them among mankind, that rule remains a secret to man. It would be as ridiculous to attempt to fix the hereditaryship of human beauty, as of wisdom.

Whatever wisdom constituently is, it is like a seedless plant; it may be reared when it appears, but it cannot be voluntarily produced. There is always a sufficiency somewhere in the general mass of society for all purposes; but with respect to the parts of society, it is continually changing its place. It rises in one to-day, in another to-morrow, and has most probably visited in rotation every family of the earth, and again withdrawn.

As this is the order of nature, the order of government must necessarily follow it, or government will, as we see it does, degenerate into ignorance.

Shame on colleges that fail to prepare students by limiting the opportunities that they have to experience what it is like to make complex decisions in concert with a diversity of others with whom they are likely to occasionally disagree. One can only begin to imagine the woes that are in store for the society that banks on failing to provide future generations with chances to learn how to get along.

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1. Concerned parties would have done well to heed the (1962) words of Paul Goodman, describing a trend that he had begun to discern at that time:

The present situation in America is extremely paradoxical. The colleges and universities seem to be wonderfully prospering. Since 1930 the schools having 500-2,000 students have doubled in number; those from 3,000-10,000 have trebled; those with more than 10,000 have also trebled; and the University of California has 120,000 under one administration. But are these big numbers of any use for schools of general studies, communities of scholars? I doubt it. They simply indicate that the techniques of self-aggrandizement that are common in American society are being used with success also by the colleges and are destroying them as communities. (Paul Goodman, Community of Scholars, p. 171)
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