When a University Loses Its Soul

More than six decades ago, the sociologist C. Wright Mills warned of a “new universe of management and manipulation” that had entered American life, and that threatened to fundamentally alter its character and undermine its values. Mills was prescient. He saw in the increasing bureaucratization of American society and the increasing standardization of American culture the imposition of a faceless rule on behalf of unnamed interests that would destroy both the practice of our collective democracy and the experience of individual freedom. I think nothing in our present-day world of digitization, hacking, and universal surveillance would have surprised him, although we lack a voice as clear and cogent as his to describe it.

Mills, as an academic, would have had few illusions about universities either. Still, certain assumptions—or call them necessary fictions—persisted about the university as an institution devoted, for all its imperfections, to notionally noble callings: the disinterested creation and dissemination of knowledge collectively validated by neutral peers using accepted norms and tested in open debate; the education of young adults for informed citizen responsibilities and the opportunity for older ones to broaden their horizons; and, within the academic community, the practice of democratic discourse and decision-making. The core basis of all these functions was the concept of the faculty as the permanent body of the university, its status guaranteed by academic freedom rooted in the institution of tenure. Tenure itself had been a development of recent vintage, and it did not protect the academic victims of McCarthyism who were emerging even as Mills wrote. But it was understood by the generation of scholars among whom I came of age that it was the linchpin of the system, and that without it the university could not subsist as a democratic community capable of both serving the wider world and withstanding the pressures that often came from it.

For this reason, the corporatization and bureaucratization that have steadily encroached on the university in the past several decades—a joint project of business and government—targeted tenure early on for destruction. This campaign has been largely accomplished. The dwindling pockets of tenured faculty who remain have little prestige among and less influence on the at-will employees who are now their colleagues. The faculty as a whole has all but ceased to play a governance role in the functions and the mission of the contemporary university. It is simply, as Mills put it, managed and manipulated. In all substantive matters, including those most directly affecting its interest, integrity, and welfare, it is routinely disregarded, only to be informed as necessary of the conditions under which it will be permitted to work—or compelled to retire.

Which brings us to Drexel’s so-called Voluntary Retirement Incentive Plan, and the meeting of President Fry and senior administrators with the Faculty Senate on April 18. Note with whom the President did not meet. He did not meet with the University faculty as a whole, nor (it goes without saying) with the general staff, equally affected by the “Plan.” The meeting took place in one of the Senate’s occasional sites, the assembly hall of the LeBow building, and, as is its wont, the Senate convened around circular tables that took most of the space in the hall, leaving room at the back for only three rows of seats for the general faculty (and, needless to say, no microphones to make their voices heard).

The President began with an account of the University’s current financial troubles and the shared sacrifice it now entailed. He did not discuss the “Incentive” Plan, which, for those of you unfamiliar with it, offers a pittance above the severance pay that had already left Drexel at community college levels, and, for those not accepting it, whether eligible for retirement or at any other point in their careers—nothing at all. This latter—the large stick attached to the very tiny carrot—had been embedded in such weasel-worded bureaucratese that, for a good month, it was unclear not only to faculty and general staff but even to deans and the Human Resources personnel charged with implementing the Plan what exactly was meant. The obfuscatory statement that went out, and was simply repeated without elaboration, was that the existing retirement program, including medical benefits and life insurance, would no longer be “available.” The word, of course, in plain English, was that they were being eliminated. And the plain sense of that proper word was that Drexel had simply scrapped retirement benefits for all faculty and staff remaining on its payroll after August 31, 2017.

How’s that for an institution whose ambition can’t wait?

The President wasn’t anxious to discuss the matter. He preferred to talk about the future, about restored financial health and robust, sustainable, benefit-free growth.

He got an earful.

A faculty colleague announced to him that he and his administration had “disserved” and “damaged” the University, and treated its most distinguished and long-serving faculty with ignorance and disrespect. She pointed out, at some length and with some eloquence, that retirement for senior faculty was typically a process requiring two to three years, for faculty members themselves, their departments, and the programs and students they served. To compress this period into three months under the gun—all the time allotted before previously guaranteed benefits became “unavailable”—was to impose needless and unacceptable harm on both the faculty and the institution itself. It was, in short, stupid; and it was also cruel.

I looked at the President and his team for a reaction; I waited for a response. There was none. If any of these questions had ever been considered by them, I saw no sign of it.

Other faculty joined in. It was pointed out that the rapid and semi-coerced retirement of senior faculty would not only deprive the University of knowledge and experience—none of which, incidentally, would be in the near term replaced—but also of institutional memory, the unquantifiable but essential component that defines a university as an ongoing, collegial body of scholars. Perhaps, though, that was part of the objective? To treat faculty not as a body but as isolated, disposable parts—in short, as expendable—is precisely what is required to turn them into such. What that makes of the University is something else; but about this question no one at the head table was prepared to comment.

If institutional memory were lost, some faculty said, individual remembrance would not be. Retired faculty, they noted, continued like alumni to serve and represent the University. To send an angry, embittered, and insulted cohort on its way would be yet another self-inflicted wound on the institution.

If that sounded like an actual threat, I think it was one. Give people the bum’s rush, and they’re likely to be very, very bummed out.

In short, what happened on April 18 was, in essence, a vote of no confidence in the Drexel administration. True, it involved only a few dozen faculty, and there was no formal show of hands. Nor did everyone speak. But if the President had faced a general assembly, I am tolerably sure the response would have been very much the same, and the chorus amplified many times over.

The only give I heard from the administration was the suggestion that, in due time, some level of benefits might be restored—after all, would not the future recruitment of superior faculty be a bit difficult in the absence of any retirement package? This, naturally, made things worse. Those being stampeded into retirement on pain of losing all benefits might find those who elected to stay having them restored; might find themselves, that is, deliberately tricked. But for faculty who do stay, of course, nothing is or can be truly secured from this time forward. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

A word or two about the benefits that are now to be eliminated, or suspended, or simply not made “available.” For senior faculty and staff particularly, the medical benefit, such as it is or has been (and it had already been cut before), is one of obvious concern. But the severance pay is no less an issue for many. It would be a great mistake to regard such pay as a kind of parting bonus. Especially under the present administration, merit raises have failed to keep pace with inflation, and many senior faculty salaries are, to use the mortgage market term, underwater: that is, they are worth less than their original value in real purchasing power. Severance pay is from this standpoint simply a belated restitution of some portion of the money such faculty should have received over years and even decades of inadequately compensated service. It’s no kind of gift at all, and taking it away is breaking an implied if unenforceable contract for repayment of debt—is, in short, a breach of faith.

But, there you have the modern university. And there, as it appears, you have Drexel.

About Robert Zaller 53 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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