Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 21, 2024

University leadership seeks to abolish elected faculty body

By FRANÇOIS FURSTENBERG | February 20, 2024


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the Johns Hopkins University campus shut down. Students fled home. The libraries locked their doors. Labs closed. Research ground to a halt. 

The pandemic affected everyone, but for untenured assistant professors, it was a potentially career-ending event. Hopkins, like most research-intensive universities, has an up or out system: Faculty hired onto the tenure track have six years to prove themselves by their scholarship, teaching and service. They are either promoted with tenure, or they lose their jobs.

The stakes were high not just for individual faculty, but also for the institution. We had hired the best and brightest faculty, including more female faculty and underrepresented minority assistant professors than ever. We risked losing a generation of scholars — the University’s future — if we could not find ways to help get their research programs back on track. 

On the Homewood Campus, it fell to a body called the Homewood Academic Council to develop a set of policies to support our faculty. The Academic Council dates from the University’s founding, a creation of Daniel Coit Gilman himself. Over the decades, this group of elected faculty has worked closely with the University’s president, provost, deans and senior administration to oversee matters related to curriculum, faculty appointments and promotion, department quality and much more. 

Although the provost and deans attend Academic Council meetings, only elected faculty vote. It’s a unique quirk of Hopkins governance, one that few if any of our peer institutions share. This dynamic empowers faculty here at Hopkins and makes them equal partners with the administration in developing and overseeing academic policy. Indeed, many longtime faculty credit the Homewood Academic Council with giving our campus its unique culture of collaboration and interdisciplinarity, plus its sense of intellectual community. 

So when, in the spring of 2020, the provost and deans proposed an immediate one-year extension of the tenure clock, they could not enact that policy by themselves. It took a vote of the Homewood Academic Council to make it official. 

The Council realized a one-year extension was not enough, however. To develop an appropriate response, the Council decided — on its own authority — to study the issue and propose a set of mitigation strategies. We convened several meetings, inviting assistant professors to share their experiences and suggestions. We surveyed the entire faculty. We met with department chairs. 

We took our responsibilities seriously, as a body representing the faculty. Throughout this process, we worked collaboratively with the deans to develop policy. We built consensus and undertook a set of delicate negotiations with the deans’ offices. 

The solutions weren’t perfect — there was no perfect solution to the challenges posed by the pandemic — and it’s hard to know how junior faculty experienced the process. But I like to think that, at the very least, our efforts sent a message about the kind of institution we are: a group of empowered faculty that cares about its colleagues, works to build policy from the ground up and does not leave major decisions regarding faculty status to overburdened deans who don’t always see the University as faculty do. 

But it wasn’t just COVID-19 policy that the Academic Council oversaw. 

Some years ago, when covered grades were abolished for first-year undergraduates, the decision came before the Academic Council. It took an affirmative vote of elected faculty to make the policy official. 

When we noticed disparities in promotion files for teaching and research track faculty — those not on the tenure track — the Academic Council created a working group to collaborate with the deans and create a new policy to better standardize untenured career tracks. Here again, it took a vote of the Academic Council to make the new standards official.

When colleagues asked for information about gender pay disparities, we convened administrators who could share data with us, making them aware that this was an issue of concern to us. 

When we decided that departments should add a section on their diversity efforts in their self-studies, we consulted with the deans and voted to change existing policies

When we streamlined the existing promotions process, changing it from a two-step to a one-step process to dramatically speed it up, we discussed the changes extensively, built consensus and enacted the new policy. 

We faculty could do these things — we were empowered to enact policy this way — because faculty votes matter in the Academic Council. It takes a motion, a second and a majority vote to make academic policy. Even the agenda of Academic Council meetings are set in a meeting between the secretary (an elected faculty member), the provost and deans. 

This is not faculty governance; it is shared governance. The deans and provost always occupy a central place in crafting academic policy. Given their function executing the University’s academic mission, the deans and the provost must support any policy for it to succeed. Because a faculty vote is required to make policy at Hopkins, however, administrators must work collaboratively. They have to build consensus: to negotiate, deliberate and persuade us. When they fail to persuade, they cannot simply change academic policy on their own authority.

The Homewood Academic Council, as I experienced it, thus embodied the principles articulated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP): Universities are bound together by “an inescapable interdependence among governing board, administration, faculty, students, and others,” and governance is therefore “based on community of interest and producing joint effort.” 

Shared governance means that in some matters — the maintenance of institutional resources, for example, or the allocation of endowment investments — the University’s president and board of trustees will have primary responsibility. In other areas, however — particularly those related to curriculum, research and faculty status — faculty hold primary authority. 

Alas, this system of shared governance at Hopkins is now under assault. 

Late last year, Dean Ed Schlesinger of the Whiting School of Engineering (WSE) and President Ronald J. Daniels coordinated a public exchange of letters with the aim of dissolving the Homewood Academic Council. In mid-November, Dean Schlesinger wrote to President Daniels requesting that the School of Engineering secede from the Academic Council. To replace it, he proposed three separate faculty advisory bodies for the Whiting School of Engineering.

Dean Schlesinger claimed that he “consulted with” the WSE Senate before requesting the split. What his letter failed to note, however, is that the Whiting Faculty Senate did not support a split at the time and has never voted in favor. Nor has Whiting faculty voted in a referendum to break apart the Homewood Council. 

Nonetheless, President Daniels replied three weeks later, approving Dean Schlesinger’s request, adding that his “proposed academic bodies for the school are part of an overall university structure that ultimately reports to the Provost, President and Board of Trustees.” 

Then, Dean Christopher Celenza of the School of Arts and Sciences followed suit last week — dispensing even with Dean Schlesinger’s performance of faculty consultation. Without ever soliciting the opinion of elected faculty bodies, he wrote to President Daniels to “request that the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) be afforded the opportunity to do the same” as WSE, thus advocating a complete dissolution of the Academic Council. 

Those of us who have been following changes in governance here at Hopkins have watched as President Daniels has, over his long presidency, accumulated power at the expense of other University constituencies. Even at an institution in which power has become centralized as it has at Hopkins, however, the idea that an epistolary exchange between a dean and university president could unilaterally dissolve an elected faculty body seems quite extraordinary. 

In the past, changes to the Academic Council, including its composition, always ran through the Council itself — the body elected to represent the faculty. In the present, by contrast, they run around the Academic Council. The difference highlights a critical dimension of university governance: the distinction between a faculty body that serves a purely advisory role and one that is an equal partner with the administration in making academic policy. 

The schools of Engineering and Arts and Sciences stand now at a critical juncture. Will elected faculty bodies continue to exercise power over matters of curriculum, research and faculty status, or will that power fall to the University’s unelected administrators? 

Dean Schlesinger, Dean Celenza and President Daniels have shown what system of governance they want to impose on Hopkins. Their actions speak very clearly. 

Theirs is a University in which deans and president do not work with faculty but exercise power over them. It is a University in which matters of essential faculty prerogative can be decided without a faculty vote but by the mere performance of consultation — an optional one at that. 

Their Johns Hopkins is a University in which deans and president can dissolve an elected faculty body as a king could once dissolve Parliament. In its stead, they appoint members to advisory committees of their creation, charged with hashing out the details of outcomes they have already determined. 

Their Hopkins is an exquisitely hierarchical institution, where all power flows down from the top. It is, as President Daniels so eloquently wrote, “an overall university structure that ultimately reports to the Provost, President and Board of Trustees.” 

Their vision of the University stands in sharp contrast not just to AAUP principles, it also breaks with the traditions Daniel Coit Gilman established nearly 150 years ago when he helped build the country’s first research university: an institution where faculty and administration would work together to create knowledge and train the next generation.

Dean Schlesinger and President Daniels have shown us what kind of University they want to create. In response, faculty will either bow down in cowed acquiescence or will stand and insist on their status as equal participants in university governance.

The next few months will determine which vision of our University prevails. 

François Furstenberg is a professor of history at Hopkins, a former member of the Homewood Academic Council and current secretary of the University’s AAUP chapter. 

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