Symposium Presentation by Former UVU AAUP Chapter President Scott Abbott: The Managed University


The Managed ‘University’

Scott Abbott


         Working to improve shared governance at UVU, let’s be grateful that we’re not under attack by the governor and legislature of Florida.

         And let’s celebrate recent joint work involving Faculty Senate committees, administrators, and the Deputy General Counsel on revising several key policies. 


         As this symposium nears its end, however, it’s clear that we still have work to do. For me, our major issue is what I perceive as the systematic disruption of a university, a movement driven by corporate values that undercut the quality of education we offer our students.


While acting as department chair a couple of years ago, I received an email from Human Resources addressed to “People managers.” I replied heatedly that anyone who calls department chairs people managers fails to understand the nature of a university. I am a professor in my department, I wrote back. My responsibility is to enable my peers and support our students. I am not a manager; my peers are not employees to be managed.


Tensions like this have marked the history of higher education in the United States. 


In response to cases like the firing of Stanford University’s economist Edward Ross for his arguments in favor of a silver standard, professors Arthur Lovejoy, E. R. A. Seligman, John Dewey, and others organized the American Association of University Professors in 1915. Over the years, the AAUP has established standards of academic freedom, due process, and shared governance that profoundly influence American universities across the board.


That same year, 1915, while traveling by train to New York City, Lovejoy read a newspaper account about the dismissal of several members of the University of Utah faculty and the resignation of 15 members of the faculty in protest. He visited John Dewey that night and said he would investigate the case. Dewey advanced him $300 for the journey.


Lovejoy’s 80-page report detailed firings in response to comments disrespectful of the Chairman of the Board of Regents and of the University President J. T. Kingsbury. The Board of Regents explained that “the only practical course in cases [when there are frictions between a superior officer and a subordinate] is to remove such causes of friction as are deemed least valuable to the work of the organization.” The least valuable in this existing hierarchy are obviously the professors.


Lovejoy concluded that “the policy of disregarding considerations of equity and of heeding only considerations of efficiency does not in the long run tend to the efficient working of any organization of human beings. . . . [I]t is not effective even in the management of business houses. Applied in the government of universities it is the sure beginning of disaster.”


UVU has its own recent history regarding “considerations of efficiency” overriding considerations of equity and of quality. In a 2018 public letter, sixty members of the Faculty Senate and the UVU faculty in general, several department chairs, and two deans raised the issue this way:   


Dear President Holland and SVPAA Olson,

On January 17, 2018, five out of eight sabbatical applications from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences were emphatically rejected: “The request is NOT approved because resource constraints and increase in enrollment restrict sabbatical approvals to one from each department.” 

Because that decision was made unilaterally, because it contradicts department and college recommendations and expectations, we are left to wonder if you are working with unstated assumptions and toward goals you have failed to subject to the discussion required by shared governance.

Actions taken over the last few years fit into a pattern that might explain your decision on sabbaticals. We say “might” because we are left to speculate in the absence of discussion.

§  You have required departments to hire lecturers rather than requested tenure-track professors. 

§  The new Classroom Building was constructed with large classrooms in anticipation of increasingly large numbers of students per class.

§  You have touted large online courses as both desirous and inevitable.

§  You informed faculty that as we make hiring decisions, we should avoid hiring colleagues with ambitious research programs.

§  We are a teaching university, you remind us regularly, declarations that inevitably pit teaching against research and undermine the quality of our teaching.

How can one explain these shifts from UVU’s traditional emphasis on quality instruction in relatively small classes by well qualified faculty?


One of several possible answers may lie in an event in our recent past.

In 2014, Clayton Christensen, professor of business at Harvard University, lectured in UVU’s Ragan Theater. Christensen is famous for his theory of “disruption” through which meaningful change occurs when inferior and cheaper products displace products of higher quality. Applying his business theory to education, he asked how universities can avoid being disrupted by cheaper private universities like the University of Phoenix. The answer, he said, is for universities like UVU to quit focusing on quality. 

McDonald’s customers don’t want better quality milkshakes, Christenson reported, citing a study done for McDonald’s. Students feel the same way about their education. They don’t want quality, they want diplomas. As a result, universities should make extensive use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and should cease sponsoring research by their faculty unless the research focuses on teaching methods.

Disrupting traditional practices that support good research in the service of good teaching is difficult, Christensen said. And because professors will insist on quality, the necessary changes will have to be imposed by administrators. 

Vice President Olson and President Holland, you both contributed to Christensen’s book titled The Innovative University, Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, a book that proposed this theory of disruption for universities like ours.

Is it possible, we ask, that you have been systematically disrupting our university? And that you have been doing so without consulting the faculty?

Absent an open discussion, we are left to speculate and to respond heatedly and to suspect that you don’t understand or respect the qualities of the university that has been our project for decades. We need to talk.

There was no substantive conversation about any of these issues following our letter.


Over the subsequent years, there have been indications that the disruption continues. I’ll mention three issues: narrowly defined student success, reliance on Student Ratings of Instructors (SRIs) to evaluate teaching, and scalability.

1.    Student Success can mean various things, but at UVU it has been measured primarily by time to graduation and graduation rates —

Utah Legislative guidelines require certain levels of achievement in this regard. But as Thi Nguyen points out in his work on “Value Capture,” defining student success solely in regard to completion or graduation can bracket out questions of quality:  The narrowness of the metric creates a narrowness of institutional vision. Institutions can only see, process, and act on parts of the world that are counted by their metrics.” In her study of The Costs of CompletionRobin Isserles argues that “completion as the primary mission of the institution is . . . a damaging reduction of the mission and value” of open admission institutions. A “true culture of care,” she concludes, “is antithetical to the efficiency regime.” (The Costs of Completion: Student Success in Community Colleges, 2021, Johns Hopkins UP) To care means to foster and nurture and challenge students, she concludes, as opposed to rushing them through to graduation.

         How can we do better? Let’s talk more broadly about student success, focusing on the quality of education as the major factor in helping students persist and graduate.

2.    Student Ratings of Instructors have been the sole source for administrators who  evaluate teaching —

I’ll cite one example of five similar tenure or promotion denials during the last two years:

On March 1, 2022, Provost Vaught sent the following letter to an applicant for promotion who had strong recommendations from the RTP Committee, Department Chair, and Dean (letter cited in full):

“After careful review, I am recommending that [Professor]…., of the Department of …., not be promoted to the rank of Professor at this time. [The] portfolio includes several low SRI scores and concerning student comments that have not been adequately addressed by the candidate, the RTP committee, the department chair, or the dean. [The candidate] should also work to provide better documentation of scholarly activities that would warrant promotion to the rank of Professor. Accordingly, I am not able to make a determination of exemplary performance in teaching or scholarship at this time.”

Like the other four candidates, this professor appealed. The Senate appeal committee and the Senate review committee both criticized the negative decision based on SRI scores and recommended promotion. President Tuminez ignored those responses and denied the appeal on grounds related to SRI scores. 

Most troubling here is the high-handed disregard for the arguments made by faculty and deans at five levels of review. It makes no difference that the faculty Review Committee argued strongly against the indiscriminate use of SRI scores and comments. It doesn’t matter that after their broad and informed evaluation of the teaching section of the portfolios, the committee found ample evidence of exemplary teaching. 

Because the distance between a disciplinary department and the administration is relatively vast, because administrators lack competence in the pedagogy and scholarship of a given discipline, because administrators have little familiarity with the requirements of a given curriculum, because administrators lack the experience and competence inherent in members of a departmental RTP Committee, the AAUP recommends that “The governing board and president should, on questions of faculty status, as in other matters where the faculty has primary responsibility, concur with the faculty judgment except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.” 

Shared governance requires mutual respect. Faculty can express their qualitative judgements more clearly. Administrators can temper the impulse to step in and override faculty judgements, remembering, as Thi Nguyen points out, that “Qualitative evaluations require significant shared background knowledge to adequately interpret. When we transform information from a qualitative to a quantitative format, we strip off much of the nuance, texture, and context-sensitivity.”

Let’s expand our judgements of quality beyond the meagre information provided by SRIs. And together, let’s finish the process of updating our RTP documents to better represent our current state.


3.    Finally, ongoing disruption in the service of growth is more appropriate to business than to a university.

In her State of the University address this spring, for instance, President Tuminez said that universities around the country are being disrupted but that UVU had plans for disrupting as well. She cited a celebrated Harvard Massive Open Online Course as an example of what our disruption might look like. 


UVU’s Vision 2030 document, developed with minimal faculty input, continues in that same vein: “To continue attracting and retaining students, UVU must accelerate scalable innovation to provide flexible and responsive educational options.”

A scalable business is one that is able to grow larger. Will scalable growth increase the quality of our university? Let’s talk about it.

I’ll end with thoughts by Clayton Christensen’s Harvard colleague Jill Lepore, who took his disruptive theory to task in The New Yorker:

“Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, have all been subjected to [and damaged by] disruptive innovation. . . .

“Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors.”


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