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It's Time to Democratize A.U.


If the recent controversy over Vice President Fanta Aw’s mental health email proved anything, it proved how disconnected the administration is from the broader campus community. From my experience, the entire student body was unanimous in their contempt for this message. Even professors joined in the backlash. "Blaming struggling students for rampant mental health issues on campus, rather than addressing the University's own shortcomings, is not solving the problem," Meg MacKenzie, a graduate student working in the Katzen Arts Center, wrote on Facebook. "If you are concerned at all about students making their appointments, this response only serves to further ostracize them." Junior Julia Ford wrote, "[It is] unbelievably disappointing that American University has put the blame of inadequate mental health services on mentally ill students. AU needs to step up and actually address the issue that they have created instead of blaming those who need help the most. They have never had a mental healthcare system in place that works for students, and this email will not encourage students to seek help." One undergraduate student described a scenario in which she waited three weeks for an appointment, which was cancelled after she showed up to the wrong time slot as a result of a clerical error on the part of the Counseling Center. "American University does not care about the mental health issues of their students," she writes. "And now they dare blame us for our struggles?"

Besides the fact that the no-show rates that Aw provided are the same as those for general health care and psychotherapy in this country, what the email revealed the most was that the administration does not want to be held accountable to students; it wants to hold students accountable to itself. Instead of accepting criticism from the student body or engaging in a constructive dialogue that acknowledged the strengths and weaknesses of the Counseling Center, the administration chose to blame students for the issue. Fanta Aw chose to deflect and obfuscate the administration’s problems instead of solving them. This situation is not the first time administrators have acted this way, and it will not be the last.

The fundamental issue is that the administration has no reason to listen to students, faculty, or other members of the campus community. It never has to answer to these groups, and it never has to accept responsibility. American University has close to no checks on the administration's power, and the administration only answers to higher administrators. To say it plainly, our campus and a large portion of our lives are controlled by a group of unelected bureaucrats.

The hierarchy of American University governance is pretty clear. (You can view a full-definition version of the image above, here.) All legal authority and power derive from the Board of Trustees. If you’ve ever taken the time to read the Student Conduct Code, it spells this principle out in Article I: “Ultimate authority for all university policy is vested in the Board of Trustees of American University.” Who are the trustees? Mainly a group of wealthy elites. Of the 23 voting trustees, 13 are executives in corporations or private companies. They represent powerful industries like finance, real estate, insurance, and even fossil fuels. Other trustees include two layers at huge firms, a former federal judge, and a serving congressperson. Only 3 have experience in university administration or teaching, which only accounts for a little over 10 percent. Primarily, though, the Board of Trustees is a group of incredibly wealthy people form some of the most powerful sectors of our society—in short, elites. It is this elite class of people that hold “Ultimate authority for all university policy.”

However, these 23 are not the only members of the Board. President Sylvia M. Burwell holds a non-voting seat due to her position, and representatives of the Methodist Church hold two seats, as mandated by the university bylaws. The last three members of the Board are the only ones who represent the real stakeholders of the university: the students and faculty. The Board reserves two seats for faculty members and one seat for a student (plus one for a student trustee-elect). However, their influence is limited in several ways. For one, they do not have voting power. Their position is much closer to observer status than an actual member of the Board. Additionally, they are prohibited from serving on the Executive Committee—the most powerful and the only one that meets more than four times a year. The number of student and faculty trustees also inhibits their power; other than the mandated three, no other trustees can be employed by or enrolled in the university. The Board also gets to approve the nomination of the student trustee, so any appointee has to conform to the Board’s standards—not the student body’s. Although the inclusion of students and faculty is nice, it is more ceremonial than anything else. Because they are non-voting members, the student and faculty trustees are even asked to leave the room when the rest of the Board discusses important matters. Former faculty trustee Andrea Pearson flatly said, “Our voice is not as strong as the trustees that are voting.” The Board is dominated by the wealthy elites who hold actual voting power, and they occupy the Board committees either exclusively or in a majority. In any scenario where they wanted something, they would get it. The student and faculty trustees have no ability to overrule the elites. Even when students and faculty overwhelmingly pushed the Board to divest from fossil fuels, the trustees simply refused.

AU’s bureaucracy, the administration headed by the President, is accountable only to the wealthy elites on the Board. Appointments to the administration’s heads are either made or approved by the Board, meaning the makeup of administrators is decided entirely by the elites. Once appointed, these bureaucrats have wide discretion. All university policies are drafted and implemented by the administration. While they often accept comments or hold public meetings to discuss policies and plans, for the most part, they do not have to listen to anyone.

Once again, checks or balances are few and far between. The Faculty Senate does control curriculum and academic standards; however, everything else is advisory. Statutorally, they can only give recommendations for budgeting, hiring, or student affairs. The faculty, at least, is invited into A.U. governance. Students, however, are completely shut out.

Apart from the structurally weak student trustee position, the only real expression of students’ voices is the A.U.S.G. Unfortunately, this organization has close to no power over the administration. Their entire budget is at the discretion of the Board of Trustees. They hold no statutory position of power, nor are they entitled to veto or even necessarily comment on administration policy. A.U.S.G. also suffers from student apathy. From personal experience, I can say that people care little about the student government. The Fall 2019 election saw only 966 students out of over 8,000 vote. The A.U.S.G. would only have its informal power if it was a respected institution, but it cannot even muster the faith of the student body. Without that faith, it lacks even the little power it could have.

Even the Board of Trustees is structurally weak at checking the administration. As Distinguished Professor Emeritus Richard Vedder points out, Boards across the country have to rely on information the President gives them. Given that they maintain jobs outside the university and only meet fully four times a year, their actual oversight of the administration is limited. Half of the trustees do not even live in the D.M.V. We, thus, have a situation where a bunch of elites pick the administration and largely just let it run unopposed.

This power structure is inherently undemocratic. It places our campus under the shadow of elite control, and it ensures that the governing body of our university is completely unrepresentative of our community. The entire administration is either appointed or approved by the elites on the Board, and once chosen they operate with little oversight. Faculty have informal influence on some spheres of policy, but low impact on many functions of the university. Students essentially have no influence on A.U.’s governance. It is because of this undemocratic structure that the administration can get away with blaming the Counseling Center’s problems on us. They have no accountability to the students, so why would they even bother with respecting us?

This antidemocracy becomes even worse when we account for how much importance and power A.U. has over our lives. For four years, we have to base our entire lives around what the university dictates to us, and we have no say in what it dictates. Curriculums will come and go, core requirements will change, and we will just have to deal with the whims of a bureaucracy. They can continually raise the price of tuition with no regard to affordability. They can add more and more general education requirements, with no regard to our actual interests. The university even regulates our personal behavior with the Student Code of Conduct. For those who live on campus, the administration is essentially the “company” of a company town. It controls the daily lives of its members, owns the homes members live in, and maintains its own laws, amenities, and police. A.U. students are called to submit to this university’s rules and requirements, but they are not given any control over these policies. And we’re the ones paying tens of thousands per year to them!

Another problem of this elitism has been the explosion of administration and administrative costs in colleges nationwide. Although not every college is governed exactly like A.U., almost all lack student control over the administration; top-down bureaucracy is the norm nationwide. Recent decades have seen even faculty lose power over university governance. As more and more faculty have been replaced by full-time bureaucrats, the administrations of colleges have consolidated their power. They never had to listen to students, but they have been increasingly able to shrug off faculty, as well.

With the bureaucracys’ control over universities secure, they could work for the benefit of themselves instead of the college. Over the last few decades, the price of college has exploded—so too did the size of administration. In the 1970s, faculty outnumbered administrators on college campuses. Today, administrative employees outnumber instructors and researchers by the thousands. Administration positions commonly receive high salaries. For example, former President Neil Kerwin made over $1 million dollars annually. Not every administrator makes that much, but six-figure salaries that continually increase are common. Looking overall, “between 1947 and 1995… administrative costs increased from barely 9 percent to nearly 15 percent of college and university budgets… Overall university spending increased 148 percent. Instructional spending increased only 128 percent, 20 points less than the overall rate of spending increase. Administrative spending, though, increased by a whopping 235 percent.” At the same time that administrations ballooned in cost and size, universities turned to part-time and adjunct instructors. Part-time faculty and teaching assistants now make up half of instructional staff nationwide—it was only one third in the 1980s. As their own budgets grew, bureaucrats had to rely on part-time instructors to cut costs.

To be sure, not all of the growth in administration is unwarranted. Universities provide more student services and government-mandated reports than in previous decades. However, administrative excess exceeds what is necessary. Government reporting requirements are greater at state schools, which have more government mandates. Despite this fact, private institutions’ growth in administration is double the amount at government-run colleges. Experts also testify that much of the work, reporting or otherwise, could be outsourced to firms on a contract basis. The main culprit for administrative largesse is clear: the bureaucracies are serving themselves. With no students to curb them and faculty disempowered, there is little standing in the way of bureaucrats increasing their own funding and prestige. Administrators at state schools are accountable to at least the state governments, but private school administrators have almost no accountability—except to the Boards they are buddy-buddy with. This unaccountability is why private colleges have seen administrative burden grow more than state schools. At the end of it all, the bureaucracy benefits itself at our expense. The increasing costs of tuition and fees benefit the administrators more and more and squeeze our finances tighter and tighter.

Elitism and bureaucracy are not the only models for university governance. There are actually many examples of universities across the country and history that pursue democracy. At the College of the Atlantic in Maine, “students, faculty, and staff work together to govern the college.” There is a weekly town hall meeting where every member of the campus community comes together to vote on policies, budgets, and administrative concerns. Students serve on almost all administration committees and have full voting rights. At Marlboro College in Vermont, “All students, faculty and staff members may participate [in Town Meetings], each with an equal vote.” This body similarly sets policy, and students serve on administration committees, too. These bodies draw on New England’s long history of local government, and empower students, faculty, and staff to make decisions democratically. There is not an all-powerful administration that heads a strict hierarchy; all members of the campus community are given a democratic voice. There are also ways that even the traditional Board-Administration model can be more democratic. According to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, most public universities have student trustees, and, unlike A.U., most of them have voting power.

Looking to history gives us even more examples of democratic universities. The 1960s and 70s saw a breakthrough in students’ voices in campus governance. In Role and Structure of Student Government, published in 1966 by the United States National Student Association, a confederation of student governments, three types of student participation are outlined. The first is the most traditional: maintaining a student government like our own A.U.S.G. The editor, Mary Meehan, explains how a powerful student government would create reports and policy proposals for the administration. It would draw its authority from its representation of the student body. The downsides are the lack of access student governments sometimes have to administrative information and the lack of formal power over policy enactment. The second form of student participation is “Co-operative Government.”