The passing of the Yale mace to a new president is a time for reflection and renewal.
During my 31 years teaching at Yale, I have seen the campus gradually shift away from a model of collegiality and mutual respect between administration and faculty to a more hierarchical corporate model where decisions are made by the administration and imposed on the faculty.
When I arrived, the Yale College faculty were widely regarded as central to the life and essence of the University. Highly respected faculty leaders passed on the Yale traditions for academic integrity and excellence to newer members of the community. The administration looked to the faculty for wisdom and advice about issues of the day. Major decisions were studied in depth by faculty committees that prepared lengthy and thoughtful reports for consideration by the whole faculty, who then discussed and voted on the committees’ recommendations. Most often the faculty ratified the proposals, but not uncommonly they raised additional concerns that required further consideration and review.
Over the years, faculty involvement has gradually declined. Much early-stage planning for new initiatives has been taken over by an expanded administrative staff. While often operating with the best of intentions, they have little contact with faculty and even less understanding of their diverse needs and opinions across campus. When faculty are involved, it tends to be later in the process, after the administration has proceeded so far down one path that to change direction would be costly and disruptive.
To the extent that the administration does talk to faculty, it tends to be to those it has chosen to serve as department chairs, directors and committee members. The faculty not in this inner circle have little opportunity for their voices to be heard. The administration may be largely unaware of widespread concerns of the remaining faculty, and it tends to dismiss those few who have the courage to speak up as malcontents who have only selfish interests at heart.
A consequence of this breakdown in collegiality is a growing use of words like “we” to refer not to the Yale community but to one’s own group within that community. Faculty and administrators alike are beginning to use language suggesting the two constituencies are opponents in some kind of a battle over power. This is not unlike the friction that exists in many corporate environments between management and labor.
Where there is lack of mutual respect, people naturally resort to deceit, manipulation and power plays in order to have their legitimate needs met. This is destructive of the very fabric of a great university, which requires respect for diversity of opinion, tolerance of differences, freedom of expression and academic honesty in order to truly seek light and truth.
The most important job of the new president will be to restore collegiality on campus and to put an end to the bad publicity Yale is getting in the world press. To do this, the new leader must have a deep understanding of how an academic enterprise operates and how it differs from for-profit corporations.
An exemplary presidential search committee can and should be the first step in this process. The new president will be off to a much better start if every constituency on campus believes its views were seriously considered in the president’s selection.
This requires that the search committee, too, reflect the same qualities of respect for diversity of opinion, tolerance of differences, freedom of expression and academic honesty desired in the new leader. The Yale Corporation should seek people for the search committee who can truly understand and represent the full spectrum of faculty opinion. This will require looking outside of the usual inner circle for faculty representatives on the committee and selecting more faculty committee members than has been announced.
Collegiality is necessary to restore Yale to a vibrant and functional institution that is able to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century while retaining the 300-year-old traditions that have made it great. Now is the time for the Yale Corporation to take the first step in restoring the collegium.
Michael Fischer is a professor of computer science.