Building a statue of smoke: Finance culture and the NYU trustees

Christopher Newfield, Greg Grandin

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    When it comes to the role of trustees in graduate labor issues- indeed, in all of university life-much is assumed, but little is researched. One historian noted that "the most evasive group within American higher education has been one of its most powerful groups-namely, trustees."1 Boards of Trustees, sometimes called Regents, Overseers, or, in the case of Yale University, a "Corporation," have in almost all cases legal possession and ultimate fi duciary authority over their institutions. Boards take full formal charge of the business side of their universities, often have high-level business connections and sophistication, and are in many cases dominated by lawyers and corporate elites. They rarely have formal training or demonstrated achievement in the world of higher education; rather, they are associated with the fund-raising side of the enterprise, where their social and business connections are expected to increase philanthropy and related opportunities for the university. Trustees can and do sometimes pull administrative strings and sometimes ignore or set policy for faculty; before the parameters of tenure were well established, trustees used to fi re suspect or dissident faculty.2 In recent times, trustees have occasionally intruded into educational policy against the wishes of the majority of both faculty and administrators. In 1995, University of California (UC) Regent Ward Connerly, a small-business man acting with the full backing of the state's governor, Pete Wilson, persuaded the Board of Regents to eliminate affi rmative action in UC hiring and admissions. But this kind of spectacular strong-arming is the exception rather than the rule, and Connerly had so clearly dragged the University into Governor Pete Wilson's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination that he became a poster child for unregental behavior. His claims that the regents "share too damn much" with the faculty, that he was "sick and tired of the faculty thinking we're supposed to roll over and play dead," are still cited as blatant trustee overreaching.3 There is no evidence that Connerly's public brand of activist trusteeship has caught on. Organizational frameworks do not clarify much, either. "Trustees" appear in the title of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a conservative advocacy organization co-founded by Lynne Cheney and operating in close alignment with David Horowitz's crusade to purge liberals and leftists from campuses. Although ACTA hopes to infl uence trustees to reshape their faculties toward the right, it cannot be said to be a trustee organization. The more mainstream Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) has recently issued a sober report defi ning such concepts as "board accountability" and "board performance."4 This is a worthy group committed to good trustee governance, but its practical infl uence over sitting trustees is unknown and probably limited. Lacking better information, we often fall back on the model of trustees as a "board of directors." Its most famous expression emerged from the 1964-1965 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, when the student negotiator Mario Savio expressed his frustration with UC President Clark Kerr and the "autocracy which runs this university": If President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn't he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received-from a wellmeaning liberal-was the following: He said, "Would you ever imagine the manager of a fi rm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?" That's the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a fi rm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I'll tell you something: The faculty are a bunch of employees, and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw material[s] that don't mean to have any process upon us, don't mean to be made into any product, don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings!5 In the 1960s, trustees often seemed to be the power behind throne of fi gurehead university presidents, routinely maneuvering on behalf of established powers, particularly those invested in heavy industry and national defense. So we might start thinking about the NYU Trustees in the 2000s by comparing them to their predecessors.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationThe University Against Itself
    Subtitle of host publicationThe NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace
    PublisherTemple University Press
    Number of pages14
    ISBN (Print)9781592137411
    StatePublished - 2008

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Social Sciences


    Dive into the research topics of 'Building a statue of smoke: Finance culture and the NYU trustees'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this