Last week, Senior Staff Writer Lillian Rountree spoke with Professor Michael Thaddeus about the state of the University administration, faculty empowerment and disempowerment, and the place of tenure and academic freedom in these debates at Columbia.

Professor Michael Thaddeus’ name became known to most of campus (and the country) this summer, when his February 2022 analysis of Columbia’s submitted data to the U.S. News & World Report became national news. His claims that Columbia intentionally submitted misleading data led to the University’s ranking changing from number two to number 18 on the organization’s all-important list of top American universities and have since inspired a nationwide debate about the accuracy and purpose of university rankings.

Yet Professor Thaddeus’ critique of Columbia goes beyond the actions taken to seemingly manipulate the school’s ranking. In the conclusion of his original investigation, he claimed that “root-and-branch reform is needed” at the University. Last week, former editor and Senior Staff Writer Lillian Rountree spoke with Professor Thaddeus to learn more about his perspective on the problems necessitating such reform. The transcript below is a condensed and lightly edited version of their conversation, with citations added to support the claims made.

Lillian Rountree: You have been very outspoken about the role of the administration here. I wanted to talk to you to get your perspective on that role more generally. You’ve been asked a lot about U.S. News and rankings.

Michael Thaddeus: You’re perfectly right. People always want to talk about rankings. What I always say about rankings is that the rankings are worthless, and we should be paying no attention to them. And then the question that journalists always follow up is, well in that light, what do you make of Columbia’s fall from number two to number 18? So yeah, if we don’t talk about that, that’s wonderful.

LR: I’ve been thinking about this discussion as more about faculty empowerment and disempowerment. You’ve talked about how you feel, in your experience as chair of the math department and as a professor here, that faculty have less power or influence in administrative decisions than other universities. What do you mean by that?

MT: Faculty are becoming disempowered at lots of universities. As an organization gets larger and with more different units and parts, the housekeeping duties become more and more complicated and more and more overwhelming. Even if faculty had the power to make such decisions, I think many of us are just overwhelmed and don’t have the time or the bandwidth to pay attention to them. If you look back 20 or 30 years ago, faculty were more vocal about expressing their opinions. The whole institution was simpler. It was just easier to have opinions and to make them work in a smaller and simpler organization. For better or worse, there was more deference on the part of administrators to the opinions of faculty. There really is no longer a sense that the opinions of faculty or students matter that much. The University has become more like a business. Revenue generation is the primary concern of the administration. It’s our role now, unfortunately, as faculty and students, to fight the administration. A lot of the time, we can’t assume that what they’re doing is what’s in our best interest or students’ best interest.

LR: Do you think that is more a consequence of the way the administration has grown and less about how the faculty roles have changed?

MT: Those faculty roles have changed. An institution like this has always been very strongly focused on research. These old Ivy League schools, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, were founded as colleges, and undergraduate education was always at the heart of their mission. Columbia was one of those. Columbia was founded before the American Revolution. It was an old-fashioned Ivy League school, but around 1900 or even before, it hopped on the bandwagon of the second generation of universities that were founded as research universities. Johns Hopkins and UChicago are the ones that spring to mind. Columbia had a president called Nicholas Murray Butler, who was president for about 40 years at the beginning of the 20th century. I think he was the one who really reoriented the University to focus on research. In the years after the war, graduate education and doctoral education was the most important form of education at the University. Maybe to some degree, that’s still true. 

Part of the fight is, do we put undergraduate education at the heart of what we do? To what degree do we focus on teaching as well as research? I think that that has changed a little bit. Again, just because things are much bigger. If I think about the leading mathematicians who were here in the math department in the 1950s, and 60s, before I was born, there were these really eminent names like Samuel Eilenberg or Lipman Bers. They’re not going to be household names, but in the world of mathematics, they were leading figures. Those guys taught calculus almost every semester. They did, in fact, do their share of the undergraduate teaching. Maybe it’s just become harder to do because class sizes are so much larger, and there are so many more headaches connected with teaching. But I do think that, along with the growing size and complexity of the institution, there has been a division between the roles of teaching and research. A lot of faculty feel like their commitment is to research and not to teaching.

LR: I have a family friend who’s a professor at Duke in sociology. He said to me once that he laughs when his students have the expectation that the university is about them and about serving them.

MT: You pay so much money for an undergraduate education, that that’s a natural thing to assume. You’re paying so much money. Most of our revenue is derived from tuition. Something like 80% of our revenue is derived from tuition in the University as a whole.* You would think that an organization that derives the lion’s share of its revenue from tuition would put education, front and center. And yet, that’s not always the way things seem to work. 

As an example of how things got more complicated, I was calculus director before I became a department chair. While I was calculus director, the School of General Studies set up all these dual degree programs. As they set them up one by one, I suddenly found that as calculus director, I needed to arrange placement for those incoming students in our calculus courses. And I needed to know a little bit about how calculus is taught at, say, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Each one of those programs that was added made that task more complicated, more difficult. 

The more moving parts there are to the University, the harder the task of teaching becomes. And that’s become really hard with advising. Advising students is something that faculty used to do. They don’t really do it at all anymore. We leave advising to this professional cadre of advising deans, who are doing their very best, but number one, they’re not mathematicians or they’re not scholars in any academic field. Number two, they have a gigantic caseload. Each of them has about 200 students. During registration week, they’re swamped.**

LR: You’ve described your time as the chair of the math department as having “radicalized” you, which is a pretty strong verb. Can you give some examples?

MT: I saw how the sausage was made. I came to realize how deeply, deeply dysfunctional this institution is, in so many ways. It’s been like that maybe forever, maybe since Nicholas Murray Butler. But the dysfunction has festered and grown worse over the last 20 years.

As an example, I was department chair. The pandemic came along, and a lot of meetings switched to Zoom. People were upset about COVID prevention. And so the head of facilities—who is one of the top-ranking people in the University and reports directly to the president—got on a Zoom call with the department chairs. One of the department chairs was saying, “Well in my building, there’s no hand sanitizer in the dispensers on floors seven, nine, and 11.” And the director of facilities said, “Oh, thanks for letting us know. We’ll tell our people and tell them to get on this.” It almost made my head explode. It turns out there are two ways to make a request as a department chair. One is you could fill out a ticket. You can make a standard facilities request, and then it’s just going into this faceless web form. Or you can talk to the head of facilities. That’s the alternative. 

Department chairs have no high-level channels where they can get in touch with anyone at facilities. Facilities is this totally self-contained entity that operates on its own terms, under rules that it creates for itself, answerable only to the President. There are so many things like that in the University, where the central administration is just separated by a very high wall from the rest of the University. Faculty can’t talk to Central [administration]. Students can’t talk to Central. We have no idea who’s making decisions, how they make decisions. Guess what, those decisions are not often not in anyone’s best interest. 

I was radicalized by that. And after I was chair, I realized that the University had just stopped sharing any budget information with the faculty, even though the University Statutes say that the faculty have the power and the duty to advise on the budget. If we have a duty to advise on the budget, but they’re not showing us that budget, how, how can we do that? So I made a motion requesting that the Dean of the Faculty transmit the Arts and Sciences budget to the faculty.*** My experience there was really radicalizing because it was clear that the administration did not really want to help. They wanted to comply with the terms of that motion in the most perfunctory way. So when it said, transmit to the faculty, it’s not transmitted to us. We need to go to Low Library to see it. And we are not allowed to take it out of the room. Just one piece of paper that we’re allowed to look at. It’s treated like it’s top secret. Like these documents Jack Teixeira is being charged with federal crimes for leaking. That’s how our Arts and Sciences budget is treated. At Harvard, their Arts and Sciences budget is on the web. Any member of the public can see it. You can see it, I can see it, but you can’t see the Columbia Arts and Sciences budget. My motion specifically asked what is the amount of common costs, which are the taxes that Arts and Sciences pays to Central. Two years later, we still don’t know how much common costs are. It’s astonishing. Clearly, one of the underlying themes is just the constant incessant growth of Central. Central administration is big, it’s growing, but nobody really knows what they do. And I’m not insinuating that they do nothing. We just are not told anything about who all these administrators are sitting in central. What they’re doing, where are they sitting, what decisions they’re making.

LR: You mentioned Harvard. Do you think this is part of a larger trend? Or do you think some of these things are very specific to the choices this administration has been making?

MT: People asked me that about rankings, too. There’s a larger trend with the disempowerment of faculty all over the country, all over the world. But I do think Columbia has been particularly egregious in some ways. Columbia is at the cutting edge. Columbia is certainly an exceptionally opaque institution where it’s just impossible to tell what’s going on at the upper levels about a lot of things. 

As another example that, again, makes my head explode: Columbia is building right now a 34-story building on the corner of Broadway on 125th Street. We know that because we can see it is literally going up. But how much money is that building going to cost? Where’s the money coming from to pay for the building? And what exactly is the building going to be used for? We know it’s residential housing, but for whom? Is that going to be for the general pool of faculty and grad students? Or is it going to be specifically for business students, as you might guess, since it’s right next to the business school? No one is even asking these questions, let alone answering them. I think at other universities there would be a faculty senate, for example, that is asking who’s paying for our 34-story building. It must cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s not chump change. We do have a University Senate. There are students and administrators and librarians on that Senate. It has a budget committee. But the last time the Budget Committee posted a report on the web was in 2010. The last time the University Senate hosted anything at all on its website was in 2019. So that oversight is not actually functioning as it should. That’s a symptom of disempowerment.

LR: I was thinking about the University Senate. As a student news organization, we usually do endorsements for student elections, which happen about this time of year. A couple of years ago, when I was an editor, I was looking into the University Senate because we had some people who wanted our endorsement. I was amazed at how little information there was about the Senate. The fact that the meetings are closed… It was pretty shocking.

MT: What’s funny is there’s a professional minute-taker. It’s the only governance organization that has its own professional, dedicated staff. The manager of the Senate Tom Mathewson is an admirable guy, he does a very professional job. But the minutes that he takes are not circulated in any meaningful way. It turns out that you can join a mailing list for the Senate. I’ve just come to realize this in the last year. Then you get links to the minutes. But for a random person in the University, you can’t even figure out who your senators are, let alone how to get in touch with them or what business the Senate is doing, because the Senate website hasn’t been updated in four years. And it amazes me that Spectator or Bwog are not covering the story. Here we have this organization that was intended, after 1968, to carry a lot of the burden of governance in the University, making sure that the University is acting in the public interest as it was supposed to. It seems to have almost completely broken down, or at least to outside appearances it has, and no one is even talking about it. Maybe I could interview you for a second and ask: when you have elections for senators in CC, when you have elections for Senators, do you ever even find out what the results of the election are?

LR: We do get the election results through our student council. 

MT: I’m glad that the student council circulates the results. The responsibility for Senate elections for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is with the executive vice president’s office and they hold the elections, but then they never announce the results. So you don’t even know who is elected. To be fair to them, very often, the seats are uncontested, so you can figure that whoever was a candidate won. But still, there are overlapping terms, so it would be useful to have a list of who’s in the darn Senate at any one time. It’s true that for a lot of governance—whether it’s student governance, faculty governance, Senate—a lot of what actually happens in the meetings is quite dull. It’s dry. Again, it’s too bad. To some degree that’s necessary, any procedural body is going to do a lot of dull stuff. If you read the Congressional Record, that’s pretty dull, too. But at least in the United States government, there’s an understanding that important things are happening under the surface. The same is true in university politics. Lots of really important things are happening, but you just never hear about them.

For example, the University has set up a lot of online instructional programs, but you never hear about them, because those students are online, they’re not degree programs, they’re not accredited. At least most of them are not. Some are. I call it the dark University. It’s like dark matter. There’s this theory that there’s all this matter in the universe that can’t be observed, and physicists are trying to figure out where it is. The same with the dark University. There’s a lot of the University that we don’t see, and we don’t know where it is. All these administrators, all these students enrolled in online instructional programs. They’re not on campus, they’re not walking around. But they play a big role in our budgeting. Those students are paying tuition, the administrators are drawing salaries, and so on. We need to have some forum where we’re able to talk about that, because, as I say, things are heading in a bad direction.

LR: There’s a lot we don’t know, but some things that we do know are that the Columbia College Dean stepped down last year. President Bollinger is leaving after this year. Mary Boyce just announced that she would be stepping down. There’s a surprising amount of turnover. I certainly have the impression that for my four years, that’s pretty unprecedented to have so many administrative figures changing over.

MT: There’s been an almost complete turnover in the senior leadership positions. Amy Hungerford came to Arts and Sciences at the beginning of 2020. At this point that makes her a veteran. Mary Boyce came in two years ago, and now she’s leaving. The CC dean turned over. Almost all the professional schools have had new deans in the last few years. And it’s very weird that President Bollinger has been in such a hurry to appoint all these new people right before he leaves office. He has made a lot of structural changes right before leaving office. He has opened up all these new units of the University like the Climate School. He really has encumbered his successor in a way. Usually, a new person coming in wants to advance their own agenda and appoint their own people. And Bollinger has, if not made that impossible, he’s made it more difficult. It’s possible that some of these people who just came in will then leave because the new president, quite reasonably, will feel that she has the prerogative to bring in some of her own people. And it may be that that’s what is happening with the provost. But there’s an enormous amount of turnover. It just adds to the commotion behind the scenes. There’s very little commotion on the surface. 

I had almost no official contact with anyone in the administration about the U.S. News scandal. But I did talk to someone unofficially who said, Oh, I sometimes get summoned to more than one meeting a day about Columbia’s response to the U.S. News scandal. Sometimes we have two or even three meetings in a single day about that. And I was flabbergasted because the outward response of the University to that scandal was almost nothing. What were they doing behind the scenes? It was like the Wizard of Oz—pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I think there was some huge commotion behind the scenes, but we don’t know what it was.

LR: Do these more university-level administrative unknowns impact how your department functions? Do you still feel like there’s a fair amount of control over funding, what courses you can offer, hiring within the math department, despite this?

MT: Yes and no. The first thing that should be said is that administrators are always attacking departments, and the very idea of university departments. They always call them silos. They always say that activity is siloed within the University, as if there is something inherently distasteful about the categorization of disciplines into fields. It’s really a question of power. The point is that the University is set up so that faculty do have a certain amount of power within departments and almost absolute power, in fact, over appointments over deciding whom to hire, and about course offerings, about pedagogical matters. The decision about what courses to offer, and who to hire is up to the faculty and departments. And that’s a good thing, having that autonomy in those silos. If we said as math faculty, well, we don’t want to offer calculus or linear algebra anymore, of course, they would have a conversation with us about that, in practical terms, we can’t do that, but we don’t want to do that. Because those are the courses people want to take. That’s how we get students to enroll in our department. 

About appointments and about the decision of who to appoint and about the decision of what courses to offer, how to construct the syllabus, faculty do have autonomy, and that’s great. But there are broader questions like, what degree programs to set up? Are we going to set up online degree programs, for example? Or just what is the overall number of faculty we have? What faculty positions are we authorized to do searches for? And at what levels? Are we authorized to hire tenure-track faculty? Or do we have to hire temporary lecturers and adjuncts? At that macro level, there’s a lot of administrative involvement. That’s always been the way the structure has been set up. It has to be because those are decisions that have budgetary consequences, and they control the budget. But the decisions that they’ve been making, for a long time, have not been good or healthy for education or research. There has been a huge move away from hiring what’s called tenured or tenure-track faculty and toward hiring temporary lecturers instead. Meanwhile, the whole rest of the University has grown dramatically, students, administrators, and so on. As a student, you’re much less likely to have contact with tenured faculty. They’re much less likely to teach your courses. Core courses, for example, are much more likely to be taught by someone who does not really have a future in academic life. This is someone who’s working in a temporary position, which may not be renewed indefinitely. They’re also not that well paid. And someone may decide that they can’t live on that salary forever. 

It’s part of a broader trend in the whole economy, not just universities, what’s called the casualization of employment. Fewer and fewer people have reliable, long-term jobs. More and more people have temporary jobs, just like taxi drivers used to save up and buy a medallion. When they had the taxi medallion, then they had a guaranteed source of income. And it was a solid, reliable job. Now, drivers work for Uber or Lyft, they’re gig employees and their terms of employment are very precarious. Sadly, the same thing is happening in academia. And even more sadly, it’s even happening in very wealthy institutions like this one. You would think that a very wealthy institution would be able to treat its faculty better. That’s complicated. Tenured faculty are still treated extremely well. When I say Columbia doesn’t treat its faculty well, I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. Tenured faculty get very good salaries, good faculty apartments, low teaching loads, generous leave policies. But the business plan is there just are fewer and fewer of those people compared to the rest of the University. And more and more teaching is being done by temporary people whose conditions are much, much less favorable.

LR: Do you think that is necessarily a good or a bad thing for the health of the University?

MT: Oh, it’s a terrible thing. Young people just can’t see a viable career path in academic life. This is actually largely responsible, I think, for a lot of the disturbances with doctoral education, not just at Columbia. At lots of universities, there have been big strikes by doctoral students. There was a strike at the University of California. There have been strikes elsewhere. It used to be that if you accepted five to 10 years of poverty, you could do a doctorate, and then you would have career prospects in academic life. Now, people see those prospects diminishing. It makes them see the doctoral program in more crudely transactional terms.

LR: The other thing I want to talk about with tenure is the protections that come with it, particularly the academic freedom that you are or are not given because of tenure. Certainly, from my perspective—especially as Bwog had this article about the pressure for non-tenure track faculty to teach in-person in fall 2020—it seems that the critiques you have made of the University would be much riskier to make without tenure. Do you feel like that’s true?

MT: In a way, I feel like that’s true; in a way, not actually. Anybody at the University who does not have tenure has to be formally reviewed and reappointed from time to time. So there are actually two things that make life more precarious for you, if you’re in that position. One is not having the contractual guarantee of tenure. But then the other is that you actually do have to be reviewed. If you look at the official definition of academic freedom at Columbia, in the University Statutes, a document that nobody ever reads, it does say what academic freedom is,**** it defines it as the freedom to speak out about your subject. I’m not speaking out about my subject. My subject is mathematics. I’m speaking out about university governance, and the reporting of facts and figures about the University to U.S. News and World Report. That’s not math except in the most generous interpretation. 

Nevertheless, having tenure did embolden me to speak out. It gives me a certain confidence that people in more temporary positions might feel they lack. I also just tend to be fearless about such things. I don’t see this as a virtue. I just see this as a trait of my own personality. And I think one thing that makes it easier is that the University as a whole is supposed to be devoted to the pursuit of truth, and our president presents himself as a scholar of civil liberties and freedom of the press. It just meant that any retaliation against me for saying what I did by the University would look really bad. The optics of it would look really bad. But I was careful in the article I wrote to confine myself to very factual statements. I did not make things very personal. I did not throw a lot of invectives. I did not say so and so is an idiot. I said these are the facts that were reported to U.S. News. These are the facts that I could independently corroborate, and look, these numbers are different. To answer your question, I definitely feel that tenure is a very valuable thing. The value of tenure shouldn’t be dismissed. We need it. We need more people with tenure. The whole concept of academic freedom is weird, because people talk about it in almost religious terms as if it’s this wonderful thing. But then, to the extent that academic freedom is conferred by tenure, well, not everyone has that. Some people haven’t, and some don’t. So what is this great, wonderful freedom that some people have and other people don’t? Academic freedom has to be understood in a broader sense. And it has to be understood partly as saying that there’ll be no retaliation against anyone in the University community, whether it’s a student or untenured faculty for saying things that are within the legitimate terms of debate.

LR: I think all these issues are playing out in the case of Amy Wax.

MT: I’m terrified to speak on the record about Amy Wax. Amy Wax is really a loathsome, contemptible person. But in a way, she might be the poster child for the loathsome, contemptible person who deserves to have some kind of freedom of speech. She might be that person about whom you should say, I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it. It’s difficult because what she has to say is so awful. It’s true that professors are not just speakers. Professors are also instructors. They have to give classes and assign grades and so on. If you can’t do that part of the job adequately, your employment can be terminated, understandably so. It’s totally reasonable to imagine that if somebody makes blatantly racist or prejudiced statements, that person could not be fair to students in her class because of their race or ethnicity. I can understand the arguments along those lines.

From being department chair, I can say that if you have an instructor who poses a problem, the solution can just be to assign that person to teach your courses where they do the least damage. But it sounds like someone like Amy Wax has become so toxic that she would do damage in almost any courses she would be assigned to. Furthermore, probably almost nobody wants to take her courses at this point. I don’t know what should be done. Being someone myself who has spoken out very vigorously about my own university and who therefore benefits from the protections of academic freedom, I see these cases, the Amy Wax case or the Josh Katz case, in a somewhat different light from other people. If Penn could fire Amy Wax or Princeton could fire Josh Katz, why can’t Columbia fire me? I tend to be fearless about these things. So I don’t lose a lot of sleep about that happening. But I do think that that’s another issue that has to be introduced into the discussion.

LR: I would hope that no one would compare what you have done in critiquing the administration with the things Amy Wax is accused of. But it technically is the same notion of academic freedom that is protecting both of you.

MT: Again, it’s very difficult. There are certain things that Amy Wax has said that perhaps—some of the most offensive, most objectionable things—are statements she made of abstract general nature, and that probably do deserve to be covered by academic freedom. Whereas the things that impair her ability to function as a professor are things that she said about specific students. Maybe not so sweeping or broad, but if there’s some ground for, for removing her from the classroom, it might be because of those things. 

* According to the 2022 financial report from the Trustees of Columbia, 25% of Columbia University’s total revenue comes from tuition, second only to the revenue coming from patient care through the University medical system. 

** Advising responsibilities vary by department; smaller departments may have one or two designated undergraduate advisors, while others, such as the Department of History, have advising committees. Groups like the Berick Center for Student Advising and Undergraduate Research and Fellowships have advisors with backgrounds ranging from administration to academia. 

*** According to a spokesperson for Arts and Sciences, “A&S makes an overview of the operating budget available to faculty every year. They may view it at their convenience by appointment or in dedicated discussion meetings each spring.” Budget information is also made available to members of the Policy and Planning Committee and the Faculty Budget Committee. The budget is not made available online for public access.

**** The Columbia University statutes define academic freedom as follows: “Academic freedom implies that all officers of instruction are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subjects; that they are entitled to freedom in research and in the publication of its results; and that they may not be penalized by the University for expressions of opinion or associations in their private or civic capacity; but they should bear in mind the special obligations arising from their position in the academic community.”

Header image via Charlotte Slovin