Commentary: Purdue Senates govern Purdue’s curricula, not the Trustees

Lafayette Journal & Courier
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a commentary submitted to the Journal & Courier regarding the Purdue University Board of Trustees' proposed adoption of a graduation requirement without Faculty Senates' consent, according to the authors.

Many faculty at Purdue are critically worried about the decision of the Purdue Board of Trustees to do two things: 1) vote to adopt an undergraduate graduation requirement without consent of the University Senate; and 2) apply it system-wide without engaging faculty at the regional campuses. 

That the graduation requirement is about civics literacy, when the Board is not following its own governance procedures, is a particularly vicious irony.

The University Senate, soundly rejected the previous version of this plan. President Daniels first introduced the idea of a civics literacy graduation requirement back in January 2019.

The University Senate at West Lafayette took it up, holding a town hall and survey of faculty on the West Lafayette campus in spring 2019.  An associated working group produced a report by March 2020. They proposed a “test plus” requirement, where students would take a test on civics literacy (which they can repeat), plus either a 3-credit course, a set of related modules published by the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship and Engagement; or participation in a set of public events.

After debate, the University Senate voted down the proposal.  By a lot – almost two-thirds of the senators.

Perhaps daunted by this opposition, the Board and the Provost have decided to push through the newest version of the requirement without consulting us at all. Indeed the proposal is secret, for reasons that are not clear. This is ridiculous and damaging to the institution.

By all established norms and bylaws, the faculty are in charge of the curriculum and graduation requirements. This is to prevent possible political bias of politically-appointed Boards influencing what students are taught. These norms are set out in extensive documentation, including the bylaws of the Board itself, the bylaws of the University Senate, the constitution of the regional campuses, and the authoritative statement on academic governance, the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, published by the American Association of University Professors in 1966. 

This statement was jointly formulated by the American Council on Education (ACE, of which Purdue is a member) and the Association of Governing Boards (AGB, of which the Purdue Board of Trustees is also a member), and commended to member organizations. 

In other words: we are supposed to be following this Statement.

The statement notes (with our emphasis): 

"The governing board of an institution of higher education, while maintaining a general overview, entrusts the conduct of administration to the administrative officers—the president and the deans — and the conduct of teaching and research to the faculty. The board should undertake appropriate self-limitation.”

It goes on to argue that, in areas of faculty primacy, that is, where the faculty as a body are primarily responsible, including “curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process”, Boards should “concur with faculty judgement except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.”

The Board has made the argument that because they engaged with the University Senate, and because of the work of the working group in 2019-2020, they have met their obligation for shared governance.  We strongly disagree. Not only have they failed to appropriately engage the University Senate, relating to the West Lafayette campus, they are now pushing the requirement system-wide without consulting with the Senates of the system schools. 

The University Senate doesn’t govern the curriculum at Purdue-Fort Wayne or Purdue Northwest, or indeed IUPUI, according to the Purdue University code.  Regional campuses have their own constitutions and governing principles that establish that faculty on those campuses are in charge of their curriculum and graduation requirements. The regional campuses and West Lafayette campus coordinate themselves through the Intercampus Faculty Council (IFC), but this body does not have authority over curriculum on any of the campuses.

As evidenced by almost 200 letters of faculty protest sent to the Board, faculty across the Purdue system see this move by the Board to change the curriculum without consent of the respective faculties as threatening important aspects of rigorous academic life and setting a dangerous precedent.

With the Board determining graduation requirements rather than faculty, what is to stop future Boards from instituting other politically-driven graduation requirements over the faculty’s objections?  What is to stop the Board from threatening academic freedom in more profound ways?  What harm could the Board do to its relationship with the faculty bodies – across the system – moving forward and what impact will that have on all Purdue business?

Furthermore, with the civics literacy requirement imposed in this top-down manner without sufficient democratic deliberation or an affirmative vote from the representative body of the faculty, we have serious and evidence-based concerns about what this educational program will actually teach, overseen as it is by a body with seemingly no understanding of good civic behavior.

The faculty are responsible for research and teaching. The faculty has had the responsibility for directly educating the students since the founding of Purdue University. Prescribing major curricular change against the will of the faculty threatens the foundation of Purdue and all its campuses as a globally-respected educational institution.  

The Board has insisted that faculty have been involved in developing this proposal. While that is technically true, the nature of faculty involvement the Board allowed did not constitute 'meaningful participation' by faculty as defined by the AAUP. Meaningful participation by faculty in an area of primary responsibility (such as the curriculum) means faculty have power, through their representative bodies, to determine – not give input on -- policies and procedures in that area.

With our faculty colleagues, we insist that there is a distinct difference between consulting with select faculty under the pretense of a voluntary civics literacy requirement (as the Provost and Board did after the Senate voted down the working group’s proposal), and a meaningfully inclusive, deliberative, and democratic approach that involves a Senate vote and honors its outcome.

A vote is a vote. Such an approach is necessary to guarantee the long term viability, success, and integrity of changes to curricular requirements at Purdue and all its campuses, as well as demonstrating the Board’s own civic literacy on academic governance.

The Board has a real opportunity to demonstrate the importance of civics literacy by following due process and established academic governance procedures in its own governance. Or they have the chance to precipitate a constitutional crisis.  Either way, we suppose Purdue undergraduates will learn something about civics literacy.


  • Alice Pawley, President of AAUP-Purdue (West Lafayette), associate professor, School of Engineering Education
  • Noor O’Neill Borbieva, President of AAUP-Fort Wayne, Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology/Sociology
  • David Detmer, President of AAUP-Purdue Northwest, Professor of Philosophy Coordinator.