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Shared Governance: Democracy is Not an Educational Idea

Shared Governance: Democracy is Not an Educational Idea

Stanley Fish, Change Magazine

December 02, 2009

No one should presume to tell a college or university what its governance structure should be. In fact, there’s no general model of governance, shared or otherwise, that can be replicated from place to place. Each institution is differently situated with respect to its history and mission; its size; the number and nature of its programs; its relationship to local, state, and national governments; its legal obligations and attendant dangers; its mechanisms of funding; and so on.

Even something as apparently extraneous as the number of buildings and rooms on a campus can affect, and perhaps undermine, a grand attempt at governance reform. If revised regulations call for regular meetings and consultations and there are not enough spaces or hours in the day for either, the physical plant and the 24-hour day will always trump philosophy. The new utopia will quickly become the old dystopia but worse, because of the expectations that will have been provoked and then disappointed.

Nevertheless, while there may not be a general scheme of governance to which all should conform, there are general, and even philosophical, considerations that will pertain to any conversation about governance. It is my purpose to explore some of these considerations, with the intention not of providing a blueprint but of suggesting how such a discussion might proceed.

It would not begin with a consideration of higher education’s “stakeholders.” When I was executive director of the Duke University Press, I argued (unsuccessfully) that we should not publish any book that contained the words “imbricate,” “aporia,” or “performative.” When I wrote a monthly column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I inveighed against phrases like “best practices,” “hard choices,” and “strategic planning.” And now that I have surveyed some of the literature on shared governance, I would remove or expunge from conversations about governance (although I have no realistic hope of doing so) the word “stakeholders.”

Originally the word referred to the person who held the stakes—money, property or some other good—for which others were competing. But we now use the term to mean all those “who are (or might be) affected by an action taken by an organization or group” (Wikipedia Encyclopedia). Here is a typical list of higher-education’s stakeholders: “higher education associations, funding organizations, the U.S. Department of Education, related Congressional committees, accrediting institutions, system-level offices, governors, state departments or boards of education, state legislatures, students, alumni, local community members, trustees, senior administrators, faculty leaders and presidents.”

The existence of a list as long as this one provokes protests on behalf of those who are not on it: staff, janitors, managers of student unions, community associations, professional sports teams, textbook publishers, book stores, vendors, caterers, neighborhood businesses, and real-estate developers, to name a few. Indeed, if the filter of inclusion is anyone who “might be affected” by higher education, there is no reason to exclude anyone—including newborn babies, who certainly have a stake, albeit a long-range one, in the enterprise.

To begin our discussion with a notion so diffuse will generate an equally diffuse model of governance, and it is no surprise that the authors (or are they stakeholders?) of the same paper end with this recommendation: “Perhaps a new governance model is in order for the university of the future—one that places the attitudes, values, and expectations of internal and external stakeholders at the center.” Right! Why don’t we go out and ask everyone in sight how a university should be organized and then build their answers, along with all their “attitudes, values, and expectations,” into a structure?

Can anyone say “paralysis”? It has often been remarked that movement in a university is glacially slow, but glaciers will seem like rushing streams if no action can be taken that does not first satisfy the expectations of every stakeholder.