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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

The conclusion is inescapable. The question of who higher education’s stakeholders are is unprofitable and certainly not the one with which to begin a discussion of governance. What then is? How about, what’s the nature of our enterprise, both globally and in particular, on this campus? Once that question has been answered—once we have a clear sense of the project’s nature—we can more precisely specify its goals and set about determining who should be given the responsibility for achieving them and the structures and processes by which they will do so.

I now teach at a law school that has only been in business since 2001. Sometime at the end of the last century, a very small number of people there asked and answered the question of purpose without having to worry about all those constituencies—i.e., stakeholders—that did not yet exist. But colleges and universities do not usually have that option, and so the selection of those who will have the first say must occur within the structure that is already in place, which means that the foundational question will be asked by boards of trustees and sitting senior administrators. That’s just the way it is.

The University as a Business Once the key players have been identified and have determined what it is that the institution does, we can proceed to the governance question. Immediately two management/governance models begin to compete for dominance: the university as a business and the university as a democracy.

Much has been written about the inappositeness of thinking of the university as a business. Here is a representative statement by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges:

Nonprofit colleges and universities differ from businesses in many respects. They do not operate from a profit motive, and the “bottom lines” of colleges and universities are far more difficult to measure. They also differ from businesses in the sense that the processes of teaching, learning, and research often are at least as important as “the product,” as measured by the conferring of degrees or the publication of research results. And by virtue of their special mission and purpose in a pluralistic society, they have a tradition of participation in institutional governance that is less common in and less appropriate for business.

This is pretty much boiler-plate language, and I find little to disagree with in it—except for, first, the gratuitous phrase “pluralistic society.” I don’t see that pluralism has anything to do with it. If colleges and universities do have a core purpose, that purpose would have belonged to colleges and universities in the pre-World War II period when, although American society may have been pluralistic, the student population and the faculty certainly were not. I also am a bit bothered by the academic exceptionalism more than hinted at by the words “special mission.” Every profession or practice has a special mission; if what it did was also done by others, there would be no reason for anyone to seek its services. I suspect that “special mission” carries a moral or even religious connotation: We are special because we live the life of the mind while others perform in less exalted ways. This form of academic smugness is always unattractive and is spectacularly ineffective as a defense of the enterprise. Still, the list of differences between the business world and the academic world offered here is pretty much on target: Higher education is not in the same business as business.

But higher education needs to be, to some extent at least, managed like a business. In every phase of its operation, the university is in fact a commercial enterprise—charging tuition, paying salaries, constructing and maintaining buildings, providing food services, running transportation systems, installing multi-million dollar information networks, mounting athletic programs that are financed in part by the sale of tickets, managing student unions with their multiple services, and so on. Add to all these sponsored research, venture-tech partnerships, shared patents, and huge stock portfolios, and it is tempting to invoke the old comic formula: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a business. No, it’s not, but it is an academic enterprise that requires good business practices to sustain itself and flourish.

To drop the duck metaphor for a canine one: It all depends on whether or not the tail is wagging the dog. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with increasing efficiency, monitoring expenditures, cultivating resources, expanding markets, and replenishing inventories, so long as these and other bottom-line strategies are understood to be in the service of a project they neither contain nor define. Things go wrong when the first question asked is “how much will it cost?” or “how much will it bring in?” rather than “what will it contribute to what we have decided that we do?” or “how promising is it?” In short, business practices need to support educational purpose, not the other way around.

As Larry Gerber puts it in an essay in Academe: “Advocates of a top-down management style who want to transform faculty from professionals into ‘employees’ and students into ‘consumers’ tend to see liberal education as a waste of time and resources, because they fail to see the immediate ‘payoff’ of the liberal and fine arts and because they are willing to allow the ‘market’ to determine what should and should not be taught.” Once in place, Gerber continues, this market mentality spreads throughout the institution, with unhappy results: “Encouraging students to view themselves primarily as consumers … too often results in pressures for lowering academic standards, … [since] student preferences to avoid courses with heavy reading assignments … may well result in administrative pressures on faculty to lower standards in order to maintain enrollments.”