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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 University as a Democracy Gerber’s antidote for these and other looming disasters is shared governance, which he says is more likely than the top-down corporate model of management to foster what he considers the core purpose of higher education, “the unimpeded pursuit and dissemination of knowledge that are necessary for the healthy development of society.” But why should this be so? As long as the “unimpeded pursuit and dissemination of knowledge” are acknowledged to be at the center of the university’s mission, everyone in the chain of command, however it is configured, should foster it.

Commercialization of the enterprise is not the product of a particular management style, top down or otherwise, but of what Derek Bok describes as a confusion of means and ends: “To keep profit-seeking within reasonable bounds, a university must have a clear sense of the values needed to pursue its goals with a high degree of quality and integrity” (Universities In the Marketplace, 2003, p.6). The values and goals come first; if they are in place, they can be implemented by any organizational structure, although one can still argue about which organizational structure is best suited to the job. As I’ve said, that argument is likely to be a local one: Given our size, location, history, resources, etc., what organizational structure will work best for us? The idea that one structure will work best for everyone invests a mere procedure with an independent moral value.

Think, for example, about a department. Its structure might be autocratic—an old-fashioned head appointed for an indefinite term and responsible only to the dean. Or it might be roughly egalitarian—the chair elected by the faculty and expected to carry out its wishes as they have been expressed in votes. There is much to be said about the advantages and disadvantages of each of these models, but good scholarship and good pedagogy (another way to describe higher education’s core mission) can flourish or fail to flourish in either. This remains true if we extrapolate from the department to the college and then to the university. What we do in the shop—and how and by whom the shop is run are different matters. To conflate them is to turn an intellectual question—what is good scholarship and teaching?—into a political one—who shares in the power? Despite what Gerber would claim, the case for shared governance cannot rest on an intimate connection between its imperatives and those of the academic project. He makes the mistake—a natural and attractive one—of thinking that because we live in a democratic society, the institution we inhabit should embody democratic principles. The reasoning is that if democracy is good for the polity as a whole, it must be good for higher education.

But democracy is not an educational idea; it is a political response to a problem first formulated in the 17th century by the founders of Enlightenment liberalism. The problem is that in any modern nation-state, citizens are committed to a bewildering array of belief systems, or as John Rawls calls them, “comprehensive doctrines.” These are so disparate and so opposed to one another that if they are given their full sway in the public sphere, the result will be conflict, endless strife, and eventually civil war. The solution? Regard all citizens as free and equal political agents endowed with rights, independent of what they believe or who they are. The rights accorded every citizen are checks against abuses of power, and the most important check is provided by the ballot box, which allows the citizenry periodically to throw the rascals out.

What makes democracy work is an insistence on the priority of procedure over substance, or as Kant put it, the priority of the right over the good. Questions of the good are to be bracketed for the purposes of public life, because to put them on the political table is to invite back the divisiveness the entire scheme is designed to outflank. In the words of legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, the democratic liberal state is one that is, in its operations, “independent of any particular conception of the good life.” This means, Thomas Nagel tells us, that in political deliberations we must learn to bracket our beliefs, “whether moral, religious, or even historical and scientific,” and regard them “simply as someone’s beliefs rather than as truths” (“Moral Conflict and Political Legitimacy,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Volume 16, 1997).

The question is, what has this to do with scholarship and teaching? The answer is, absolutely nothing. An academic does not bracket or withdraw from his or her strong views about what is true; rather the task is to present and then defend those views by giving reasons and marshaling evidence. Nor is it the case that members of the academy are regarded as equal citizens despite differences in length of service, professional performance, research accomplishments, pedagogical effectiveness, etc. It is just these differences that make for unequal treatment, not because administrators and promotion committees are being undemocratic, but because assessment and evaluation, not democracy, are aspects of the business they are in.

Moreover, evaluation and assessment are not tasks that can be distributed evenly across the population, both because those who are being evaluated cannot assume the role of judges in their own cases and because some in the population—students, staff, janitorial workers—lack the credentials that would make their evaluations meaningful and relevant. Even though certain elements of democratic procedures and principles may prove useful in an academic setting—note that “useful” is an administrative, not a moral, notion—democracy is not generally appropriate as a standard and benchmark in academic life.