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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

And this means that shared governance cannot be a general principle either, for in its strongest form, with its insistence that the franchise be extended as widely as possible, it is indistinguishable from representative democracy and therefore from the stakeholder model in which everyone is in charge and therefore no one is. The question of who does and does not share in governance is not a philosophical but a practical one. You answer it by identifying the task and surveying the resources and obstacles attendant upon it. Then you are in the position to figure out who should be given the responsibility for getting the job done and how. This is a matter not of grand moral pronouncements but of good management.

Shared Governance and Management John Lombardi, president of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, makes a useful distinction when he says that “universities for the most part do not have management; they have governance,” which he defines as “the political process that balances the various competing interests of an institution through a complicated and lengthy process.” Governance of the shared variety is indeed an impediment to action because it has the tendency to replace it with process, which means that action will be endlessly deferred. Lombardi concludes that “to improve, the university must have management. It must have direction. The institution must consult … must listen, and it must respond to … advice from its many constituencies, but it must nonetheless act, and often it must act without complete consensus.”

The difference between management and shared governance is that management is, by and large, aware of its instrumental status—it does not define the job but helps to get it done. Meanwhile, those who preach the gospel of shared governance tend to think of it as the model of organization that belongs naturally to the job. Indeed, in their minds the job, or at least a large part of it, is being democratic. Moreover, advocates of shared governance are unlikely to be impressed when Lombardi complains that this politically inspired concept, when put into operation, prevents the organization from moving forward. Exactly right, is the reply, and it’s a good thing too, because the organization—meaning the senior administration, from the dean to the president to the board—is a structure of power, and it is one’s positive duty to frustrate its operations.

There is still another way in which academic life differs from the life of business. In the business world, those at the top of the organizational hierarchy are regarded (not only by themselves but by others lower on the food chain) as the key players and the ones best positioned and equipped to make the important decisions. In the academic world, by contrast, faculty members regard senior administrators with contempt, believing them to be either burnt-out academics or failed scholars whose flame was never lit in the first place. The organizational chart of a university may suggest that authority rests with the administrators, who, as the management class, set the standards to which faculty, the labor class, must conform. But faculty do not think of themselves as labor (hence the resistance to unionization) but are convinced—a conviction that seems to be issued to them along with the Ph.D.—that authority really rests with them and that the hierarchy announced in the organizational chart is a fiction they are in no way obliged to respect. I once explained this to someone who asked, “Well, if they think that, why don’t they assume the positions in the hierarchy themselves?” The answer is that they would believe that such grubbing after administrative power is beneath them. After all, they inhabit the “life of the mind” (a phrase that should be retired along with “stakeholders,” “best practices,” and the rest) and therefore have a right not to be coerced by bean-counters in three-piece suits and power dresses. They certainly should not aspire to be like them.

This sense of entitlement—we are the real center of the enterprise, and deans, provosts, and presidents merely serve us—comes easily to those who conflate the university with the model of democracy, a model in which power is assumed to be always corrupt and in need of check by those of purer heart and mind. If you are a dean or a provost, you might be understandably reluctant to share governance with a crew like that. You would know that they would come to the task with a set of attitudes that, rather than facilitating the smooth running of the university’s machinery, is likely to put a spanner in the works for what will seem to them to be moral reasons: We are doing no more than asserting our intellectual freedom.

This turns out in some cases to be freedom not only from external intrusions into the daily business of the workplace, but freedom from its everyday obligations as well. Why should I teach three days a week? Why should I teach this subject just because my chair told me to? Why must I post office hours and keep them? Why can’t I hold class at my house or the beach? As someone who has been there, I have a great deal of sympathy with Harry Haynsworth, retiring president and dean of the William Mitchell College of Law: After 14 years of wrestling with the appropriate division of responsibilities between the faculty and administrators, he reports that “in recent years I have consciously tried to limit the number of issues that will ultimately come before the entire faculty for its approval” (“Shared Governance: Reflections of a Retiring Dean,” University of Toledo Law Review, 2005).

Haynsworth, who knows he is out of step with conventional wisdom, continues to believe that his “basic convictions are sound and are supported by respectable authority.” His convictions are also supported by the practice of most colleges and universities. Here, for example, is a sentence from the “Guidelines for Shared Governance” at the University of Arizona: “Students, classified staff and professional personnel should participate in the shared governance process where appropriate and in a fitting manner.” And who gets to decide what is fitting and appropriate? “The Task Force recommends that the President commits to and takes a leadership role in smoothing the way for shared governance at all levels.”