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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

Shared Information In Arizona’s final document, approved by the faculty senate in April 2005, the true and sensible meaning of shared governance becomes clearer: The success of the University and the positive morale of the faculty and administration are dependent upon continued use of the collective intelligence of the university community. … This requires extensive sharing of information and a shared understanding that faculty representatives and administrators strive always for informed mutual support through shared governance dialogue.

“Shared governance dialogue” is a phrase I almost like, despite its clunkiness, because it gets close to telling the truth. What really ought to be shared is information. Faculties are not distressed because they have too small a portion of the administrative task—one provost told me recently, “When they ask for money and process I always give them process, because they’ll soon tire of using it”—but rather because they only learn about administrative decisions after they have been made. It is the withholding of information, not of responsibility, that leaves faculty members feeling left out, taken for granted, and generally disrespected.

For some reason that has never been clear to me, the hoarding of information is a reflex common to most administrators. They may be thinking that they control the situation by controlling the flow of information. The truth is that in the absence of information, rumor, conspiracy theories, and ultimately real conspiracies rush in to fill the space that would not even have existed if full disclosure had been the policy.

Tell them everything. Share every piece of information you have the moment you have it, and they will be quite happy to leave the governance to you, especially if you invite them to talk about the issues the information raises. They get to feel that they are a part of what is going on, while you get the benefit of hearing their views without having to promise to act in accordance with them.

Please don’t think that this is cynical advice. What is cynical is a rhetoric of shared governance that is not matched by reality. Take, for example, this item in the Association of Governing Board’s list of actions that might be thought to interfere with institutional self-governance: “manipulation of the presidential search process to ensure the selection of a candidate favorable to alumni, a political party, business leaders, or single-issue interest groups.” But presidential search processes are always manipulated. I have been on both sides of the table—as a candidate and as a search-committee member—and I can tell you that that is the nature of the beast.

And how could it be otherwise, given that the president is the liaison between these external constituencies and the university community? To choose him or her without taking into account the desires and views of those constituencies would be worse than foolish; it would be disastrous. What’s wrong with presidential searches is not that they are political through and through but the pretense that they are something else. A search committee told at the outset that it is merely advisory and that its recommendations might not be followed may be a committee few will want to serve on. However, one that is told it will get to make the choice—or at least produce the official short list, for we do shared governance here—and later finds that it was merely window dressing will walk away bitter and spread the bad news throughout the community.

Better that the official rhetoric mirror the institutional reality, which is that those who sit in big offices and get the (relatively) big bucks get to make the big decisions too. It has always been so and, as Emil Ricci observes at the end of College and University Governance in the United States: An Historical Survey, it remains so today: “Even with faculty collective bargaining and greater student participation on campus committees, the model of college and university governance dating back to colonial times remains firmly intact. … Governing boards and Presidents at both public and private institutions continue to control major policy, personnel, and academic decisions.” That is, those who are put in governance positions do the governing. Nor should this be a cause for complaint unless they do it badly, which usually means not doing enough of it.

So am I saying that “shared governance” should suffer the fate I recommend for “stakeholder” and be retired from use? No, that has not been my message. My message has been that questions of governance are logically independent of questions of mission and thus no particular form of governance has a privileged status with respect to academic goals. So shared governance is perfectly all right so long as it is a response to a particular and well-defined educational need. Shared governance goes wrong, however, when it is regarded as an end in itself, as a mantra, as something required by democracy, as a theology. Make use of it when it is useful; don’t worship it. Always share information. Sometimes share responsibility. Occasionally share power. And whenever you do so, be sure to say, thanks for sharing.

Stanley Fish taught English at the University of California at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University before becoming a professor of English and law at Duke University from 1985 to 1998. He subsequently served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University, where he teaches in the law school.