Shared Governance and Its Misconceptions

The headline of today’s op-ed in the Chicago Tribune by William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin was wonderful: “Scott Walker’s test of academic freedom.” And the first half of the essay, tracing the development of the “Wisconsin Magna Carta” in defense of academic freedom, and the threat posed by Walker, is also wonderful. And then Bowen and Tobin declare that what “can save the Wisconsin Idea is shared governance” with “a balance” of power among “regents, administrators, faculty and elected officials” under which “decisions should be made by those who have relevant expertise…” What an exceptionally good idea.

And then Bowen and Tobin bring it all crashing down with their misunderstanding of shared governance

Bowen and Tobin call it “an error” to “vest too much decision-making authority in the faculty, despite their hands-on expertise, because they cannot really be held accountable if things go badly wrong. Presidents and chancellors, on the other hand, can be fired for the consequences of their decisions.”

This is wrong for three reasons. First, Bowen and Tobin have a management theory that’s completely bonkers. It’s crazy to imagine that the only effective form of management is to fire everyone who screws up. Academia needs an organizational structure that encourages debate, rewards success, and brings people together for educational purposes: firing the incompetent is the least important part of the equation. Second, incompetence is rarely punished in academia; administrators are more often fired for disagreeing with their superiors (and presidents for disobeying the demands of trustees), while intolerant and wasteful administrators are often rewarded and promoted. Third, Bowen and Tobin imagine that the faculty have a great deal of decision-making authority, when in reality this is rarely the case.

Bowen and Tobin warn that universities cannot have “divided” governance where certain issues “belong” to the faculty. Their notion of shared governance involves rejecting faculty power and increasing the influence of administrators over all decisions, including traditionally academic decisions.

What Bowen and Tobin call “divided” governance is really shared governance, and what they regard as “shared” governance is actually the destruction of shared governance. Much like David Horowitz re-interpreted “academic freedom” to mean banning faculty from discussing politics, Bowen and Tobin want to misuse the often misunderstood phrase “shared governance” to undermine actual shared governance.

The normal corporate structure is that the Board and their administrative appointees control everything. The purpose of academic “shared governance” is to create a different system in two senses: First, faculty have dominant (but not unchecked) authority over academic decisions such as faculty hiring and curriculum. Second, faculty have an advisory role in non-academic decisions about budgets, admissions, and other operations of the university. And the system of tenure reinforces shared governance because faculty can make academic decisions independently and they can exercise their advisory role without fear of retaliation.

Bowen and Tobin ignore the second half of shared governance (faculty as advisors in all major decisions) and want to undermine the first half, where faculty make academic decisions.

Can Bowen and Tobin ever point to a case where administrators overruled faculty decisions? I can: the firing of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois is a perfect example of what happens when the “divided” governance of faculty control over hiring is instead “shared” with the chancellor and Board of Trustees, who use their power to get rid of controversial faculty.

If the only thing faculty share with the administration is their opinions that are ignored, that’s not “shared governance.” That’s “shared opinions.” It only becomes governance if the faculty are given some authority to decide, or what Bowen and Tobin call “divided” governance.

Universities too often want to hire subordinates who are beholden to the administrators in power, rather than relying on faculty who have an impulse to challenge ideas. Efficiency to administrators like Bowen and Tobin means that presidents control everything and employees shut up and go along quietly. But real efficiency requires whistle-blowers pointing out waste and corruption, and it requires having faculty help run the university rather than hiring administrators to run everything. We have tried this experiment in corporate governance for the past generation in academia, where faculty power is gradually taken away, more and more administrators are hired to do the jobs of advising and governing that tenure-track faculty used to do. The result has been a disaster of inefficiency and runaway costs and declining academic freedom and academic standards.

Shared governance is a miracle of efficiency and effectiveness: no consultant can come close to the expertise of faculty. Faculty are the best experts on student learning because they’re in classroom doing exactly that. They have the most knowledge and experience about a particular college. They are independent voices who interrupt the danger of groupthink, unlike consultants who tell the client what they want to hear. And they do this extra work of shared governance for free. Shared governance is the most effective way we have to improve academic standards, academic freedom, and efficiency. Unfortunately, Bowen and Tobin see real shared governance as a threat to administrative power that needs to be removed.

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