Think Colleges are Liberal? The View from Shared Governance

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

Governance is sometimes a messy business. On the national political level, for example, the intersection of ideology, political posturing, and the demands and inflexibility of competing interests within the two political parties and between the branches of government has led to the deep dysfunction that angers voters.

College Campuses are Generally Conservative, Driven by Process

The same is often true on college campuses. For all the complaints about heavy liberal bias ideologically, a college campus is inherently a very conservative place driven by process. Faculty and long-time staff promote an agenda that reflects their knowledge base, interests – and perhaps most important – sense of collective self.

Academic freedom – particularly that achieved with tenure – permits them to see the world differently. It’s not a bad thing actually and is absolutely critical to a free exchange of ideas.

In a sense, it’s why the philosophy of Bernie Sanders has been so popular on many campuses. When the philosophical meets the practical, the philosophical usually wins out in a college debate. It’s a version of truth speaking to power where truth prevails even if the plans, like many of Mr. Sander’s proposals, are not fully baked.

Shared Governance & Syracuse University’s Latest Capital Project

The recent battle over the $6 million promenade project at Syracuse University illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of shared governance. The plan calls for the conversion of a city street into a pedestrian promenade. A group of 108 faculty members signed a petition to stop the project less than two weeks before construction was slated to begin.

Faculty members expressed concern over the transparency in communication, its utility due to Syracuse’s harsh winters, its impact on the street grid surrounding the campus, its value to students, the perception by the community, and the cost of the project. A number noted that Syracuse is decreasing the size of its faculty by 250 through early buy-outs and has taken questionable steps such as the closing the Syracuse Advocacy Center for sexual assault and relationship violence victims. Others cited the likelihood of a major expenditure to refurbish the Carrier Dome.

For its part, the University administration held a series of community town halls to explain the relationship of the pedestrian mall as part of a larger “Campus Framework” plan to address strategic infrastructure needs that included surveys and outreach supported by Syracuse’s new chancellor, Kent Syverud, who took over as chancellor in 2014. This included an October 2014 survey with 3,000 students, faculty and staff taking part and reports by the Chancellor to the University Senate, with these updates shared on the University’s news website.

The administration also promised to forward faculty concerns to the Board of Trustees whose members discussed next steps and ultimately approved the project.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter what decision the Board made on the pedestrian project. What matters most is whether shared governance works in the end.

The disagreements at Syracuse are more about priorities than money. It’s a larger question about what the University values and how its use of a budget – which is really a rationing tool – reflects these priorities. The battleground is where the philosophical meets the practical.

Regardless of outcome, the Syracuse story illustrates the delicate balance that shapes shared governance on American college campuses.

Political pundits often see campus communities through a political lens that casts good versus bad as liberal or conservative, depending upon the pundit’s bias. But many of the most extreme battles fought each academic year are over process, territory, and the pace of change.

You can’t blame the faculty for their defense of a community that they do more to shape than any administrator or trustee. The job of faculty governance is to nurture and build the academic program, support academic freedom, and offer the wise counsel that comes with their implied role of the “keeper of the flame” of institutional history and traditions. In their worldview, decisions are reached slowly, shaped by process, and the optics matter.

For administrators and trustees, it can be frustrating if the end game is to develop a plan, set a timeframe, and move the agenda forward to match a world beyond the University gates. Few trustees – especially since their boards are the weakest contributor to shared governance – understand the motivation behind faculty concerns, especially on approved capital projects managed by the administration that do not seem to directly impact the educational program.

For a president attempting to lead a strategic vision, it’s seldom possible to move forward without controversy when the University’s priorities that the president establishes contradict other views.

Sometimes it’s simply best to keep at it with the belief that the process will become more transparent as the trust improves among shared governance groups. It’s important to appreciate the wide variation of campus cultures that exist in American higher education. Syracuse will figure it out. And when it does, it’s more critical that the lessons learned strengthen the dynamics within shared governance. It makes more positive disagreement possible in the future.

Nothing weakens a University’s future than a debilitating process fight played out over decades.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post College blog.

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