Shakespeare on Shared Governance


This is a guest post by Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn, the Baker Ferguson Professor of Politics and Leadership at Whitman College.


Sculpture of King Lear by J. Seward Johnson, Jr.

Offering a sorry imitation of the Bard, I composed my recent history of shared governance in Wisconsin in the JanuaryFebruary issue of Academe as a tragedy in three acts. In my article, I explain how a 2015 bill signed into law by Governor Scott Walker stripped faculty of their “primary responsibility for academic and educational activities” and, in so doing, relegated them to the status of mere consultants. Given this unhappy ending, perhaps I should have closed my tale with a scene of professorial corpses strewn about the stage as stagehands, disguised as regents and chancellors, lower the curtain. But, of course, what’s past is prologue, and what has transpired in Wisconsin is better regarded as a portent of things to come.

Following Wisconsin’s lead, earlier this month, legislators in Iowa and Missouri introduced bills that would eliminate tenure at public institutions. To its credit, the AAUP was quick to issue a statement condemning those bills in the name of academic freedom. That statement, however, failed to remind us of a proposition long-advanced by the AAUP: tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance represent a three-legged stool. Remove any one of these stays and the larger enterprise they collectively support will soon totter.

This same omission is apparent in responses to the bill, recently introduced in Arizona, that would prohibit courses that “promote division, resentment or social justice toward a race, gender, religion or political affiliation, social class or other class of people.” And the same is true of rejoinders to a Wisconsin assembly member’s threat to reduce state funding unless a course titled “The Problem of Whiteness” is discontinued and its instructor dismissed. To cite but one illustration, in an op-ed essay published in The New York Times titled “Who’s Really Limiting Free Speech?,” Donald Moynihan concluded: “Free speech on campus has survived and will survive challenges from students and other members of civil society. Its fate is much less certain when the government decides to censor discomforting views.”

To be sure, animated by a desire to make America white again, these legislative initiatives represent substantial threats to freedom of inquiry and instruction. But let us not forget that they also jeopardize the essence of shared governance. Granted, appeals framed in the language of shared governance may have less rhetorical punch than do those pitched in terms of academic freedom and, still more so, free speech (although there are good reasons not to conflate these terms). It is at our peril, however, that we fail to re-affirm what was so clearly proclaimed in the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities: “When an educational goal has been established, it becomes the responsibility primarily of the faculty to determine the appropriate curriculum and procedures of student instruction.” Control over the curriculum narrowly construed and the academic program more broadly constitute the heart of the faculty’s professional authority to fashion for students the education that will best serve their enduring interests and needs. To neglect to press this claim is to invite politicians, corporate executives, and governing board members to usurp a task they are ill-equipped to fulfill.

Living in times that would try the soul of any self-respecting educator, sometimes only Shakespeare will do. After winning the Republican caucus in Nevada last February, our new president trumpeted those who catapulted him to victory: “I love the poorly educated.” To which the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear might respond: “Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” Unless those who are truly qualified retain their “primary responsibility for academic and educational activities,” the circle of those whom the president loves is sure to grow ever wider.




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