University “shared governance” and faculty discontent

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

What faculty governance? I thought that was what we were for.
—a former member of the UI Board of Regents

Proposals to make governance “more efficient” by reducing or limiting the
faculty role in shared governance are likely to diminish institutional effectiveness.
—Robert Birnbaum, “The End of Shared Governance”

The entrepreneurial university, it is said, must be able to move quickly.
It cannot wait for windy faculty debates to run their course lest valuable
opportunities be lost in the fast-moving corporate world in which we live.
—Derek Bok, former president, Harvard University

A university cannot become such a [business]
corporation without ceasing to be a university
—Andrew S. Draper, president, University of Illinois (1906)

The constitution of the University of Idaho, written in 1889, states that the faculty are charged with “the immediate government of the university.” I once interpreted this in the context of the traditional European university, where, until recently, faculty elected their own deans and presidents, and essentially ran their own institutions.

All Power to University Governing Boards

I have now come to see that American institutions are quite different, because they have always been governed by lay boards and presidents with top-down lines of authority. Not only have I have questioned this un-democratic structure, but also the advisability of non-academics making decisions about issues about which they have very little knowledge. (Many of them, for example, misunderstand the reasons for academic tenure.) A national survey of board members some years ago revealed that only 3 percent of them had ever read a book about higher education administration.

The UI is the only Idaho institution with a constitution, so the State Board of Education acts as the Board of Regents for the UI. On all campuses, however, the SBOE, with its members appointed the Governor, has the same sovereign power. According to its own policy, the Board “expressly reserves to itself the power to act on its own initiative in all matters affecting the institution.” With veto options at every level, the Board delegates this power to the campus presidents and their administrators.

The Genesis of Shared Governance in the 1960s

In the 1960s many faculty began to counter the actions of autocratic presidents and boards, and the result was the principle of “shared governance” among faculty, administrators, and board members. Faculty senates emerged as the primary agents for the “immediate government” of the nation’s colleges and universities. The assumption was that presidents and boards would generally sign off (with some modifications of course) on faculty recommendations.

In 1967 the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in conjunction with the Association for Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, published the “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities.” Implicitly describing the university as quite different from a business corporation, this document noted the “mutual understanding,” “joint effort,” and “inescapable interdependence” of faculty, administration, and boards.

Robert Birnbaum, a leading higher education scholar, explains that “not only did the Joint Statement confirm the faculty’s primary responsibility for educational matters such as faculty status [this is, tenure and promotion] and programs of instruction and research, but it also articulated the importance of faculty involvement in educational policy more generally, including setting institutional objectives, planning, budgeting, and selecting administrators.”

The Beginning of the End of Shared Governance

This arrangement appeared satisfactory until about 1980. Columbia University did a survey and found that there had been a dramatic shift in faculty perceptions about their own power. In 1970, 64 percent of those polled believed that “shared authority” adequately described governance on their campuses, but by 1980, that percentage had dropped to 44 percent. An AAUP study done the late 1970s indicated that the faculty viewed their participation as “below consultation.”

University Presidents Not Always in Line with Faculty
In 2010 the Association of Governing Boards recommitted itself to the principle of share governance with a focus on the role of college and university presidents. Their report stated that “leadership in higher education rests on a fundamental expectation that authority will be shared,” and that presidents should “exert a presence that is purposeful and consultative, deliberative, but decisive.”
With regard to tenure, however, these presidential decisions have been, in too many instances, more decisive than consultative. A 2003 survey revealed that they had rejected tenure recommendations 34 percent of the time. These professors had been vetted and approved by their departments and college committees, but their careers were then disrupted by executive fiat. Denial of tenure usually results in a one-year terminal contract.

The “Corporate” University Undermines Shared Governance

Several reasons have been proposed for the decline of shared governance. In order to gain perspective on this phenomenon, Birnbaum proposes that we view the contemporary university on a spectrum from “academic” on one end and “market” on the other. (One might place Oxford University at the academic end, and the University of Phoenix at the market extreme.) He cites other scholars who express the same polarity in terms of higher education as “social institution” as opposed to “an industry.” Yet another distinction is the university as a “curiosity-driven” institution set against “a service enterprise according to a utilitarian belief system.”

The more one views the university as a market-driven, utilitarian institution, the more boards and administrators will see faculty governance as a hindrance to the efficiency and productivity of their market enterprises. This mind-set has led to calls for the abolition of tenure and the hiring of more “at-will” faculty with higher teaching loads, no research obligations, and fewer benefits. In 1969, 78 percent of positions were tenured or tenure-track, but in 2015 that number had dropped to 30 percent. If this trend continues, we will see the end of the university as we have always known it.

Universities: Creating Ideas not Products

Birnbaum is firm in his commitment to the traditional university: “The purpose of academic institutions is not to create products but to embody ideas.” The sole focus in efficiency is wrong headed, because “academic governance cannot be rationalized for the same reason that it is not possible to rationalize the purposes for which academic institutions exist.”

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, also addresses this issue: “The entrepreneurial university, it is said, must be able to move quickly. It cannot wait for windy faculty debates to run their course lest valuable opportunities be lost in the fast-moving corporate world in which we live.”

These board members generally accept the checks and balances that necessarily slow congressional deliberation, but they reject it in higher education. Bok continues: “Looking over the checkered history of commercial activity on campuses, one can much more easily point to examples of costly unilateral decisions by impatient administrators, such as ill-advised internet ventures or grandiose athletic projects.”

UI Survey Reflects National Trend on Shared Governance

Faculty discontent has continued over the decades and on most campuses. A 2017 survey at the University of Idaho found that only 51 percent viewed shared governance positively, an increase of 6 percent from the previous year. (Not surprising 70 percent of administrators thought they were doing a great job!) On a related question, only 41 percent felt good about the UI’s senior leadership. The dissatisfaction was summed up concisely in one comment: “It does not matter what faculty committees do, because senior leadership will ignore them.”

Violations of Shared Governance in Idaho over 43 Years

Over the 43 years that I’ve handled faculty grievances throughout the state, I have seen many examples of administrative stalling, evasion, or outright veto.
In 1975, four campuses voted (2-1 at the UI) for collective bargaining legislation, but the administration and the board did nothing. We did try the Legislature in 1976, and a public employee bargaining bill lost on a tie vote in the Senate HEW Committee. The four campuses voted again in 2004, the IFT presented a bill to the Legislature, where it failed to get printed let along heard.

In 1977, the UI faculty voted 99-51 to give full due process to non-tenured faculty. A few board members admitted that it was morally right to do so, but they said that they had to follow their attorney’s advice on the matter.

In 2003, UI Art professor Glenn Grishkoff passed his third-year review by a unanimous faculty vote, but his dean fired him instead. An appeal to the provost, backed by letters from 30 national peers, was rejected.

In 2009, trying their best to share authority, an ISU appeals board voted 4-1 against the termination of award-winning engineering professor Habib Sadid. ISU President Arthur Vailas, whose anti-faculty positions were always backed up by his board, went ahead and fired him anyway.

In 2010, Vailas abolished the ISU faculty senate, and in June 2011, the AAUP voted to sanction the ISU administration. An investigation concluded “that the administration acted in direct violation of widely accepted principles of academic governance by severely restricting the faculty’s decision-making role and by suppressing faculty dissent.”

In 2013, exercising their constitutional right to govern the UI, a faculty appeals board voted 3-2 to overturn the dismissal of former professor Sanjay Gupta, a potato expert at the Kimberly Research Station. The UI administration refused to respond to the decision, and the faculty union eventually got a $400,000 settlement for Gupta.

In 2014, the UI faculty voted 176-0 to grant free speech rights for those involved in faculty governance. (ISU’s Sadid, for example, was fired for speaking out in faculty meetings and criticizing his dean.) UI President Chuck Staben vetoed the measure, but after pressure from the faculty senate and the faculty union, a compromise was reached.

In 2015, a faculty appeals board voted unanimously to reverse a negative decision against a faculty member in the College of Natural Resources. The dean and provost refused to reconsider and kept disciplinary actions in place.

In 2017, a faculty appeals board voted unanimously to reverse the firing of a popular LCSC business professor. Undermining shared governance, the dean and the president vetoed the decision.

Is it any surprise that so many Idaho faculty believe that “shared governance” is a joke?

Nick Gier is President of the Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFT/AFL-CIO. He also taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read all of his columns on higher education at nickgier.com/HighEdColumns.pdf. He can be reached at [email protected]

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