I am not a dangerous radical. Really!

9 02 2011

When I first saw the headline of this article, “Shared Governance is a Myth,” I was prepared to take out my poison pen and go to town on the guy who wrote it. If you get into it though, you’ll see that he writes more out of sorrow than out of anger. Here’s a taste:

Administrators appear to honor teachers’ desire for influence by establishing faculty senates and placing interested faculty members on a host of committees. Young profes­sionals embrace committee assignments eagerly, believing that it is their responsibility to contribute to the governance of their colleges and delighting in the power they think this confers on them. It takes years of rank and the bitter­sweet experience of extensive committee service to realize that faculty influence on the operation of the university is an illusion, and that shared governance is a myth.

Committees report to administrative officers who are at liberty to accept, reject, or substantially alter faculty recommendations. In many cases, deans or subdeans convey to the committees they sit on what outcomes the administration considers acceptable. This not only guides deliberations but also casts a pall of futility over contrary conceptions. Only rarely does a committee offer recommendations not in line with the prior ideas of top administrative officers.

The description here is basically accurate, so I guess my real problem is with the word “myth.” I would have called my version of this piece, “Shared Governance Is an Ideal.” Reality is often different, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

A few days ago, a very enthusiastic colleague in the business school here sent an e-mail to all her colleagues explaining how membership in the American Association of University Professors has opened her eyes about what’s going on around campus. Since I’m president of the local chapter, I got a cc of that message. This is part of what I wrote to the same folks as a follow-up:

If the rest of you don’t mind me taking this opening, I want to elaborate a little bit on the ideas that [my enthusiastic colleague] has explained. The American Association of University Professors isn’t the American Civil Liberties Union. It can’t protect rights that you don’t have (and I shouldn’t have to tell the faculty of a business school that employees of all kinds in America have very few rights).

Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has cultivated a series of what might be called “best practices” for American higher education that serve the mutual interests of faculty, students and administrators alike. These include academic freedom and shared governance. The organization sees its job primarily as reminding people who don’t know about these ideas of what they really mean and how well they’ve worked throughout American higher education over the last hundred years or so.

Translation: “I am not a dangerous radical. Really!”

Yes, I’m working on cultivating a reputation for principled reasonableness around campus, but it helps that I actually believe this stuff. Faculty members have as much impact as their respective administrations want to give them. Therefore, the way to influence the course of events on campus is not to shake your fist every five seconds, but to explain as coolly, calmly and collectedly as possible why your way is the best way for everybody involved. Sure, you’ll get some bone-headed administrators who won’t do what’s right because they can’t see the forest through the trees, but most of them have to be smart otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten them where they are.

Alright, that last part might have been a bit overly optimistic, but the administrators that I’ve known in a decade plus of college teaching have always at least been willing to listen to reason. That should be all you need to to get the ball rolling in the right direction.


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