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The Troubled State of Academic Governance: Some Causes; Some Solutions

Kenneth E. Andersen

When the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was founded, John Dewey essentially advanced a governance model composed of two parties: the administration and the faculty. In fact, it could almost be characterized as two aspects of the same persons, as it was common practice for faculty members to move in and out of administrative positions. A highly simplified, stereotypical image of a reality that never existed would picture faculty members largely serving temporarily as administrators jointly determining the educational policy of the institution for the Trustees or Regents to adopt. The faculty carried the leading role of formulating educational policy: curriculum, admissions, standards for appointment and promotion of peers. They taught, researched and provided service within the protection of tenure and academic freedom. Individual faculty members, differing in their strengths and weaknesses, were rewarded to the degree they contributed to the mission of the institution. Administrators were responsible for the implementation of policy including the required budgeting activity.

Recently, this paradigm has atrophied as the governance process has become increasingly complex, subject to forces John Dewey never envisioned. Increasingly groups who functioned as fifth business[*] have become leading players in the governance process. We need to recognize the new players in the theatre of institutional governance and we need to understand how their special interests impact upon the drama of educational policy making. This review is undertaken for the purposes of stimulating thought about the changes, not to evaluate or judge their efficacy or inevitability. These changes apply most fully to comprehensive, large research institutions and to varying degrees at other types of institutions.

Many of the new players are internal, members of the campus community:

Professional Staff. We now have a large and growing contingent of non-teaching professionals carrying various titles. This group includes researchers, advisors, academic resource people, administrators, managers and, possibly, coaches. As this group expands, their voice is increasingly influential. Please note, many of these individuals are performing functions normally discharged to faculty. Not only have many of these individuals never been in the professoriate, they have essentially none of the protections of tenure in most cases.

Part-time and Non-Tenure Track Faculty. In some institutions, this employee category outnumbers those tenured and on the tenure track. There are institutions offering a degree in a curriculum in which there is not a single tenure-track faculty member. Many of these individuals are excellent teachers and some bring a special expertise to their teaching. But they are not wedded to the institution nor does the institution usually accord them benefits, support, etc. Some accept this as they are “moonlighting,” others are resentful and bitter.

Senior Administrators. Whereas presidents, provosts, and deans were once academicians, intending to return to the professoriate, many are now career administrators. A substantial number have never been tenured faculty; others expect (prefer) never to return to that role. Their immediate staff are now typically academic professionals who have never had nor ever will hold a faculty position.

System Administrators. System administrators, as contrasted to campus administrators, are a product of the growing complexity and size of institutions of higher education and in some instances the effort to gain some control over campuses by grouping them in a system. While the system administrators may be linked to flagship or dominant campuses within the system, increasingly they are recruited to the position from educational institutions other than those they will administer.

Support staff. Clerical, operations and maintenance personnel, custodians, technicians, etc., are essential to the operation of the institution. Such personnel are often unionized or civil service employees. Usually the impact of this group is less directly tied to educational policy than some others being mentioned, but they have an impact. My institution does not function on those days negotiated as holidays. We do not close for natural disasters such as snowstorms – the overtime is too expensive.

Students. In part as a result of events of the 1960’s and 70’s, students have achieved much more power in campus decisions. Also, educational policy decisions are often driven by enrollment considerations. Students often demand a seat on committees and in governance bodies such as senates. Often they represent a single interest, have not developed a wide perspective, and are driven by considerations or a rhetoric largely irrelevant to the real issues. An urgent, current reality is the fact that students’ views (never monolithic) have become incredibly Balkanized. We do not deal with one student body or with Greeks and independents; we must deal with incredibly diverse groups, many not represented by or actively rejecting existing student governance structures.

Two players of growing importance are internal to the campus in some senses, external in others:

Disciplines. Disciplinary considerations are central to many university functions. Faculty are educated within a discipline. The disciplines determine who publishes and who achieves status in the discipline, which in turn has implications for appointment, promotion and salary. In many circumstances the power of the faculty member is the status of that individual in the discipline. Note also: disciplines draw upon the university’s resources; they do not exist to serve the university. Many disciplines are tied to accrediting agencies, a source of growing concern to many. Accreditation requirements place demands upon the resources and even the governance structures of institutions seeking certification and require fees to conduct the process as well. Further, accreditation is required in some instances to obtain federal or state student aid, equipment, or other support. Faculty and institutions are increasingly questioning the costs-benefits and complexity of the process.

Trustees. Regents or trustees have always had a primary role in institutional governance, but this responsibility was generally exercised prudently although AAUP standards and Committee A cases may have contributed to this fact and make manifest many exceptions. Today, trustees are becoming more aggressive in their direct interference in campus affairs. They appear to be less interested in the institution per se and more interested in a particular agenda or their own advancement. Nationally there are growing reports of untoward interference, politicization, and a decline in the quality of people serving these roles.

The remaining players are seen as external to the academic community:

State Coordinating Boards. In some states the legislatively mandated coordinating boards or boards of review are the fastest growing segment of funds appropriated to higher education. Such boards may have or seek power beyond making recommdations relative to tuition levels, allocation or amount of state funding, curriculum and degree approval, etc. In Illinois the Coordinating Board Chair recently asked for the power to terminate degree programs at public institutions of higher education without being required to heed faculty or campus advice or prerogatives.

State Legislatures. Public discontent with rising tuition and college costs has found its voice in legislatures in the call for accountability, often in the form of outcomes assessment; support for budget cuts for higher education; and calls for reform. Fueled by tax revolts and diminishing revenues, legislators view higher education as one of the many special interest groups vying for funds. Individual legislators often intervene directly in terms of their special interests as well as constituent-based concerns.

The Federal Government. The thrust in student assistance funding for the last decade has shifted from grants to loans. In addition, there has been a decline in program funding. Federal legislation in areas such as tax and retirement policies has been detrimental to colleges and universities. Research funding is unreliable and prone to significant shifts in focus. Federal (and state) mandates, regulations and burdensome report requirements have greatly increased costs. One proposed reporting requirement for public higher education in California was estimated to cost thirty-five million dollars. This estimate caused the legislature to reject the requirement.

Business and Industry. The push for academic partnerships with business and industry raises vexing questions of academic freedom, conflict of interest, and applied versus basic research. Put bluntly, the goals of business and industry often do not support basic research nor accord with academic values. Entrepreneurial faculty seeking research support or contracts or who own their own companies often produce significant issues of conflict of interest and such ties have been a factor in falsification of research findings.

Alumni and Donors. Alums remember the campus as they think it was, not as it is. Donors tend to give money for specific uses, which may involve distortion of academic priorities. Gifts rarely include operating expenses, restoration funds, or direct support of academic programs.

Athletic Boosters. Many people see higher education only in terms of the athletic programs’ success or failure. Interest in athletics, fanned by media coverage, has produced rabid fans across the nation who want “their team” to be #1, not just in the final four or runner up. One internationally renowned university found that 90% of its media coverage focused on athletics.

Parents. Many parents are convinced they are the victim of excessive tuition and fee charges and paying excessive taxes as well. Further, their children are not receiving the education to which they are entitled as many critical books and newspaper reports make patently clear.

The Public. Rising tuition costs and the plethora of critical reports and books have contributed to a public loss of confidence in higher education. This is further exacerbated by the ascendancy of single issue groups, i.e., animal rights, artistic censors, opponents of sex education, that attack universities directly and through attempts at legislation.

The Press. Education is on the public agenda. Higher education is receiving greater media coverage. But the coverage tends to highlight problems, whether a racial incident, money scandal or academic dishonesty, rather than the daily successes of the university.

We may ask: “Has the faculty moved to the position of being one more third party, one among many? If so, how do we respond? In my opinion, only the administration can realistically deal with the third parties; it is the only actor in the drama that can authoritatively respond to pressures from the various individual interest groups. How, then, do we as faculty assume governance responsibilities and reclaim coequal status with administrators in the determination of educational policy? The challenge to shared governance in the 1990’s is learning how to deal with the newly powerful contenders moving whether by force of circumstances or by desire from fifth business to powerful parties in the governance process.

In many senses the culture within the academy is not constituted to contribute to rebuilding a strong faculty governance structure. We have lost much of our sense of community and continuity. We have become isolated in our disciplines as the reward structure we created pushes us to the discipline rather than to the shared community of the institution. We have biased our reward system to punish those who commit time and effort to governance above the level of department and, possibly, college, and we overtly pressure our younger colleagues to avoid governance activity in favor of activity that may yield still another publication. Current governance leaders are aging. As an estimated 50% of the faculty retire or depart in the next 10 to 15 years, the next generation is not prepared for or, often, respectful of governance activity. In the shade of mighty oaks, precious few acorns have rooted. Lastly, this time of severe financial stringency or crisis is not fertile soil for a resurgence of faculty governance.

Here are some possible responses. Given the constraints of time, I choose to include more possibilities rather than develop fully a few alternatives.

I. To borrow a line from a famous speech, “Cast down your buckets where you (we) are”:

1. Modify the reward system to a degree to give recognition to meaningful governance activity.

2. Obtain support in the form of released time, secretarial resources, budgets for governance activity and actors.

3. Offer workshops or provide mentoring to new hands at governance.

4. Provide opportunities with limited time demands for younger colleagues to participate in meaningful governance activity.

5. Recognize service with a personal thank you, commendation, or other recognition; individually and perhaps institutionally as well.

6. Do not countenance inactive chairs, inept office seekers/holders, or those who accept but do not discharge their responsibilities.

7. Continuously review and modify structures. Remove outmoded committee structures. Change people on committees, develop broader expertise.

8. Strengthen linkages to students, individually and collectively.

II. Concentrate energies upon key issues where faculty input is important to the optimum solution. There is an incredible amount of expertise resident among us. We need to put that expertise to good use.

  1. Insist that the administration share information and provide the data essential to make informed decisions and to monitor important activities.
  2. Ad hoc groups and committees and subcommittees can be powerful tools that our senates and committees can utilize. Avoid undermining meaningful existing governance structures through joint appointment, consultation, review, etc., and insisting administratively appointed committees not usurp the role of regularly constituted committees.
  3. Clarify the role and function of the faculty in terms of roles within the institution and in governance. Have we ceded roles and functions that we cannot responsibly delegate or relinquish?

III. Strengthen interaction with administrators in advance of rather than at times of tension or stress.

  1. Use key administrative liaisons in ex officio roles on relevant committees.
  2. Establish personal contact with trustees or regents.
  3. Work to have more faculty moving in and out of administrative roles and offices: special projects, part-time administrators, key advisers.
  4. Create advisory boards for key administrators that have no direct interactions with faculty.
  5. Where they do not exist, create settings and situations in which administrators report to faculty on agendas and issues (prospective and retrospective) where a dialogue can occur; as a minimum a question/commentary and response session.
  6. Lend public support and praise to the administration when they merit it.

IV. Assert the prerogatives of governance and of individual faculty members.

  1. Insist on adherence to bylaws, statutes, handbooks, the social contract.
  2. Recognize the need for a timely decision. This means we need to move early, and we need to be sure that items presented for decision have matured to the degree and are framed in ways that facilitate rather than impede the making of a decision. Accept consensus rather than unanimity. If we insist on unanimity we become ineffectual and the “world out there” stops waiting and makes a decision because faculty can never make a decision. After debate, take a vote and the majority view becomes policy. Most of our decisions will not cause the world to “move” in the Hemingway sense. The war to the death within some departments such as the Texas or Columbia English Departments and some elements within the Harvard Law School suggest the urgency of resolving internal disputes rather than taking them to the external world.
  3. Build responsible relationships with the press, trustees, community leaders, and legislators. This may involve money as well as time but the results will be significant. (A personal $100 a year donation resulted in two lunches at the Congressman’s expense each year, immediate name and face recognition and discussion of one or more issues of concern to higher education at every session of 40-50 influential community leaders.)
  4. Speak out on higher education issues with neighbors and friends and in your private life as well as to the community and legislators. The “crazies” already doing this give faculty activity external to the campus a bad name. Administrators want to control the public aspect of the university so they may resist such activity. Keep the administration informed and don’t worry about being co-opted. Behave responsibly in terms of needs of the society, the interests of the profession and the institution, and of those you represent, your constituency.

Obviously there are may other suggestions of great potential to be explored. You are doing that be being here today. So in one sense there is no need for a conclusion. I simply need to stop to enable you to get back to work.

But let me close with one final observation. As faculty we learn to discipline ourselves, to take extensive time for study and reflection and to seek and consider possible objections before we publish, profess, or decide. If we are proactive and able to anticipate future issues, we may have this luxury with regard to some, perhaps many educational policy decisions. While we have to recognize the possibility of an unwarranted stampede to a decision, we must be prepared to provide prompt, even instantaneous advice/decisions in some situations because the vote is today, we just learned about it, and it is “go” or “no go”. Sometimes one faculty leader or one committee will be the only source of that advice. The governance process must both accommodate this reality and provide the preparation and experience that permits the right individual or group of individuals to offer that advice in the interests of the profession, the institution, and those being represented.


Kenneth E. Andersen is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He served six years as an Associate Dean and Secretary of the Faculty of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, three years as Acting Head of the Department of Speech and Hearing Science, and four years as Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs. His activity in campus and university governance for more than 25 years includes three terms as Chair of the Senate Executive Committee (nee Senate Council); two terms as Chair of the University Senates Conference and three as Secretary; chairing various Senate committees including the Budget and Statutes committees and parliamentarian for the Senate and College. Disciplinary and professional association activity includes serving as President of the Speech Communication Assn., Executive Secretary (three years) and President of the Central States Communication Assn. and President of the Assn. for Communication Administration. A past member of the National Council of the American Assn. of University Professors, he has chaired three national committees of the AAUP as well as been chapter and Illinois Conference President. His teaching interests lie in the areas of persuasion, communication ethics, and parliamentary procedure, and the development of constitutions and bylaws.

This manuscript constitutes a revision of remarks presented at a December 1992, Conference on Governance for the CUNY.

[*] In Fifth Business, Robertson Davies notes that those stage characters essential to working out the plot as opposed to the major, active players, whether villain or hero, were called “fifth business.”