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Divided We Govern?
In this essay, I discuss two significant problems facing academic governance in the contemporary era. I portray each as a chasm that divides the campus, and I argue that institutional leaders, with help from higher education researchers, can succeed in bridging those chasms if they strengthen their collaboration with faculty.
First, though, I want to clarify the spirit of my proposals and to emphasize their urgency. Over the past decade there has been an unfortunate drift in attention away from the internal functioning of academic governance. In response to heightened demands for accountability and increased mandates for performance assessment, many campus leaders have focused their attention outward, scanning the larger political environment and struggling to respond. While this shift in priorities is understandable, the result is that some important campus dynamics have been neglected.
When internal dynamics have remained in the spotlight, the tendency has been for off-campus critics, sometimes joined by campus leaders, to offer harsh criticism. Colleges and universities of all types have been condemned for their inertia, inherent inefficiency, or resistance. Faculty have been cast as either the problem or the obstacle to the solution (Gumport 1997). They have been derided as unproductive and self-interested; their self-governance practices have been labeled ineffective and at times even obstructionist.
According to prevailing management theories that prize speed and adaptability, the prescription for such problems is to bypass traditional governance structures and consultation processes-only thus, it's said, can leaders make swift decisions and much-needed changes. For instance, one popular way to facilitate strategic planning has been to create ad hoc committees, which are assumed to be more efficient than more deeply entrenched decision-making bodies (Keller 1983). As such approaches become commonplace, however, they threaten to displace faculty's expertise and professional authority (Schuster et al. 1994). Simply put, the locus of control for academic decision making and priority setting moves out of departments, a shift that can be detrimental to faculty morale.
Why Focus on Collaboration?
As many observers have noted, the past decade has seen the rise of powerful external "drivers of change" in higher education (Mingle 2000). On some issues, the locus of control has even shifted off campus entirely-especially for public universities, which face increased involvement of state officials and initiatives from activist boards (Hines 2000). From California to New York, we have recently seen mandates for programmatic restructuring (Gumport and Pusser 1999; Gumport and Bastedo 2001) and pressures for institutions to adopt year-round calendar operations, distance-learning programs, and mechanisms to assess student outcomes-all of which have educational implications that could clearly benefit from faculty input.
Of course, faculty members tend to be quite critical of their exclusion from these decision-making processes. After all, generations of faculty have been socialized in the ideal of shared governance, and they have long taken for granted certain prerogatives, such as the right to active participation-or at least consultation-in academic decisions.
My concern is that today's universities are rapidly coming to disappoint-and tomorrow's may ultimately disillusion-the talented faculty that we desperately need to recruit and retain. In short, I see an urgent need to discuss not only how our institutions may be sustained within a turbulent economic and political context but also how we may sustain them as intellectually viable and attractive places for academic work.
Given these concerns, and in the context of recent higher education research, I see two potential improvements to internal campus dynamics: to bridge the chasm between management and governance, and to bridge the chasm between individual and collective interests.
The Tension Between Management and Governance
The divide between academic management and governance has been characterized by scholars as a tension between bureaucratic and professional authority (Etzioni 1964), between planning and governance functions (Schuster et al., 1994), and between corporate and collegial modes of decision making (Gumport 1993).
Whichever lens we prefer, though, several recent studies have brought to light the complexity of these dynamics, including the need to more effectively manage the cultural aspects of change in college and university governance. Prominent works include, for example, Schuster et al.'s (1994) Strategic Governance, Leslie and Fretwell's (1996) Wise Moves in Hard Times, Clark's (1998) Creating Entrepreneurial Universities, and Tierney's (1999) Building the Responsive Campus. As these titles suggest, such change is unlikely to be accomplished through sheer will or blunt instruments. Given inherited and well-institutionalized collegial norms for shared governance, the challenge for campus leaders is to reconcile the need to act decisively with the need to do so wisely.
Each of these studies is also instructive in diagnosing several internal organizational challenges, including marked fragmentation, an absence of a working consensus, and ambiguity over jurisdictions of authority. Campus leaders have no choice but to forge ahead in spite of value conflicts that are explicit and not easily reconciled. But, even if they do have the managerial authority to make real changes, and even if they are unusually successful in pushing their agendas forward, the management/governance divide will likely remain.
From the perspective of academic managers, it seems irrational that faculty would have negative responses to perfectly well-intentioned efforts to improve coordination and academic quality. From the other side of the chasm, however, things look very different. Faculty suspect that new administrative mechanisms will be used to assess their work, and ultimately to redefine the terms of that work, as well as to replace decentralized decision-making practices with centralized authority.
It may be helpful to recount, in a few brush strokes, how the rise of academic management has been facilitated by faculty ambivalence toward shared governance. According to George Keller (2001), who draws upon the earlier work of Walter Metzger, it was not until the early decades of the twentieth century that American professors moved beyond their independent pursuits and began to assert themselves as partners with trustees, presidents and deans in governing, pressing hard for shared governance to codirect their institutions....Reaching its zenith in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, shared governance became less attractive to faculty, who grew disaffected with it once they realized how time consuming and contentious (even politically nasty) administration could be.
Meanwhile, higher education saw a great rise in the numbers of full-time, non-faculty personnel and academic managers. For this group, of course, the problem with traditional faculty governance was that it seemed unduly slow and could frustrate their efforts to move forward with campus initiatives, such as efforts to streamline budgeting, hiring, and program review practices. At the same time, some faculty began to perceive that the domain left for their governance didn't deal with anything really important.
By the 1980s, according to Keller, faculty retreated even further from a commitment to governance, as they simultaneously expressed frustration over the increasingly bureaucratic practices of their institutions. As changing economic and political conditions produced resource fluctuations, campus managers turned their attention to cost cutting in the name of efficiency. Moreover, technological advancements enabled the creation of centralized information systems, greatly expanding their capacity to monitor the detailed workings of even the largest and most decentralized of universities.
By the end of the 1990s, Keller (2001) concludes, most American professors, particularly at elite universities, had come full circle, embracing the sort of independence that was common a century ago. Faculty members generally like to think of themselves as independent semi-professionals, free to lecture or consult off campus, conduct research instead of teach, and own a business on the side; they see their time as their own, not belonging to their university; they do not regard themselves as employees, although everyone else in the institution is regarded as such.
Based upon Keller's account, it seems entirely predictable that faculty today would resist administrative controls that treat them like employees or skilled workers. The heart of the matter is that faculty treasure professional autonomy, and they expect jurisdiction over the academic domain, particularly with regard to the appointment and promotion of academic personnel, the restructuring of academic programs, and the decisions as to what and how students need to learn. While faculty may complain about the time involved in meeting these responsibilities, they strongly believe them to be theirs. Moreover, faculty tend to be aware of a decline in the public's trust in them as professionals, which has occurred alongside a rise in enthusiasm for managerial initiatives.
With this in mind, a key challenge for campus leaders is to face the potential downside of the entrepreneurial spirit that is so highly valued today, including the ways in which competition can erode a sense of community and demoralize faculty who do important educational work, but who are not the big revenue generators. It is possible that campus leaders can attend to their organization's vital integrative needs, to enhance collegial practices alongside managerial ones, and to address directly the expectations of faculty who may already be disillusioned. The failure to do so would lead predictably to increased faculty distrust and resistance to the very initiatives that might allow the campus to thrive amidst changing conditions.
The Tension Between Individual and Collective Interests
Noting the inseparability of academic settings from broader economic, political and cultural changes, higher education researchers often find it valuable to regard the campus as a microcosm in which broader societal tensions are played out. Among those tensions, one is especially prominent in this era: the fundamental divide between individual and collective interests.
As I have seen in my own research on academic restructuring in public higher education, this tension is manifest within the campus in several ways (Gumport 2000). It arises when faculty members try to get what they can from their institutions, rather than trying to serve them. It is present when the more cosmopolitan of faculty members choose to neglect curriculum planning in favor of their scholarly pursuits. And it is evident in the arm-twisting that is often required to appoint new department chairs, deans, or committee leaders.
We see it especially when there is competition for scarce resources, as when academic units hunker down to protect their turf from downsizing and restructuring, whether or not the collective good depends on consolidation. Under such conditions, any proposed change is viewed as a potential loss. At the system level, we see it when an institution demands new faculty billets or academic programs in spite of budgetary or political constraints. Finally, we see it at the level of governing boards when special interests clamor for attention, or when trustees fail to act in accordance with the AGB's mandate to "serve the institution or the system as a whole and not any particular constituency or segment of the organization."
The basic challenge, here, is one that has often been explored by economists, political scientists, philosophers, and sociologists: how do we get from yours and mine to ours? This is a question that is certainly amenable to research. Scholars in various disciplines have studied, for example, the nature of incentives, coalitions, personal choice, and institutional commitment. Yet, for some reason, the topic of academic governance has eluded their careful analysis.
As a starting point, the question is: what would it take for campus leaders to draw others into a more explicitly collective enterprise? It is certainly feasible to anticipate which proposals will provoke apathy or spark a prolonged contest. In this context, it is possible to move discussion up a level from what is often reduced to platitudes about social obligation (e.g., "It's time for the faculty to give back-after all, whose university is it?"), vague appeals to balance and fairness ("We all need to be heard"), and fuzzy references to a mythic academic community ("We're all in this together"). What is called for is more meaningful debate that specifies pressures and tradeoffs along with hopes for the future.
Enhancing Shared Ownership
Campus leaders today have a critical opportunity to enhance the sense of shared ownership on their campuses. I found evidence of this potential among college and university presidents whom I interviewed during daylong focus groups in the summer of 1998 (Gumport and Dauberman 1999). As one might expect, these discussions surfaced many frustrations about the task of managing in the face of heightened public scrutiny and demands to demonstrate accountability. My research affirmed prior research that found many presidents seeing their job as "impossible," full of responsibility but lacking in authority (Birnbaum 1989).
However, I also heard something new. Presidents discussed their own agency, specifically their potential to reshape expectations for and within their institutions. They were largely optimistic, for instance, that they could cultivate a demand for the enduring academic strengths in their programs; that they could speak for the long-term public interest and provide a moral compass (particularly in urban settings); and that they could convey to external stakeholders that it is possible to move internal campus norms toward an improved form of academic resource sharing.
I think it is noteworthy that public university and college presidents also expressed the willingness-even a sense of obligation-to speak out as advocates for the public value of higher education, although some anticipated that critics would view them as self-serving. (How powerful is the individualism in our contemporary society, where the presumption of self-interest is used to dismiss academic leaders who intend to speak for a broader collective interest!)
This raises obvious questions about the role of trustees, as well, whether they will act independently or in concert with campus presidents. For example, in what ways can or should trustees attempt to reshape environmental pressures or cultivate constituencies to support their campuses? To what extent can or should trustees legitimately and effectively speak for the whole, regardless of whether they are dismissed by stakeholders of opposing viewpoints?
Bridging the Chasms
There is, I think, much that researchers still do not understand about how campus leaders can most effectively reconcile institutional legacies with today's market forces (Gumport 2000). At the same time, there is tremendous potential for campus leaders themselves to be pioneers in developing intentionally collaborative initiatives. This is not meant to impose another layer of expectations on an already full agenda of managing environmental complexity. Rather, my point is to suggest that presidents, deans, and other academic leaders can be supported to deal head-on with these internal campus dynamics, in order to give faculty opportunities to be informed, to participate, to consider the dilemmas of the whole enterprise, and to offer potential solutions.
Given that this is an era in which critics presume higher education to be "self-indulgent, arrogant, and resistant to change" (Rhodes 1998), the bold actions of campus leaders can contribute evidence to the contrary. As evidenced by the research mentioned above, we in the academy already know that there is much thoughtful reflection among campus leaders. They carefully consider how to reconcile multiple and, at times, conflicting environmental pressures, how to weigh the merits and liabilities of alternative responses, and regarding questions of how to improve their stock of legitimacy with various stakeholders. Some visible initiatives by presidents and some demonstrated successes in working collaboratively with faculty may offer a valuable empirical counterpoint to widespread criticism of higher education. These bold moves would simultaneously provide some insights to others who seek to effectively bridge the persistent chasms that divide our academic landscapes.
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Portions of this article draw from an earlier paper, titled "Academic Governance: New Light on Old Issues," published by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (Occasional Paper #42, September 2000). Adapted with the permission of the publisher.
Patricia J. Gumport is the director of the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research and the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement, and an associate professor of Education at Stanford University.