Faculty Governance in Academia

Against the Current, No. 219, July/August 2022

Eva Cherniavsky

Graduate student strike at Indiana University IGWC-UE

THE CONCEPT OF faculty governance — that faculty should have a meaningful say in the management of the universities where they are employed — is a recent and relatively fragile thing.

Within the academy, faculty governance is viewed with skepticism by a significant proportion of the professoriate, in large part, no doubt, because the practice of faculty governance has been so thoroughly vitiated and its mechanisms (faculty senates and councils) so thoroughly commandeered by university administration.

Beyond the walls of the academy, where the default vision of the college professor is (still) that of an over-educated, privileged elite reveling in the outrageous luxury of career-long job security, no one at all is much concerned with the erosion of faculty power. Yet they should be, for the same reasons that we should be concerned about the dis-organization of labor and escalation of managerial power in the myriad public and private sector workplaces where basic public goods (such as education and healthcare) are provided.

 In these contexts, the exploitation of service providers (via understaffing, stagnant pay, and elaborate structures of managerial surveillance that further exacerbate workload escalation and erode morale) is directly connected to the under-provision of those who rely on these services (clients, patients and students).

In universities, labor is comprised of faculty and graduate students (those who actually conduct the research and deliver the educational product) and staff (who directly support their research and teaching mission). Over the past several decades, the governing boards and executive officers of universities nationwide have vigorously held the line against all three components of the university’s labor force.

This agenda has been realized (among other ways) through the exponential growth of the administrative ranks (administrators who, as Purnima Bose aptly notes in her contribution to this issue, often have no background in education whatsoever), the casualization of the faculty, and the reduction of faculty governance to so many pointless and time-wasting committee meetings.

My position in this essay is that (re)building faculty power is critical to protecting the interests of faculty and students alike, as well as necessary to forging real solidarity with graduate students and staff.

Yet I argue that such a (re)building must be grounded in a wholesale re-conceptualization of what we mean by “faculty governance.” In what follows, I attempt to sketch what such a re-conceptualization would require.

Generational Divide

Within the academy today, one encounters chiefly two attitudes towards faculty governance, split roughly, though by no means exclusively, along generational lines.

An aging cohort of Boomer-era faculty choose to imagine that faculty governance matters — and surely is better than nothing.

Younger vintages of faculty believe, with some justice, that faculty governance was never real, but also that the very animus of faculty governance is elitist. It is a structure designed to protect the academic freedom of tenure-line faculty, with little or no capacity to address the proliferating class divisions among faculty — the growing ranks of teaching faculty, lecturers, and part-time lecturers, who now comprise the majority of the professoriate.

This perspective often dovetails with the view that the university is a lost cause — always already committed to the social reproduction of capital. What these colleagues tell me is not simply that they have no interest in faculty governance, but no stakes in the future of the academy.

My own view is neither of these. The circumstance that the university is necessarily bound up in the existing configurations of economic and political power does not mean that it is not, at the same time, a crucial site for understanding and for intervening in those configurations.

I have spent my career in public, research universities — and I think it is an institution worth fighting for; certainly, as good a place as any to make a stand, and perhaps better than most. But after years of trying to figure out how to build collective power to contest state defunding, skyrocketing tuition, the casualization of the faculty, the rule of intellectual property, fealty to donors, and the myriad other, all-too-familiar features of the neoliberal university, I have come to the conclusion that established structures of faculty governance are more often than not a hindrance to faculty organizing.

“Shared Governance” vs. Real Power

By most accounts, faculty governance — or “shared governance” — dates to the mid-20th century, specifically to the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, jointly formulated by the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Interestingly, as the timing suggests, the statement was not just a reflection of faculty demands for distributed authority in the post-WWII boom years of higher education, but also a response to the Free Speech movement and student demands for a voice in the governance of the academy.

Interestingly, too, part of the impetus to the 1966 statement was the felt urgency of arraying the full power of the university (what the statement calls a “community of interest”) to negotiate with external funders and state legislative bodies: “The academic institution,” the authors observe, “must be in a position to meet [legislative and executive governmental authorities] with its own generally unified view.”

Both the import of the statement and the unsteady balancing act between it performs between a top-down and a distributed model of authority are perhaps best gauged in its discussion of budgetary matters:

“The allocation of resources among competing demands is central in the formal responsibility of the governing board, in the administrative authority of the president, and in the educational function of the faculty. Each component should therefore have a voice in the determination of short- and long-range priorities, and each should receive appropriate analyses of past budgetary experience, reports on current budgets and expenditures, and short- and long-range budgetary projections. The function of each component in budgetary matters should be understood by all; the allocation of authority will determine the flow of information and the scope of participation in decisions (my emphasis).”

We might translate this tellingly obscure section of the statement as follows: Faculty governance clearly requires that faculty have a degree of real authority over the allocation of resources. At the same time, the extent of that authority is delimited in advance by the hierarchal organization of the university, which gives to the governing board and the president (and to other executive office holders) the power to control information flows and determine the scope of faculty participation.

The statement is mute on the question of how exactly to reconcile a voice for faculty with this top-down control of information. I will return to this point shortly.

Whatever it was or might have been in the past, faculty governance in the current moment reduces to a process of non-binding consultation, where university administration reserves the sole prerogative to define the parameters of decision-making.

In this regard, it is worth reading what university administrators have to say to other university administrators about shared governance: they are all for it. It’s simply good management, writes one administrator, whose job, it appears, is to train new cadres of university bureaucrats recruited from the corporate world and habituated to top-down decision-making.

“[A] little extra time on the front-end to make sure everyone is on board is smarter than weeks of cleanup after a program or policy has been adopted,” she writes in a piece for Chronicle Vitae entitled “Why University Administrators Should Love Shared Governance.”

More candidly still, Scott S. Cowen, Pres­i­dent of Tulane at the time of Hurricane Katrina, in a 2018 piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Shared Governance Does Not Mean Shared Decision Making,” celebrates the efficient reorganization of his institution that was possible in a post-Katrina state of emergency.

“A crisis narrative, when based on facts and conveyed effectively by a leader,” Cowen writes, “can generate the sense of coherent purpose that pulls the community together and spurs people to action with or without a bona fide crisis.”

This stunningly disingenuous statement — after all, if there is “no bona fide crisis,” then the “crisis narrative” is precisely not based on “facts”— captures what is nonetheless an all too familiar managerial formula: construct a regime of permanent austerity, in which the options can be framed, over and over, as deep cuts versus insolvency and collapse.

Insist that any vision of the university not based on scarcity and zero-sum competition for inadequate resources is simply out of touch with the hard economic reality that only trained administrators have the expertise to confront. This is, of course, why there is always more money to hire more administrators wielding more metrics and instituting more accountability measures to spur the non-managerial ranks into ever greater attainments of “efficiency.”

In this kind of environment, shared governance becomes a vacuous consultative process, designed precisely to ensure that a chastened and demoralized faculty will comply with the exigencies of defunding, consolidation, escalating workloads, and stagnant or effectively declining compensation.

Thus we return to the reservations at the center of the 1966 statement: where administration controls the budgetary narrative, there is no meaningful faculty voice.

In practice today, and especially when detached from other forms and structures of faculty organizing such as collective bargaining, faculty governance generally amounts to partnering with the administration in the implementation of austerity which is always, invariably positioned as a necessity, a regrettable but intractable fact.

Among other consequences, this means that participation in faculty governance demands that we acquiesce at the outset in the reality of an increasingly class-differentiated faculty.

A Necessary Mobilization

I believe the future of the public university, if it has one, depends on faculty mobilization across the ranks. It requires that we read and engage not budgets (which are fictions), but financial reports. It requires that we become proficient in forensic accounting.

My own institution, the University of Washington, where the rule of austerity continues apace to decimate what we now call the “non-STEM” fields, indeed where tenure lines and working conditions erode even in the STEM disciplines, has nearly eight billion dollars in assets. It cleared last year (2021) with a net gain in position of two billion dollars.

Despite what the administration daily proclaims, there is no bona fide crisis. Indeed, ironically, the wealth of the institution (built on the backs of underpaid staff and faculty, indebted students, and under-resourced programs) is part of the reason that the state legislature turns a deaf ear when the President makes her occasional, half-hearted comments about reversing state de-funding.

Our fully corporate Board of Regents remains mum on the issue of a state capital gains tax, which would accrue primarily to education, including higher education in the state of Washington.

Meaningful and effective faculty governance, then, rests on organizing to refuse the austerity narrative. It means not just under­standing the deliberately opaque formulas used to allocate funding, but also having the capacity to reject those formulas, especially when they serve to undermine the core teaching and research mission of the institution.

It means campaigning for substantial faculty, staff, and student participation on governing boards (not just the token, non-voting student or faculty regent). Simply put, it means refusing the defeatist compromise embedded in the 1966 statement and not conceding to the chain of administrative authority the power to determine the scope of our participation at the very outset.

In effect, real faculty governance rests on faculty unionization: I see no other framework in which faculty can reclaim a measure of control over the construction of the university’s financial reality.

Faculty governance bodies (the senates and councils) have only advisory power — and, indeed, the institutionally-fostered timidity of their leadership usually works to ensure that they do not deploy even this limited power to optimal effect. In any case, there is nothing to prevent or deter university administration from shrugging off the faculty’s various advisory recommendations.

Faculty thus require an autonomous organization, or union, one that does not depend for its authority on the receptivity of administrators (whose job descriptions, I might add, virtually requires their allegiance to the rule of austerity), but that can, in fact, compel administration to negotiate.

The labor of building (and sometimes, of rebuilding) faculty unions is not for the faint of heart: in addition to the familiar challenges of labor organizing, faculty union organizers must contend with a class of workers who, all too often, can barely see themselves as workers, choosing to imagine that their educational attainments, professionalism, and (or) free-spiritedness make them intellectuals or “creatives,” rather than workers.

Yet nothing could offer better instruction in the meaning of the labor/management divide than the conduct of university administrators: treat your faculty like labor, and eventually they’ll figure out that’s what we are.

No doubt, unions are not panaceas — and union-building entails its own struggles to ensure democratic structures and processes that allow for broad member participation in decision-making.

But absent the capacity for collective bargaining — ideally, in a configuration where a wall-to-wall faculty union can bargain for the common good in solidarity with staff and graduate instructor unions — the broken remnants of faculty power will continue to erode, and higher education will continue as a debt-financed product, delivered less and less well, by burnt-out faculty, instructors and staff, whose dedication to their students and their disciplines and their research will no longer compensate for untenable working and learning conditions.

Works Cited:

Cowen, Scott. “Shared Governance Does Not Mean Shared Decision-Making.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. August 13, 2018. https://www.chronicle.com/article/shared-governance-does-not-mean-shared-decision-making/?cid2=gen_login refresh&cid=gen_sign_in (Accessed March 3, 2022).

Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. https://www.aaup.org/report/statement-government-colleges-and-universities

The University of Washington 2021 Financial Report. https://finance.uw.edu/uwar/annualreport2021.pdf

Vaillancourt, Allison M. “Why Administrators Should Love Shared Governance.” Chronical Vitae, September 2014. https://chroniclevitae.com/news/686-why-administrators-should-love-shared-governance (Accessed December 5, 2018; this webpage is no longer available.)

July-August 2022, ATC 219