PHILADELPHIA -- The more conspiracy-minded of professors probably think that whenever college presidents and other senior administrators talk among themselves at conferences or out-of-the-way meetings, they bemoan the extent to which faculty involvement in decision making impairs their ability to make quick decisions and move nimbly.
They wouldn't be entirely wrong. That has become a familiar theme in certain circles in recent years, especially at confabs organized around the idea of higher education "disruption" and the need for colleges to dramatically transform what they do in the face of financial and technological pressures. Many of those conversations would make the average professor's blood boil.
But a different kind of discussion unfolded Saturday at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Attorneys here, at a session provocatively titled "The New Normal in University and Faculty Governance: Are You With Us, Against Us, or Both?"
Yes, administrative perspectives dominated the conversation, and like many other such discussions, it was underpinned by the idea that colleges and universities are facing intense pressures that will require them to respond in meaningful, and possible speedy, ways.
The consensus, though, seemed to be that while it would continue to be strained and might need to be tweaked to allow campus leaders to consult more speedily with all relevant parties, the system of shared governance not only can -- but absolutely must -- survive if higher education is to retain its essential character.
"Reasoned collegial governance is important; it's why we’re talking about it here. It's the essence of what we mean in higher education by 'learned community,' " said Richard Levao, president of Bloomfield College, in New Jersey. "If the community forgets that faculty energy, and even faculty combativeness, is the essence of higher education, then we lose something very, very precious."
Mounting Evidence of a Problem
Quantifying that clashes over academic governance are increasing is difficult -- but Bruce Melton, associate general counsel of the University of Chicago, took a worthy shot at it in preparing for the NACUA session. Scouring the higher ed headlines, he cited reports that 61 college presidents had been publicly ousted since 2009, and that pace seems to be accelerating.
That count of departed presidents doesn't include the situation that for many has become the embodiment of the pressures on higher education governance, last year's conflagration at the University of Virginia, which President Teresa M. Sullivan survived. Factor in, too, recent votes of no confidence of presidents at New York University and elsewhere, and disagreements over the creation of international programs and online learning initiatives at institutions such as Duke University.
Melton, who undertook his study of academic governance in the wake of debate at his institution over the role of faculty members in approving new institutes and centers, saw in the conflict among boards, presidents and faculty evidence of mounting financial and technological pressures on higher education.
"In the context of these stresses, and maybe because of them, stakeholders are becoming more engaged," he said. "What happens when a bunch of stressed people become more engaged? The rules of engagement become more important."
There is enormous variation in the underlying factors of these disputes, but panelists saw some key patterns in them.
"Administrations feel like they must increase the pace of change," said Bloomfield's Levao, "because they fear that if they're late to the market, they become essentially irrelevant. You combine that with a growing, well-organized current, politically driven, that seeks to dismantle the western tradition of higher education that is also a threat. Along with that there are pressures from governors and others who demand we talk about the alignment of curricula to meet work force needs -- legitimate, but still another pressure."
In the situations at NYU and Duke, administrators moved aggressively in academically related areas (the creation of new academic programs, new modes of instructional delivery) in which the shared governance model has traditionally given faculty members their most significant influence, said Barbara A. Lee, professor of human resource management at Rutgers University and an expert on higher education law.
"When the administration gets ahead of the faculty, faculty are understandably concerned and upset about that," Lee said.
And in some of those situations and others, Melton said, one can see signs of "a lot of failure of process," with administrators deciding to act without consulting appropriately with faculty leaders or others with a stake in the decision. "People can accept that these are tough times; where they’re pretty unforgiving is when people give up the basics."
But the questions of which issues faculty members should have a say in, and what role they should play in those matters, are increasingly fractious. If there ever was a "bright line" between issues that were academic (in which the faculty has a primary role) and those that involve colleges' strategic direction or financial futures, said Bloomfield's Levao, it no longer exists.
"What we’ve seen recently in some of the no confidence votes," said Lee of Rutgers, "is that some faculty have the misperception that consultation means acquiescence, that recommendations equal decisions." Faculty groups have a right to be consulted on many issues, but ultimate decision-making authority rests with the president, she said.
Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, acknowledged that as governing boards and presidents feel "pressure for change and the need to act more rapidly than has traditionally been the norm," some of them are concluding that a process of “shared governance that took 18 months” may no longer be as viable.
But the panelists, by and large, said that while acknowledging the need for speedier change may require changes in how shared governance operates, abandoning it would be disastrous.
"I don't see the basic method of governance as being out of date just because we're in a hurry," said Melton of Chicago.
"Collaborative governance is the bedrock of what makes the [higher ed] system unique," said Legon.
Faculty consultation may need to happen differently, he and others said, with greater dependence on the faculty's representative leaders and fewer institutional decisions that must wait until a vote at the bimonthly meeting of the full faculty.
But procedural changes won't suffice; "ultimately this is not going to be a jurisdictional question," said Levao, who described the breakdown in shared governance as mostly a communication problem.
"Presidents are no longer the intellectual leaders of campus, because we are perceived as different from them," given escalating executive salaries and the external focus of many campus leaders.
"We need to pay a lot more attention to the interpersonal side," he said. "It has more to do with the art side than the science side."
Presidents and other institutional leaders should be talking much more with professors, Lee said -- especially those with alternative points of view.
"Some presidents tend to isolate themselves from faculty, and focus outward," she said. "Presidents and other high-level administrations need to talk to faculty who don’t agree with them," even though it's “very tempting and much more comfortable” to talk to people who share one's point of view.