Who Decides

In more than twenty-five years of work in higher education, I have never seen or heard of a college or university that has shared governance definitively figured out. Regardless of structure, unionization, and a host of other factors, governance is consistently a site of debate and more often than not, confusion. William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin’s Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in Governance of Higher Education is an excellent introduction to why no clear resolution or best governance model exists.

Locus of AuthorityBowen is a one of academia’s wise men. Formerly president of Princeton University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, he has written extensively on higher education and contributed to more than a few innovations and reforms. Tobin is a program officer at the Mellon Foundation after spending decades at Hamilton College in roles from faculty member to dean to president. The authors started the project with a basic precept: if higher education is going to adapt, then how it does so – its management, governance, power and processes – matter. They soon came to three realizations: faculty governance has not been systematically examined, it is little understood, and it contextually determined. In other words, governance “is far from a static concept.”

Bowen and Tobin, looking at who has authority and power, give an excellent history of the changing roles of faculty in American higher education. They explain that in earlier times, faculty were, by all accounts, the college. Trustees and administration were smaller in number and often had limited roles. Those simpler times, clearly, are distant memories. Since the latter part of the 1800s, with larger than life university presidents and the rise of state colleges and universities, academia has engaged in an ongoing process about figuring out how to manage itself best. Institutions of higher education has wrestled with this question independently, with local questions shaped by local circumstances. One of the benefits of Bowen and Tobin’s work is that it highlights the broad similarities of challenges across institutions.

The book, though, does not claim to be comprehensive. The authors draw upon their deep familiarity with élite private four-year institutions with strong tenured faculty in the arts and sciences. Missing are community colleges, religious institutions, professional institutions, and much of public higher education. One of the ironies resulting from the study is that the governance challenges facing top-tier institutions have often already been fought, decided, and re-fought in higher education’s other, less glamorous sectors.

After setting out the broad trends in academia, the authors spell out differences in how decisions are made at various universities. They look at hiring, promotion, budgeting and points of contention, such as protests, budget cuts, and academic freedom. Their primary unit of power and analysis tends to be the academic department, which traditionally has a position of prominence in élite colleges. Faculty cluster themselves by discipline and academic departments reinforce the tendency with institutional structure. The book illustrates practice with examples from a select number of institutions. Rounding these out are four case studies from the University of California, Princeton University, Macalister College, and CUNY (the City University of New York).

At its heart, the question boils down to the faculty and power. How much power the tenured faculty want, need, and have? And in what areas is it exercised, curtailed or rejected?

Higher education is an exceedingly complicated business today, with virtually every aspect of the enterprise requiring specialization. Whether one looks at an academic department desiring a complement of scholars who can teach a discipline comprehensively, or student advising with its professional organizations and fields of research, or even food services, which face demands from students and their families to offer a variety of fare to meet particular dietary wants and preferences – each province of higher education demands its own expertise. How can faculty, whose primary function is teaching and scholarship, participate in decision making? Their time and focus is a valuable resource that should be guarded and prioritized. However, without faculty input, institutions may veer into decisions that counter academic values and priorities. Most faculty have an inherent distrust of the increasing “corporatization” of higher education.

Bowen and Tobin underscore these pressures. They acknowledge no ideal solution is possible, but they do make recommendations. They see an important role for faculty in hiring college presidents, even though the formal responsibility of that charge lies with the board of trustees. Faculty hiring, promotion, and evaluation processes should give faculty a prominent seat, they affirm, while admitting that post-tenure reviews are often weak. More than three-quarters of all faculty are non-tenure track, and the authors believe that tenured faculty should take their colleagues into account as they engage in decision-making. They believe that faculty should have a key role in assuring academic standards. Stated broadly, the authors advocate for processes that involve discussion and listening between faculty and administration.

Locus of Authority serves an important purpose in opening discussion on a much-neglected topic. It may sound dry, but governance is extraordinarily important to higher education. We will not be able to address heightened expectations, changing technologies, and budgetary challenges without understanding how best to manage higher education institutions. The rules of who decides what and when are vital – even if they vary from college to college.

Readers, though, should keep in mind that Locus of Authority is a book examining a small sector of the larger American higher education terrain. The institutions, histories, and examples referenced are wealthy and top-tier. They have grown and flourished mostly as organizations able to direct their own futures. A healthy endowment and a supportive board of trustees makes a more autonomous trajectory possible.

Remember that most students in American higher education attend public or less-selective private institutions. These colleges and universities are the norm, and for these institutions, autonomy and self-direction are a rarely realized hope. They are buffeted by budget changes, depending upon elections and local politics, as well as the priorities of local officials. Enrollment is always an issue. These colleges and universities are more open organizations, highly sensitive to their larger political, economic, and educational environments. Governance for these institutions has a markedly different cast.

The future of higher education and its governance will not be found in universities with billion dollar endowments, but rather, the broad middle of American higher education. It will be shaped by governors, mayors, state legislators and in Washington, DC – and, I hope, faculty and college leadership. Bowen and Tobin are right: more discussion usually leads to better outcomes.

David Potash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *