The betrayal of shared governance in the university’s darkest hour

Imagine starting out at the trailhead of a thousand-mile backpacking journey and making a pact with a companion to share burdens, concerns, and to treat one another as respected partners. You set out knowing that if one of you runs short on water, the other will share; if one sprains an ankle, the other will slow their pace too. If the snows come early you will huddle together despite the tedious misery of frozen toes and unwashed bodies. You set out confident that, no matter how bad it gets, decisions will be made collaboratively. In fact, the power and promise of this initial pact is rooted precisely in the presumption that, at some point, things may get very bad indeed. Ethically mature individuals know that such commitments are fully realized, not in times of ease, but when tested by frayed nerves, supply shortages, and danger.

This analogy helps explain the heartbreak many of us feel as some universities have stopped collaborating with faculty, staff, and students in the midst of the pandemic. We have not only been left scrambling to deal with budget secrecy, top-down program “restructuring,” and devastating layoffs, but also to absorb the stunning disappointment of discovering that what we thought were respectful partnerships with university administrators were an illusion. At some universities, shared governance now stands revealed as a managerial ploy to increase compliance and good will, made at a time of relative prosperity, when such promises cost little.

And so we watch open-mouthed as decades-long policies and practices are swept aside under cover of “emergency.” We wait in nail-biting silence as deans rush to compile lists of “expendable” employees and “unnecessary” academic programs, according to criteria that they need not share, debate, or even plausibly explain to the campus community. Even life and death decisions, such as whether or not to invite students and employees back to campus, seem to emerge as if from the royal chamber. All those decades of managerial sweet talk about the value of student, staff, and faculty input are erased as a paternalistic frenzy sweeps through the ivory tower.

The worst of it may well be not just that well-paid administrators have been prepared to throw others overboard in a panicked attempt to deal with the crisis, but that they are enabled by well-placed apologists, including some faculty members, who urge the rest of us to stop complaining. Shared governance, they explain, echoing administration’s self-serving definition, doesn’t mean what we think. A university is a businesses, after all, and its presidents, provost, deans, and chairs are the CEOs and managers charged with making the trains run on time. We were out of place to have ever expected collaborative decision-making to be a real thing. When it comes right down to it, some frightened coworkers now tell us, universities are like fast food joints: If the manager orders you to scrub out the deep fryer, you should do it without question, suggestion, or complaint. And be grateful you’ve still got a job.

But the majority of us are not ready to concede that shared governance can so easily be tossed aside. We watch as administrators close rank, as university public relations and marketing machines go into overtime, as critical financial information is withheld. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with students, staff, and faculty colleagues and refuse to accept this grim corporatism as the new normal. For one thing, at institutions like mine, faculty have contractually guaranteed rights to participate in many aspects of decision-making. So long as we are willing to assert ourselves, rather than accept belated scraps of consideration, we will turn the tide. What a colossal institutional failure, though, for loyal employees to be forced into legalistic squabbles to have these long relationships accorded a modicum of basic respect. After all, formal policies and legal contracts are meant to underwrite and guarantee healthy professional engagement, not to stand in for basic personal and professional ethics.

Even though we can — and must— fight contractual battles, then, much damage will have been done. To many employees, those decades of assurances about the value of their expertise and feedback now seem like a smarmy come-on. With the shallowness of ethical commitments to shared governance now out in the open, it is not only the future of faculty and staff that is at risk, then, but our past as well. Our very sense of what our careers have meant — these professions and universities we have poured our lives into — threatens to collapse in the midst of institutional dissemblance and betrayal.

Though we are disappointed, hopefully we have learned a lesson. As cynical as it sounds, we must accept that our most reliable companions on this winding, treacherous trail, are not the well-heeled, glib-tongued leaders who have promised to go the distance by our side. Our true allies are, instead, whatever policies and procedures we have at our disposal and the potential power of collective action to enforce them. If we have learned nothing else, let us have learned this: To get it in writing and hold feet to the fire as soon as pretty promises and ceremony — including neutered “task forces,” “action teams,” or other committees — replace actual shared decision-making.

Some will say that this cynical conclusion is unfair to administrators who, after all, are doing the best they can. But having the determination to enforce the legal and ethical aspects of shared governance is good for the entire campus, including, in an important sense, for administrators. Shared governance helps preserve a balance of power that discourages any of us from being as selfish, greedy, or shortsighted as we might otherwise be. We do others no favors by permitting them treat us dismissively even if times are tough and they are desperate, frightened, and well-meaning. It is, in fact, in the very midst of this conflagration of uncertainty and fear that collaborative partnerships matter most. There is, then, nothing more hopeful, respectful or constructive — or more in keeping with deepest values that define “university” — than for faculty, staff, and students to demand the immediate restoration of authentic shared governance.

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