Shared Governance for Our Colleges and Universities

During my time as a university president at the University of Montevallo (4 years) and then at McNeese State University (7 years), I often spoke with members of the Faculty Senate about my notions of shared governance. It seemed to me at the time–and it still seems that way–that shared governance ought to be a no-brainer for any American citizen who has taken a basic course in Civics.

The Founding Fathers of our nation came to the conclusion that, because absolute power corrupts absolutely, our federal government should first be shared with the states, and then it should be divided into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Most of the powers were granted either to the legislative branch or reserved to the states. What they did not want was a king or dictator.

Fast forward more than two-hundred years.

During the course of my graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid 1990s, I taught seminars on strategic planning to health care executives in China as part of a research grant. One of my students told me that he had tried to determine which office in the U.S. government was responsible for placing doctors in cities and towns across the country, but so far he had been unable to find the right department.

“Is it the CDC?” he asked. “The NIH?”

“It doesn’t work that way,” I said. “In the United States, doctors are free to work in any city or town they choose. Some places end up with too many doctors and some with too few, but eventually the market adjusts to work things out. And if it doesn’t, a state or local government might come up with an incentive program to attract more doctors to a given area.”

He stared at me in disbelief.  “I cannot imagine such a system working in China.”

It made sense to me that a person raised in an authoritarian country would think that way. What doesn’t make sense to me, however, is why so many Americans think exactly that same way.

If we truly believe in the wisdom of our constitutional method of shared governance, then why do we organize the administration of our colleges and universities as if they were authoritarian regimes?

Those who opposed our nation’s divided government model in 1787 argued that the executive would be too weak, and that needed legislation would be enacted too slowly. Those same arguments are used today by those who believe faculty senates, student government associations, and employee representatives cannot be trusted to offer input on policies that would benefit their campuses. How strange that we have been willing to accept the notion of shared governance in the running of the most powerful nation of the world, and yet we feel reticent about promoting shared governance in the running of our colleges and universities!

The first book in my three-part series about the plight of higher education in the United States–Who’s Running Our Colleges and Universities?–describes the impossibility of any president or chancellor possessing even a tenth of the specialized skills and knowledge required to run a modern university. You can find it here:  amazon.com/author/williamsphilip