Why Universities Can’t Be Governed Top Down

Why did it bother me so much–during my time as a university president–when a parent or booster would assume I had dictatorial powers? I mean, I was the president, right? Didn’t that mean I could make anything happen that needed to happen on campus, like the commanding officer in the military or the CEO of a factory?

Far from it.

Let’s look at just a few of the differences between a university president and, say, the commanding officer at a boot camp or the plant manager of a manufacturing operation.

Let’s start with the boot camp. Maybe there’s a major or colonel in charge. Maybe even a general if the installation is large enough. It doesn’t matter. The important point is that the commander will know close to 100% of everything that is happening on the base and everything the new recruits are learning. Whether it be physical training, marching drills, firearms practice, or war games, the commander is unlikely to see anything going on that he or she has not already experienced first hand in ROTC or at West Point.

Likewise, in the manufacturing operation, the employees on the assembly line probably got their training from a supervisor who, in turn, was trained by someone higher up. And upward we go until we get to the original founder of the plant, who knows everything about the operation because the operation was the founder’s brainchild in the first place. So, if someone is operating the machine that cans fresh pickles, it’s likely that the plant owner–or someone in senior management–was responsible for ordering (or even building) that machine. Nothing is happening on the factory floor that senior management doesn’t fully understand.

Now let’s look at a university. It’s highly likely that dozens, if not hundreds, of classes are being taught on campus each day with which the president would be unfamiliar. In my case, I can say that I never took a course in microbiology, computer science, engineering, sculpture, nursing, or radiology, and yet all those areas were taught at McNeese State University, where I served as president for seven years before my retirement in 2017. Those are just a sampling of the disciplines where I had no prior academic experience.

If new equipment was needed in any of those areas, I had to hear that from the faculty, who knew their subject areas far better than I did.

And that’s just the academic areas.

Could I handle the installation of wi-fi infrastructure? Financial aid regulations applicable to entering students? Accommodations for students with learning disabilities? Statistical formatting of information required by our regional accrediting agency?

These areas and many others required the presence of highly educated professionals, all doing work that I could not have performed on my own.

Highly specialized experts cannot be managed in the same way as military personnel or factory employees because they are doing work that no one else on campus understands how to do. This type of management cries out for shared governance.

That’s why I wrote my book: Who’s Running Our Colleges and Universities?