Global Trends in Academic Governance

U.S. professors feel less powerful than their colleagues abroad.
By William K. Cummings and Martin Finkelstein

Even before the current global economic crisis, discontent with the governance of higher education institutions was widespread among faculty in the United States and throughout the world. Drawing from the 2007 Changing Academic Profession (CAP) survey of faculty in seventeen countries, we here examine faculty perceptions of the current state of governance and, using data from a comparable 1992 international survey, look at changes that have occurred in these perceptions over fifteen years.1 The 2007 survey shows that less than half of the faculty responding viewed top-level administrators as competent and that fewer than two out of every five believed there was “good communication between managers and academics.”

The CAP survey reveals a number of striking features of U.S. faculty, in particular:

  • U.S. academics are (or perceive themselves to be) among the least powerful, especially compared with academics in other countries with mature higher education systems, such as Japan, Germany, Italy, and Norway. This view appears related to their perception of a significant loss of influence in many decision-making areas, while faculty in Japan and the United Kingdom believe their level of influence in these same areas has not declined (see table 1).
  • U.S. professors are at best lukewarm in their ratings of the communication skills and competence of the top-level administrators at their institutions and report only modest improvement over the past fifteen years (see table 6).
  • U.S. professors do not think that the facilities to support their work have notably improved over the last fifteen years, in sharp contrast to academics in emerging systems in countries such as Hong Kong, Korea, and Mexico. Indeed, the gap in quality of facilities between the United States and the other systems in the CAP survey has largely closed.
  • U.S. professors express a strong sense of affiliation with their academic disciplines, but their sense of affiliation with their employing institutions has significantly weakened over the past fifteen years, possibly reflecting their growing discontent with the administration of their institutions (see table 5).

The CAP survey asked professors where primary responsibility rested for a variety of decisions, ranging from choosing the top academic officers to deciding on the course loads of individual academics. Several conclusions can be drawn from the responses. Professors in most countries believe they are the primary decision makers on most academic matters, though there is interesting variation by country in what is considered academic and what is not. For example, approving a new academic program is thought to be an academic decision in Japan and in much of Europe but a managerial decision in the United States, Korea, and several emerging countries.

In most of those countries for which there are data for both 1992 and 2007 (including the United States), the faculty’s role in decision making has shrunk somewhat, more so in the mature systems than in the more recently founded ones. It would be interesting to learn whether the current economic crisis has accelerated this trend.

Where faculty have experienced a decline in power, they believe that the net gainers are middle-level administrators, especially deans, rather than top-level administrators or external authorities. This perception is illustrated in table 2 for the United States. U.S. faculty appear to believe they have consolidated their influence over faculty appointments and promotion and have lost influence mainly in selecting administrators and determining budgets (and perhaps even in establishing new programs).

Academics in all of the CAP countries believe they are most influential in shaping policies at the departmental level and that they have very little influence at the institutional level. Governance reflects the decision-making rules and processes that link the actors at various organizational levels. Some of this decision making may involve extensive consultation between actors and have a collegial character, while other decisions tend to be “top-down.” Fewer than two out of every five respondents in the CAP survey said there was “collegiality in decision making.” More than half described the management style at their institution as top-down. The degree to which decision making is collegial or hierarchical varies within and between institutions as well as between nations, but overall, the academics in the CAP countries believe current decision making is far more top-down than is appropriate and far less collegial than is desirable.

Interestingly, in 2007 in the United States there were very limited differences in governance patterns by institutional type, suggesting that there may be stability or deterioration at the research universities but improvements in the non-research sector.

Effective governance should lead to steady improvement in the facilities, resources, and personnel necessary to carry out academic work. The CAP survey asked academics what they thought about different facets of their working conditions. Concerning most items, the respondents were about equally divided between those who thought the conditions were excellent or good and those who thought they were lacking. Telecommunications, classrooms, and the technology for teaching tended to get the highest ratings, whereas research equipment and support for research and teaching tended to get lower ratings. Compared with 1992, in 2007 the academics in those countries with more advanced economies, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, reported little improvement, whereas academics in several of the societies with emerging economies reported significant improvement.

In the CAP survey, respondents were asked to describe the importance they attached to their affiliation with their academic discipline as compared with their department and their institution. Worldwide, nine out of ten academics described their affiliation with their academic discipline as very important or important, whereas only seven out of ten indicated that their departmental affiliation was very important or important, and fewer than six out of ten described their affiliation with their institution as very important or important. In the United States, the last figures were especially low. Clearly, for the contemporary academic, the disciplinary tie is most important. It is noteworthy that in a similar survey conducted in 1992 in fourteen countries, academics rated all three of these affiliations equally. Over the past fifteen years, academics have come to distance themselves from their departmental and institutional homes, perhaps because they sense these settings to be less helpful and rewarding.

Academics both in the United States and around the world believe that they do not have a sufficient role in decision making, though American faculty feel less powerful in a number of respects than their colleagues in other mature systems of higher education. Additionally, in most countries, faculty do not believe that the current decision-making processes have led to much improvement in their working conditions. Overall, the academics in the CAP countries do not give very high ratings to the performance of their administration. Less than half of all academics worldwide view toplevel administrators as competent. Moreover, in the majority of countries, academics express concern that the administration of their universities is not providing adequate support for academic freedom. On this particular issue, however, U.S. faculty have a more favorable view of administration than do their colleagues in the majority of other countries.


1. The CAP survey was carried out in 2007. For the purpose of this study, stratified cluster samples of professors were obtained in Portugal (PT), Italy (IT), Germany (DE), Finland (FI), Norway (NO), the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), Canada (CA), Japan ( JP), Korea (KO), Hong Kong (HK), China (CH), Malaysia (MA), Australia (AU), Brazil (BR), Mexico (ME), and Argentina (AE). The aim was to complete an “effective” sample of eight hundred professors in each country. Taking into account the design effect and expected response rates, country sample frames typically targeted from two thousand to four thousand faculty members. Some countries used mail surveys and others electronic surveys. Response rates were at least 20 percent, and in all countries comparisons of completed sample characteristics with population characteristics were satisfactory. In a few countries, weighting was introduced to improve these comparisons. Participating country teams agreed on a common instrument. Back to text

William K. Cummings is professor of international education and international affairs at George Washington University. Martin Finkelstein is professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.