Reaffirming the Principles of Academic Government

The core principles of governance set forth by the AAUP fifty years ago will likely be more important than ever in the decades to come.
By Michael DeCesare

Fifty years ago this past October, the Council of the AAUP adopted the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. It was a remarkable product of many years of negotiation. Jointly formulated with the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), the 1966 Statement remains the AAUP’s central policy document on academic governance and is the cornerstone of countless institutions’ governance structures.

Higher education looked very different at that time. One may reasonably wonder about the extent to which today’s board members and administrators respect, or even understand, the statement their national organizations commended to their institutions in 1966. We have witnessed increasingly frequent attempts to subtly but significantly redefine academic government, or what we more commonly call “shared governance.”

Consider a 2014 book written by Augustana College president Steven Bahls and published by AGB Press. Shared Governance in Times of Change: A Practical Guide for Universities and Colleges outlines three traditional views of shared governance held by board members and presidents. The first of the three is shared governance as equal rights. From this perspective, Bahls writes, “shared governance ensures that faculty, board, and administration have equal say in all governance matters, including budgets, academic directions of the institution, and strategic planning. No decisions are made until a consensus is reached by all.” Second is shared governance as consultation, which, according to Bahls, “requires nothing more than for the party responsible for making decisions to consult with others.” The third perspective is shared governance as rules of engagement. More specifically, Bahls explains, “shared governance is a set of rules about the various roles and authority of the board, faculty, and administration in such things as academic decisions, budget decisions, selection of the president, and other operational decisions.”

If, as Bahls asserts, these three perspectives accurately summarize board members’ and presidents’ views of shared governance over the past fifty years, then these groups have had little understanding indeed of the 1966 Statement. For the conceptualization of institutional government set forth in the statement is one of joint effort among faculty, administration, and board.

What exactly does that mean? Well, it does not mean equal rights or an equal voice for each of the institution’s components. Shared governance also doesn’t mean consultation. As most of us have experienced firsthand, administrators’ consultation with others too often takes the form of private meetings with a “kitchen cabinet,” a small, carefully selected group of faculty supporters and apologists. Bahls is correct to call this “an incomplete view”; shared governance demands far more than simply consulting with other groups and considering their perspectives before making a decision.

So-called “rules of engagement” also don’t constitute shared governance. Despite Bahls’s claim that the 1966 Statement embodies the rules-of-engagement perspective, the preface to the statement makes clear that it does not. It reads, in relevant part, “It is not intended that the statement serve as a blueprint for governance on a specific campus or as a manual for the regulation of controversy among the components of an academic institution.”

Bahls’s own formulation of academic governance—as a “system of aligning priorities”—is just as wide of the mark as the three he rightly criticizes. “Boards, presidents, and the faculty,” he declares, “must get beyond a rulebook and develop an approach that truly aligns priorities, measures outcomes, and holds each other accountable.” From this perspective, what is needed is an approach to shared governance “in which faculty, board members, and administrators actively engage to share responsibility for identifying and pursuing an aligned set of mission-driven sustainable outcomes and priorities.” Such a statement might be appropriate as a callout in a glossy institutional guidebook, but it is not an acceptable definition of shared governance. It should therefore concern us that a 2016 AGB report titled Shared Governance: Is OK Good Enough? indicated that nearly 60 percent of both presidents and board members favor the “aligning priorities” definition of shared governance.

The AAUP’s Definition

Bahls’s definition and the three others he describes are inconsistent with the conceptualization of academic government set forth in the 1966 Statement. Shared governance is based on interdependence, communication, and joint planning and effort among the components of an institution, as the second paragraph makes plain: “The variety and complexity of the tasks performed by institutions of higher education produce an inescapable interdependence among governing board, administration, faculty, students, and others. The relationship calls for adequate communication among these components, and full opportunity for appropriate joint planning and effort.” The statement goes on to point out that “joint effort” among the institution’s components will naturally take a variety of forms: “In some instances, an initial exploration or recommendation will be made by the president with consideration by the faculty at a later stage; in other instances, a first and essentially definitive recommendation will be made by the faculty, subject to the endorsement of the president and the governing board. In still others, a substantive contribution can be made when student leaders are responsibly involved in the process.” No matter what forms the components’ joint effort takes, the statement instructs us that “important areas of action involve at one time or another the initiating capacity and decision-making participation of all the institutional components, and differences in the weight of each voice, from one point to the next, should be determined by reference to the responsibility of each component for the particular matter at hand.” The 1966 Statement makes clear that shared governance is not equal rights or simple consultation, nor is it rules of engagement or an attempt to align priorities.

The rest of the statement delineates the respective roles and primary responsibilities of the governing board, the president, and the faculty. The board’s special obligations include, among others, relating the institution to its chief community, ensuring the codification of institutional policies and procedures, obtaining capital and operating funds, and operating as the final institutional authority. While the board maintains a general oversight, it “entrusts the conduct of administration to the administrative officers . . . and the conduct of teaching and research to the faculty.” The statement also warns that “the board should undertake appropriate self-limitation”—an ability, by the way, that appears to be in shorter and shorter supply in light of the conclusions of recent AAUP investigations at the University of Iowa, the University of Missouri (Columbia), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The president, as the institution’s chief executive officer, also has special obligations, such as representing the institution to its many publics. The president is responsible for “see[ing] to it that the standards and procedures in operational use . . . conform to the policy established by the governing board and to the standards of sound academic practice. It is also incumbent on the president to ensure that faculty views, including dissenting views, are presented to the board in those areas and on those issues where responsibilities are shared.” Generally speaking, the president’s role is “to plan, to organize, to direct, and to represent.”

The faculty’s areas of primacy are too numerous to list here, but several are well worth mentioning: “curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.” On these matters, in particular, the statement says that “the power of review or final decision lodged in the governing board or delegated by it to the president should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances, and for reasons communicated to the faculty,” and that “the faculty should, following such communication, have opportunity for further consideration and further transmittal of its views to the president or board.” In addition, the faculty “should actively participate in the determination of policies and procedures governing salary increases.” Finally, it is important to highlight the means whereby the faculty exercises its role in institutional government: “Agencies for faculty participation in the government of the college or university should be established at each level where faculty responsibility is present. An agency should exist for the presentation of the views of the whole faculty. The structure and procedures for faculty participation should be designed, approved, and established by joint action of the components of the institution. Faculty representatives should be selected by the faculty according to procedures determined by the faculty.”

Continuing Relevance

My primary reason for emphasizing the content of a fifty-year-old document is simple: all faculty, regardless of status, will need to rely on it just as heavily, if not more heavily, over the next fifty years as they have during the past fifty. An understanding of the appropriate roles and areas of responsibility of boards, administrations, and faculties is crucial. Between now and the statement’s centennial in 2066, we can surely count on boards and administrations to continue to try to reach beyond their appropriate roles and encroach on areas of faculty primacy. Union County College’s administration will not be the last to eviscerate an entire faculty governance structure. Iowa’s board of regents will not be the last to conduct what the AAUP’s investigating committee called “an illusion of an open, honest search” for a president. The administrations of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Idaho State University will not be the last to unilaterally suspend a faculty senate. And these four institutions will not be the last to land on the Association’s list of those sanctioned for “substantial noncompliance with standards of academic government.” In short, governance violations will continue to occur.

So will violations of generally recognized principles of academic freedom and tenure—violations that we will also continue to need the principles enshrined in the 1966 Statement to counter effectively. What does a statement on government have to do with academic freedom and tenure? Everything. Such violations are almost always either precipitated by or occur at the same time as governance violations. This connection was demonstrated at the two institutions most recently added to the Association’s list of those censured for their administrations’ failure to observe principles of academic freedom and tenure.

Consider first the Melissa Click case at the University of Missouri last year. Professor Click was summarily dismissed by the board of curators for her confrontations with two students during a protest event on campus. The AAUP investigating committee’s report recounts the faculty council’s approval of a statement condemning her dismissal as “violat[ing] the norms of faculty governance to which the University of Missouri has traditionally adhered and which are essential to the functioning of a great university.” A separate section of the investigative report is devoted to “governing board overreach” and begins by noting that “the actions of the board of curators raise concerns over the conduct of institutional governance.” The fourth of the investigating committee’s six conclusions reads: “By acting unilaterally in the case of Professor Click, the board of curators effectively undermined the authority of both the faculty and campus administrators, violated principles of shared governance, and failed to adhere to the admonition in the Statement on Government to ‘undertake appropriate self-limitation.’” And its second conclusion points out that by denying Click an adjudicative hearing before a duly constituted faculty body, the board violated not only AAUP policy documents but one of the university’s own governing documents. A governance violation—specifically, what the faculty council described as the board “creating a new process as it went along”—triggered Click’s dismissal and the uproar over her academic freedom rights. That could have been avoided if the board had simply followed the university’s “Collected Rules and Regulations.”

Consider also the College of Saint Rose, where the president’s blatant disregard of the institution’s own shared governance document—which is enshrined in the faculty manual—led directly to her decision to dismiss twenty-three tenured and tenure-track faculty members. By acting unilaterally in the name of “academic prioritization,” the administration and board “rendered tenure virtually meaningless,” according to the investigating committee’s report—again, all because of a governance violation, this time on the part of a president.

The 1966 Statement is by no means applicable only under circumstances in which governance standards or regulations have been violated. It is also applicable in cases of academic freedom violations, for those are typically caused by, or at least tangled up with, breakdowns in shared governance. In the midst of the national and sometimes international media attention that academic freedom cases frequently attract—think not only of the Melissa Click case but also of the case of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—that point is usually lost.

The AAUP emphasized the connections between governance and academic freedom more than twenty years ago. The Association’s 1994 statement On the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom asserts that “sound governance practice and the exercise of academic freedom are closely connected, arguably inextricably linked” and that “a sound system of institutional governance is a necessary condition for the protection of faculty rights and thereby for the most productive exercise of essential faculty freedoms.”

Recent academic freedom and tenure cases, whether they have resulted in an AAUP investigation or not, support the assertion that threats to academic freedom and actual violations of it almost always go hand in hand with breakdowns in shared governance. It is because of the 1966 Statement’s centrality not only to governance matters but also to matters related to academic freedom and tenure that we will have to rely on it even more heavily over the next fifty years. Boards and administrators will continue in their attempts to dissolve faculty senates, rewrite faculty handbooks, and bypass institutional governance regulations and to to circumscribe academic freedom, dismiss tenured and tenure-track faculty, and disregard due-process protections whenever they find it expedient or politically convenient to do so.

They will criticize the statement all the while. The statement creates an implied sense of territoriality among boards, presidents, and faculties, they’ll say, and it doesn’t sufficiently emphasize the board’s ultimate responsibility for educational quality.

For Steven Bahls—and likely most other administrators and board members familiar with the statement—the perceived problem is much bigger. “In today’s world of transformative change,” he argues, the Statement on Government does not “foster effective and efficient practices that are necessary for aligning the board, faculty, and administration around priorities that will propel the institution forward.” In this view, the statement is analogous to a black-and-white TV: a quaint but largely useless artifact of a bygone era.

We cannot allow such redefinitions of shared governance to take hold. We need to explain, emphasize, and promote the conceptualization of governance outlined in the 1966 Statement in order to counter—maybe even forestall—future attempts at overreach and encroachment. We must make this effort everywhere and in every way we can: in working with our own institutional boards and administrations, to be sure, but also in working with our faculty colleagues, in teaching our students (perhaps especially those in our PhD programs who will one day be faculty members), and in making our voices heard in the public domain.

Our ongoing efforts to explain, emphasize, and promote the AAUP’s perspective on shared governance should also be based on its statement On the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom. Of particular importance are the three reasons it offers for “why the faculty’s voice should be authoritative across the entire range of decision making that bears, whether directly or indirectly, on its responsibilities”:

  • First, “this allocation of authority is the most efficient means to the accomplishment of the institution’s objectives.” After all, it is the faculty who have expertise in teaching and research. All matters related to those endeavors, then, should constitute areas of faculty primacy.
  • Second, “teaching and research are the very purpose of an academic institution and the reason why the public values and supports it. This means that the faculty, who are responsible for carrying out those central tasks, should be viewed as having a special status within the institution.” The AAUP has made this argument for over a century. The 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, the Association’s first statement, refers to faculty as “the appointees, but not in any proper sense the employees” of the trustees. Rather, faculty members and trustees are partners. As the 1915 Declaration also states, the office of faculty member should be “one both of dignity and of independence.” The allocation of authority to the faculty in the areas of its responsibility is a necessary condition for the faculty’s possessing that dignity and exercising that independence—both of which are in the public interest.
  • The third reason the faculty’s voice should be authoritative in its areas of primacy is that it is “a necessary condition for the protection of academic freedom within the institution.” This is particularly important when it comes to authority over faculty status. For “it is the faculty—not trustees or administrators—who have the experience needed for assessing whether an instance of faculty speech constitutes a breach of a central principle of academic morality, and who have the expertise to form judgments of faculty competence or incompetence.” Whenever such decisions are not in the hands of the faculty, there will be not only the potential for board and administrative overreach but also the actuality of it. The Melissa Click and Steven Salaita cases are vivid recent reminders of this.

The Work Ahead

Every sociologist knows the so-called Thomas Theorem: when people define situations as real, they become real in their consequences. If the faculty allows academic governance to be redefined as a system of aligning priorities, we will face the very real consequence of a weaker faculty voice. Eventually, it will fall silent. If, on the other hand, we define academic government on our own terms, and advocate for that definition, the consequence will be a stronger faculty voice, one that is consonant with our special status within our institutions. As members of a profession, this will be one of our primary tasks over the next fifty years.

Another will be to build sound governance systems at institutions where they don’t yet exist and strengthen them where they do. We would do well to keep in mind, though, that a good governance system does not guarantee good governance practices. Those depend on us, as the statement on the relationship between governance and academic freedom warns: “A governance system is merely a structure that allocates authority, and authority needs to be exercised if even the most appropriate allocation of it is to have its intended effects.” Therefore, “faculty members must be willing to participate in the decision-making processes over which a sound governance system gives them authority. . . . If they do not, authority will drift away from them, since someone must exercise it, and if members of the faculty do not, others will.”

If you don’t have an AAUP chapter on your campus, work to create one (you need only seven active AAUP members). If you don’t have a faculty senate, build one of those, too. If you do have one or both, actively and conscientiously participate in academic government. Talk with your colleagues about the work you’re doing. Remind them of just how unique shared governance is, and encourage them to get involved as well.

If we fail to do the work required under principles of shared governance, then it will slowly but surely disappear. If we allow shared governance to be redefined—whether as consultation or as priority alignment—then it will slowly but surely disappear. And if we watch quietly as boards overreach and administrators encroach into areas of faculty primacy, then shared governance will slowly but surely disappear. And then we will have lost everything: due process; what remains of tenure; our academic freedom; and, ultimately, our special, professional, and central place within this country’s institutions of higher education.

The AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities remains the starting point for the work we have ahead of us over the next fifty years. Let’s get to it.

A version of this essay was presented as the closing plenary address at the 2016 AAUP Shared Governance Conference and Workshops.

Michael DeCesare is professor of sociology at Merrimack College. He is chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance, a member of the national Council, vice president of the Massachusetts AAUP conference, and president of Merrimack’s AAUP chapter. His e-mail address is [email protected].