Singing the Praises of Shared Governance

To strengthen the faculty’s role in governance, try whimsy.
By Louis Epstein

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Faculty have plenty of reasons to feel anxious, among them the widely publicized threats to our unique, enviable forms of shared governance. I won’t rehearse those threats here. If we spend more time bemoaning our present state than articulating our strengths, we’ll slip into a malaise from which recovery is unlikely. Instead, we should be tempering anxieties with celebrations, trumpeting shared governance wins as often as we mourn losses, and giving ourselves and our colleagues at other institutions some hope—some cause for motivation to keep fighting the good fight. In other words, we need to spend more time singing the praises of shared governance. I mean that literally.

Union organizing has long shown that there’s joy in solidarity—joy in the sheer fact of banding together to advocate for unsung individuals. To spark that joy, organizers have often turned to chants and songs. Other scholars know more than I do about the history of those chants and songs; what I know is that music moves people to act in ways that the spoken word cannot. And music offers a vehicle for generating good will, energy, strength, and even power.

That’s why, during my two years chairing the Faculty Governance Committee at St. Olaf College, I wrote original songs about shared governance and performed them at every faculty meeting. Eventually I had enough material to string together into a loose dramatic treatment. I’m calling it Shared Governance: The Musical, and you can read the lyrics and listen to the songs here

I sought to infuse our shared governance processes with joy, energy, and whimsy in the hope that my colleagues would feel less burned out and more engaged. I wanted to make shared governance far more playful and at least a little more fun. But even if my colleagues refused to take the bait (and some certainly did refuse), I knew I’d be a more effective cheerleader for shared governance with music than I would be without it. And if I could find the joy in my own work, then there’s a good chance others would, too. 

No one participates in shared governance looking for fame, but it can’t hurt to give credit where credit is due. I started my reign of terror whimsy by singing a jingle to celebrate the quiet work of our Faculty Governance Committee at the opening faculty meeting. I acknowledge that my performance undermined the decorum of our august faculty governance polity. But that seemed preferable to the alternative: at some meetings, low turnout and a lack of a quorum made it impossible for us to carry out college business. This unhappy turn of events, too, became fodder for a song.

So did the reticence of faculty to stand for election to major committees, which served as pretext for an old-fashioned, patriotic march. Of course, if faculty are feeling burned out and refusing to stand for election, that’s a structural issue rather than an individual one. My colleague Donna McMillan pointed out that we sometimes make things harder for ourselves by indulging in what she called “excessive indiscriminate thoroughness.” That idea, too, became a song. (Inspired by Donna’s logic, I also called for a Committee Resource Allocation Project to cut down on the number of standing committees, but that initiative went down the toilet. Maybe the idea would have been easier to digest if I had sung about it.) 

I wrote a call-and-response inspired by protest songs to advocate more openness to changing our faculty manual; a jaunty number with a heavy metal–inflected refrain on the contentious debates we have over faculty manual revisions; an anthem to our review of reviews; and a love song between the faculty manual and the college bylaws. Each of these songs served as prelude to very serious resolutions coming up for a faculty vote. A straight-up pop song celebrating non-tenure-track colleagues introduced a resolution removing the word visiting from the title of any faculty members who had been at the college longer than three years. The tenure and promotion process is no laughing matter, but stressed junior colleagues already see its absurdity, so why shouldn’t the rest of us? Thus emerged a Tin Pan Alley–inspired ditty about peer review of teaching. (The song succeeded musically but failed politically: the resolution it preceded was voted down.) Feeling deep gratitude for the logistical brilliance of the dean’s administrative assistant, I wrote an ode that celebrates her contributions to shared governance, including managing the clicker system at faculty meetings that allows us to capture accurate vote tallies. 

By the end of my two-year stint singing at faculty meetings, during which time I had also served as faculty representative to the board of regents, I had come to appreciate that—in a healthy shared governance system—faculty, staff, administrators, board members, and students accomplish more through collaboration than antagonism. Strong faculty governance, I realized, was both the cause and the effect of truly shared governance, where everyone plays distinct roles. My final song to the faculty offered a general “thank you” to all the people who are the writers, cast, and crew of shared governance. As the song makes clear, however, leadership takes shared governance only so far. A high degree of faculty engagement is crucial to the system. In the show of shared governance, the stars are the rank-and-file faculty members who show up, deliberate, and vote. In short, the star is you.

As I neared the end of my second term as Faculty Governance Committee chair, it became clear that I had more than a collection of songs; I had the makings of a musical. “The Star Is You” became a convenient closing number. I wrote another song that could just as conveniently open any drama about shared governance, with its articulation of all the challenges besetting higher education. For a particular faculty meeting that involved myriad high-stakes votes that could have easily required multiple meetings to get there, I wrote a sonic montage in an effort to exhort my peers to efficient deliberation. It worked, and it would also be fun to stage. Really, the whole thing could be fun to stage. (For the record, I’m still waiting for a call from an off-off-off Broadway producer.)

What came of all these shenanigans? On the one hand, it’s hard to say. Sure, the Faculty Governance Committee moved and won faculty support on dozens of resolutions. In contrast, in other years the number of successful governance-related resolutions often totaled just a handful. But I attribute our success at winning faculty support for reform to the excellent work of committee members, and to a desire for change on the part of the faculty as a whole. To some extent we still struggled to fill committee spots, which has less to do with burnout or apathy and more to do with faculty caring too much about too many things and struggling to fit it all in. I don’t have any data to support this idea, but it seems likely that the faculty felt greater solidarity through all the singing. I certainly get asked to sing at nonfaculty meetings much more often than I ever did before. (To be clear, I never got asked before.) Maybe these songs brought a smile to your face. In that case, they did exactly what they were intended to do.

Shared Governance: The Musical probably won’t get staged, but its existence on paper offers at least one valuable takeaway. If faculty aren’t using music and art and poetry and creative fiction and humor and play to engage with issues of shared governance, then we aren’t using all the tools at our disposal to strengthen shared governance. If we let our faculty meetings become staid, self-important drudgery, we’ll alienate colleagues who want to be energized, who want to take action to address the many challenges we face. In some places, shared governance is already under such relentless attack that apparently frivolous activity at faculty meetings might seem like dancing while the Titanic is sinking. But where the situation is already dire, dancing at faculty meetings probably can’t hurt. And it might just help. 

For those of us who are privileged not to be facing shared governance crises at the moment, it’s all the more important that we take proactive, strategic action to shore up what we have before a crisis unfolds. Music—and art more broadly—can definitely help. It doesn’t have to look professional, or even sound good. As you can tell, my own singing and the recordings I made aren’t particularly polished. I meant to rerecord everything in a more professional setting than my living room, but I never found the time. (I was too busy collaborating with colleagues to improve our working conditions.) Maybe it’s better that these recordings and our voices are slightly raw, vulnerable, and unfinished. After all, so is shared governance.

The full script and lyrics of Shared Governance: The Musical are available here.

Louis Epstein is associate professor of music at St. Olaf College, where he teaches musicology and American studies. In his spare time, he sings and plays eight-ish instruments in the award-winning family music duo Louis and Dan and the Invisible Band.

Photo by Canva Pro.