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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2003

University Governance Does Matter

William Bruneau

Governing Higher Education: National Perspectives on Institutional Governance

Alberto Amaral, Glen A. Jones and Bert Karseth, eds. Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002; 298 pp; hardcover $115 US.
This book is reminiscent of a Three Stooges film, Nertsery Rhymes (1933). We find Moe, Larry and Curly as children, unable to sleep in their oversized crib. Daddy (Ted Healy) is thinking of telling them a bedtime story. But the Stooges are noisy and interrupt daddy's train of thought. He snaps on the overhead light, surprising the "kids" in a game of hide-and-seek. By film's end everyone is the worse for wear, but the viewer has a fine time.

Think now of higher education managers and civil servants in Europe and North America. In many cases, these are men and women eager to play the game of "accountability." Their idea is to make universities mission-oriented. For the sake of economic efficiency they may bypass academic senates and university councils. Like the Stooges they don't think they're doing anything wrong. And like the Stooges they are surprised when somebody turns on the light. This book plays the role of Ted Healy.

Although the 15 essays in the volume deal with national and regional reforms of university governance, Harry de Boer's paper on recent changes in Dutch higher education is representative. Mind you, de Boer's English leaves something to be desired, his reference list is incomplete and he appeals a little too much to social and institutional theory. But these need not distract us from the overarching interest and value of his work and of the book. For if de Boer listens overmuch to the siren song of social theory, so do his colleague authors. Despite clumsy English and a certain ponderous abstraction de Boer's paper (like the book as a whole) has the effect of a 300-watt lightbulb.

De Boer argues for "Trust, the Essence of Government." Referring to sources as various as Machiavelli, R. Coase ("The Nature of the Firm," 1937), and institutional theorists of the 1990s (Miller's Managerial Dilemmas, 1992, notably), de Boer claims that managerial "reform" in the end makes university administration more hierarchical than ever. University teachers are less and less free to manage themselves as universities "exude an atmosphere of tight forms of surveillance and control." (p. 44)

De Boer comes to his conclusion indirectly. With tongue in cheek he imagines a university president with two advisors, each with a .6 chance of being right about something or other. Three are better than two and, "The implications for hierarchies are that those units or individuals that have knowledge and expertise will not only be asked to utilize this expertise, but will increasingly manage to secure a share of the decision-making power." (p. 45) Hierarchs want to be right. Therefore a good hierarchy works best when information and advice flow freely up and down the chain of command. Things will be better still if the interests of the whole organization are visible to all and if there are "incentive compliance systems" to keep people from hiding private desires from higher-ups. (p. 47)

In the end, trust is the grease that keeps the hierarchy moving. A successfully autocratic hierarch must trust her underlings and vice versa. In an effective hierarchy everyone should be able to hope for "positive outcomes from interactions with executives," for some degree of shared control and for "fairness, impartiality and status recognition." (p. 49) I must confess I had never thought of hierarchies as having these sorts of features.

We come to the Dutch university system. Like many OECD countries, Holland responded to the great academic-cultural revolution of the 1960s with legislation. The main result was to make university- and faculty-wide governing bodies more representative and participatory. At the same time the new act of university governance passed by the Dutch parliament in 1970 envisaged a division of powers familiar to North Americans, with a fairly weak executive branch on one side and a legislature on the other.

The glory days could not last. For one thing the division of power was not clear in the 1970 act. Resulting confusions in policy and practice were unhelpful as universities dealt with cyclical penury (unpredictable declines in financial support from the state), waves of new students in new fields and the rise of performance-indicator-driven management in public and private life. That confusion provided an excuse for a new law in 1997. Dutch universities now have something close to boards of governors, a presidential executive and merely advisory elected bodies.

Dutch academics and students, and informed public opinion, agree the division of responsibility is an improvement over the old ways. But the net effect is to strengthen the executive branch and to encourage managerial interference in academic life.

Why is this? Why does the adoption of a North American model of governance have such anti-participatory effects?

In Holland the answer is in two parts, de Boer suggests. First, in the new system the traditional rights and privileges of discipline-based departments are gone. In the vacuum thus created, managers step in.

Second, there are the management teams themselves. These teams have appeared at all levels, and although they do not have formal decision-making power, a power theoretically in the hands of academic councils, "they certainly leave their mark on institutional and faculty decision-making." (p. 53)

Above all, the management teams - secretive, informal, powerful - have sidelined elected councils. Participation rates in elections for councils run from 10 per cent to 20 per cent: "One of the saddest stories involved a faculty council election held in 2001 where there were more candidates (41, which was exceptionally high) than voters (35, a turnout rate of just under 5 per cent)." (p. 54) De Boer thinks low participation leads to low commitment and "low levels of commitment not only influence the quality of decision-making, but also decrease the level of trust." (p. 57)

De Boer might have said much more about the powers of democratic governance. He might have shown how due process encourages the wider community to trust the university. He might have suggested that fair-minded argument and critical thinking are more likely in an open academic legislature than in a closed circle of managers. But in any case, if you grant de Boer's premise - that a hierarchy is what we have, so let's make it work - then it's interesting to find evidence that managerial "efficiency" does hierarchs no particular good.

In each of the main examples in Governing Higher Education - Holland, France, Norway, Belgium, Canada, Australia and the United States - the story is roughly the same, but the starting points are strikingly different. In France, Austria and Germany, civil servants create annually a line-by-line budget "narrative" for universities, guided by past practice and taking into account that university autonomy should actually mean something. In some west-European states the entire professoriate is in the civil service and appointed by the state.

For these countries "reform" may mean the creation of biennial or triennial budgets, or "block funding," so universities are left alone to spend their money, to make their appointments, and to face their public. In Germany and Austria the forthcoming re-invention of boards of governors to spend the money and to make many academic decisions, of American-style professorial ranks, of easily-evaluated teaching practice and the acceptance of interim performance indicators to tell government and industry if the money is being "well spent" - these are the stigmata of "reform." To my mind they are signs of ever-tighter management control, a point brought home in a conference on reform in six countries, sponsored by UBC's Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training this past August.

In North America, on the other hand, professors are not civil servants and budgets have rarely been made by provincial or state governments. Budgets may be reviewed or evaluated in great detail by civil servants, but not created by civil servants. Rather, the big questions are about declining public finance for teaching and research and the rising tide of privatization.

Reform in Canadian and American jurisdictions has meant more "administrative steering," as Elaine El-Khawas remarks (p. 267), the growth of new "planning committees" (pretty much the management teams de Boer describes), in the U.S., the unplanned transfer of political-administrative power to deans (p. 270) or less predictably, in Canada, as Glen Jones writes, to various members of a university-wide "policy network." (p. 230)

Jones's piece on Canadian higher education is as distinctive as Canada's universities themselves. Jones thinks universities make decisions on two tracks, which I would characterize as "formal" and "non-formal." Because boards of governors are less and less able to see what's at stake in big academic and administrative decisions, and because senates are breathing but moribund, it's no surprise decision-making would move elsewhere.

My inclination is to think Canadian universities and colleges are unusual only in that "process re-engineering," "performance indicators," and all the rest of the managerialist panoply are less bothersome in the short term than in other countries. The sheer anarchy of our decentralized non-system disguises the awful reality.

After 300 pages one is convinced that comparative studies of universities are needed as never before. I disagree with the editors of Governing Higher Education that we need them in order to show the use of "various social science disciplines," "specific theoretical perspectives," certain "generic research themes," and "key sensitising concepts." Nor do we need comparison to test those theories - theories of "organisation design and behaviour," "structure and agency," and so on. The essays in the book occasionally rely on a theory or two, partly to help with writing problems such as what shall I write about first, second, third and so on. Less often a theory may be used to "explain" X or Y.

Rather, I thought the 15 papers in Governing Higher Education are about politics. They provide handy raw material for anyone who wants to argue that university governance does matter, that there are common patterns of politics OECD-wide, and above all, that a strategy to revive participation and openness is within reach. That strategy requires of the Canadian professoriate a level of activism not seen since the late 1960s. If this book is right, that kind of activism will be well worth the candle.

William Bruneau, recently retired from the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, is a member of CAUT's Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.