Universities and colleges today face a crisis of bad governance. The proliferation of scandals, secrecy and bureaucratic busywork; replacement of collegial decision making with autocratic top-down managerialism; ludicrously exaggerated administrative salaries at the top, while front-line educators are reduced to starvation wages and precarity — all point to the same conclusion.
The senior leadership at too many institutions of higher education has seemingly bought into a pallid and intellectually vacuous pipe dream. They think they can, and indeed should, transform the dynamic complexities of the academic world into a docile, streamlined, micromanaged set of corporate-style product development labs and on-demand skills training centres. And they evidently believe this transformation can best be achieved by ignoring, subverting, or doing away with fundamental principles of collegial governance.
Marketed by cadres of ideologically-driven business executives, like-minded or gullible austerity governments, and self-appointed “expert” consultants, this dream may look like a win-win from the administrative vantage point. No more awkward conversations or difficult decisions about the long-term nurturing of a wide diversity of academic programs as they drift in and out of fashion. No more answering to faculty for miscalculations and poor management. No more unpredictable research findings or unorthodox teaching ideas that run contrary to the political or corporate wisdom of the day.
Meanwhile, private industry profits from enhanced access to public resources and expertise at a bargain price. Students who pay up and play along are promised facilitated access to jobs, or at least unpaid internships. And, of course, lavish compensation can always be found to reward leaders who help to bring about this new state of affairs — no matter how many programs, faculty, or support positions end up as victims of “financial exigency” in the process.
The resulting nightmare of stifled thought and gross inequity has been lauded in Orwellian terms as “innovative,” “fiscally responsible,” and “responsive to market demands.” But these sorts of empty buzzwords merely provide self-congratulatory cover for a restructuring that is inherently destructive, designed to serve the interests of a select few while bypassing and silencing the voices of many others and suffering irremediable losses along the way. Governance based on such a divisive and narrowed vision has no place in our publicly-funded colleges and universities, and it’s time we address this challenge.
There are clear alternatives. Open, democratic, collegial governance has always been essential to true higher education because communities of academic experts, as opposed to individual managers, are best situated and qualified to fully understand the nature, requirements and potential of the academic enterprise as a whole. That is why we place so much value on service as an essential component of academic work.
Through service on committees, in workplace unions and faculty associations, in senates and councils, and even on boards of governors, academic staff contribute fundamentally important perspectives and informed opinions on the well-being of their institutions every day. Centuries of experience demonstrate that when they are prevented from doing so freely, or when decisions are made within a narrow circle without proper consultation and input, we are all the poorer for it.
Higher education is too important to be abandoned to the seasonal whims and preferences of business, government, or hired managers. It does not belong to them; it’s a public trust, which every single academic staff member has a stake in defending. Canadian higher education exists and thrives because expert academic workers dedicate their lives to teaching and research, and those same workers must be allowed to participate in meaningful shared governance if we are to ensure the continued integrity of that teaching and research.
Academic employers who forget this simple truth, and abuse their positions as a result, must be held to account. No more secretive appointments. No more unaccountable corporate partnerships. No more bypassing faculty to create, terminate, or restructure academic programs on the sly. No more gagging of faculty representatives on boards of governors, or anywhere else.
Wake-up calls have already been sounded, and they are getting louder every day. Let’s bring back truly open, collegial governance. It’s time to bring the nightmare of closed, top-down, corporate-style governance to an end.