Shared Governance: An Aspect of Academic Freedom?

November 18, 2011

UPDATE below.

In today’s New York Times, Michael Berube has an interesting, earnest opinion piece on the unfolding mess at Penn State: “At Penn State, a Bitter Reckoning,” it’s titled.  Berube appears to feel some compulsion to comment because he is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Penn State, a position Paterno and his wife, Sue, endowed.

Berube appears to approve of interim President Rodney Erickson’s appointment of an ethics officer reporting directly to the president, but argues that the faculty need to play a more vigorous role in upholding ethical standards as well.  He goes so far as to argue that Penn State’s faculty could have played a valuable role in preventing the tragedy:  “Perhaps if a faculty ethics committee had been informed about Mr. Sandusky in 2002, one of us could have advised administrators to inquire more aggressively into the case instead of circling the football program’s wagons.”

That’s the part I find earnest, but also naive.  My experience, half as a faculty member, half in a variety of administrative leadership roles, is that faculty are no more likely to deal quickly and firmly with ethics failures than administrators.  My first faculty appointment was in a department that housed a senior faculty member who was reliably drunk by lunchtime and therefore a dreadful teacher, but faculty colleagues could not bring themselves to do anything about him.  I’ve witnessed several clear cases of plagiarism by faculty members that professional colleagues spent months (even years) discussing and then failing to recommend censure or dismissal.

I’d love to hear cases of ethical lapses by faculty members that were dealt with in a fair, timely and firm manner by faculty colleagues.  If I learn of any, I’ll let you know.

Perhaps it would be different with a football coach; perhaps faculty members could see their way to recommending firm action when it wasn’t really a colleague, but one of those ‘others.’  Berube acknowledges that Penn State’s reputation for football success coupled with ethical integrity led them to feel “less conflicted” about their being a major sports power.  Sorry, but I think the evidence that Division I NCAA sports corrupts the missions of universities has been overwhelming for decades.

Berube’s piece starts as one that speaks of the outrage of the vast majority at Penn State about what happened.  He says there are “6,000 full-time teachers and researchers working here — and none of us had anything to do with this mess. Like the vast majority of our 45,000 students, we did not riot. We are every bit as disgusted and horrified as you are. This is our place that has been trashed, and we care deeply about cleaning it up.”  But his article morphs into a case for a stronger faculty role in governance at Penn State: “the administration must begin treating faculty members, and their elected representatives on the Faculty Senate, as equal partners in the institution.”

I’m a vigorous advocate for shared governance in colleges and universities, but I doubt better shared governance would have helped in this instance — or indeed in most instances of ethical failure.  Rather, the case for shared governance turns very much more on having educators, not administrators, shape the educational programs and policies of colleges and universities.  And dealing with ethical failure requires people who come to know of them to have both high standards and courage.

Berube’s final paragraph begins with this assertion: “The principle of ‘shared governance’ is the least well understood aspect of academic freedom, and and a result, it is honored chiefly in the breach.”  I put the paper down and shook my head.  Yes, shared governance is a valuable principle, and too little honored today in the academy.  And yes, academic freedom is a valuable principle, and also less well understood and stood up for than it should be.  But is one an “aspect” of the other?  I don’t think so.

In recent years, the American Association of University Professors  has been arguing that there is an important linkage between academic freedom and shared governance.  Cary Nelson has just published No University Is An Island: Saving Academic Freedom in which the first chapter is entitled “The Three-Legged Stool: Academic Freedom, Shared Governance and Tenure.”  AAUP’s 1994 statement On the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom argues that academic freedom and shared governance have always been “closely connected, arguably inextricably linked.” In the May-June 2001 issue of Academe, Larry Gerber wrote a piece called “Inextricably Linked”: Shared Governance and Academic Freedom.”  Linked, yes, but not “aspects” of the same thing as Berube would have it.  It is an empirical question whether academic freedom is more likely to be upheld when there is shared governance or when there isn’t such shared governance.

From my experience, I’ll go with “closely linked.”  Sometimes it is administrators who stand up for academic freedom, just as sometimes it is administrators who sometimes insist on doing the right thing in cases of ethics failure.  I believe strongly that academic freedom is more likely to affirmed and insisted upon when there is shared governance.  But I also know of cases when faculty members, fully empowered through shared governance, failed to do anything when academic freedom was threatened.

UPDATE:  Perhaps the crux of the matter around pursuing ethical failures and shared governance (Berube’s call for more faculty involvement) is this:  you want shared governance because you want to have the right set of professional values engaged on the right issues.  We want faculty making decisions about curriculum, for example, because they are the ones who best understand knowledge discovery and communication.  But the bad side of such ‘colleagueship’ is ‘cronyism’ — looking out for your friends, giving them undeserved favors — even giving them a pass.  In matters of ethical failure, such cronyism is a big obstacle.  In an earlier post, I mentioned a case where faculty friends (cronies) resisted any pursuit of a dismissal case against a colleague who (we had evidence) was a sexual predator towards students.  Collegial processes can be a very good thing, but they are far from fool-proof.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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