Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The fundamental misunderstanding about shared governance

I don't know how many of you saw the New York Times piece on university governance: At Universities, Plum Post at Top Is Now Shaky. One comment in particular gave me an "aha" moment. The comment by Dr. Krauss at Case Western—that Case’s then-president was “ultimately a colleague”—demonstrates the widely held but fundamental misunderstanding of a university president’s role vis-à-vis the faculty.

Faculty members are fond of saying that a department chair, a dean, or a president is simply “first among equals.” That phrase connotes the sense that any other colleague on the faculty can second-guess the president’s decisions, even without the same access to information that a president might have. The phrase also connotes the idea that a group of professors should ask the president to stand down when his or her decisions become unpopular.

It would be difficult to imagine someone outside of the academy referring to his boss as a colleague, to be criticized and possibly fired by his employees. But within the academy, some conceptions of shared governance—the principle that allocates jurisdiction over certain matters to the faculty and jurisdiction over other matters to the administration—often get confused with the idea that the roles of a president and a professor are roughly the same.

Make no mistake about it: the roles differ greatly. Many presidents now are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they must work with multiple constituencies, including the board of trustees, the faculty, the rest of the administration, the students, the staff, the alumni, the donors, and any regulatory agencies. Their lives and their decisions are public. We professors, on the other hand, have the luxury of being able to work in places and at times that are most conducive to our own productivity, and when we are done for the day, we can put our work down until the next day. Moreover, if we make a bad policy decision, the buck doesn’t stop with us, especially if we have tenure. The buck, however, always stops with the president, even for decisions that are within the faculty’s jurisdiction.

I'm sure that some of the animosity between university administrators and faculty members lies with the pay discrepancy of the two types of positions. I'm not condoning high presidential pay packages just for the sake of presidential retention—that notion smacks too much of our current problems with CEO compensation—but faculty members should realize that the demands on a university president are different in kind from the demands on a professor.

In reality, a president can be a colleague before the presidency. A president can be a colleague after the presidency. But during the presidency, the president is not a colleague but a leader, with the benefits and the burdens of that role.

No comments: