How Unions Weaken Shared Governance

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

October 28, 2013

Debates are raging on many campuses over faculty unionization. I'm not a supporter, but as a longtime member and former chair of our campus senate, I'm especially troubled by unionization's implications for shared governance.

The typical line from union organizers is that collective bargaining can "strengthen" shared governance. But in fact, collective bargaining weakens shared governance—when shared governance is working as it should. I add that qualifier because it doesn't work on all campuses: Dysfunctional or fractious senates, and administrators who don't care what faculty members think, create fertile conditions for the argument that shared-governance processes are broken and need buttressing via union contracts.

We need to make a distinction between constitutional and contractual systems of faculty-administrative relations, which represent two fundamentally different—and incompatible—visions of the university.

In the constitutional model, governance begins with founding documents that define the governing principles of the institution, serving as the basis for all other policies and practices. As such, they must be consensually supported by both faculty members and administrators. Those who violate them cannot maintain legitimacy.

In the contractual model, the relationship of the faculty and the administration is defined by a negotiated contract. It is binding on them only insofar as it is agreed to by the parties concerned. It has no basis in enduring principle or value; it remains in effect only for the duration of the contract, after which any part of it can be subject to renegotiation.

Union advocates say that collective bargaining can strengthen shared governance by making statutory principles and governance processes part of a binding contract. But once they are written into the contract, modifying them becomes an activity for collective bargaining, and no longer an autonomous process within the institutions of shared governance. This weakens those institutions, it doesn't strengthen them.

The contractual model also jeopardizes other key elements of shared governance.

First, it begins with a presumption of conflicting interests that need to be negotiated through concessions on both sides. Faculty members and administrators are defined as "workers" and "management," even though the faculty is made up of professionals, not workers, and administrators have very limited abilities to "manage" tenured professors. These negotiations are often deeply adversarial, including open hostility, suspicion, and accusations of bad faith. The union mantra that only a written contract is binding is based fundamentally on a presumption of mistrust.

By contrast, shared governance begins with a presumption of shared commitment to the constitutional principles and to the best interests of the institution. Faculty and administrators view themselves as partners in a common project; this is what the "shared" in shared governance means. This certainly doesn't mean that the parties always agree—but even where there are disagreements, they are usually respectful and collegial.

Under shared governance, administrators assume that the feedback and advice of the faculty will help them make better decisions, and that those decisions will be better understood and supported by professors when they grow out of consultation and openness. They respect the faculty's fundamental rights and control over academic matters, and involve them in a broad range of other decisions as well—even when they may not be strictly required to do so.

Faculty members, for their part, respect that administrators have an accountable responsibility for making certain decisions and sometimes have information and considerations that cannot be widely shared. They recognize that senior administrators are faculty members, share the values of the faculty, and understand the concerns of the faculty. The governance roles of administration and professors are viewed as complementary, having legitimate spheres of authority that need to respect each other.

Shared governance assumes that agreements willingly made through this collegial process are actually more durable and meaningful than "binding" agreements enforced by a negotiated contract. Not much is gained when administrators are forced to follow governance processes only because a contract requires them to do so. Under such an arrangement, they can be expected to do only the minimum they are required to do, share only the information they have to share, and accord faculty input only the token consideration they must. There may be some universities where even this would be an improvement, but it is a relatively thin model of governance. It is not shared governance.

Second, union proponents claim that senates deal only with academic policy matters and are ill-equipped to deal with budget, salary, and working conditions. That is a tendentious characterization: On many campuses senates do engage with administrators in substantive deliberations about these matters. Under the terms of collective bargaining, those conversations could not continue: They would have to be taken over by the union.

Union advocates like to talk about unions and senates working together in cooperation, but here the powers of the senate are constrained by the union to dealing only with narrowly defined academic matters. In practice, the union's authority over working conditions is often interpreted to cover a good deal of academic policy as well, shrinking the authority of senates even further. In all this, the union contract can define and limit the role of the senate but not vice versa. These are in no way equivalent or symmetrical roles.

You cannot claim to be "strengthening" shared governance if you take rights and responsibilities away from it.

Third, the contractual model, under labor law, weakens shared governance in another way: When disputes arise, parties external to the campus often decide their merits and outcomes. Unfair-labor-practice charges and grievances are subject to adjudication by outsiders who are part of neither the faculty nor the administration.

Finally, shared governance is a matter of relationships based on mutual respect and trust. The fundamental problem with the contractual model is the presumption that every contract is a fight with the "bosses" to force them to recognize and address the interests of the faculty. There is a self-fulfilling dynamic here: treating people as untrustworthy adversaries makes them regard you that way in return—and so the general climate between faculty and administrators gets worse.

The kind of coerced "shared governance" that union advocates have in mind is foreign to building and maintaining the kinds of relationships that professors and administrators should be striving to strengthen. Such relationships are slow to build—and easy to damage.

Nicholas C. Burbules is a professor in the department of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.