If Universities Were Democracies

Brian Taylor

April 21, 2011

If universities were democracies, then students would always have their way, since they are invariably the largest constituent group in any institution. Undoubtedly, grades would be abolished, classes would be optional, and the curriculum would be a matter of student choice.

In such a democracy, every semester would occasion a vote of confidence (or no confidence) in every professor by the students. And the vote would be more than symbolic; it would have consequences.

Of course, if universities were democracies, then staff members would exercise considerable influence over how the institution was run, since they typically comprise the largest constituent group, next to students. We might imagine a 30-hour work week, substantial pay increases, and—almost certainly—free parking.

Then, of course, there are the alumni. Most universities actively cultivate alumni to make recommendations about the direction of the institution. In fact, the alumni boards of many universities have become especially influential. Although alumni are not usually part of the daily operation of a university, they nonetheless constitute a powerful constituency that, numerically, vastly outnumbers every other group. So if universities were democracies, then the alumni would have the greatest say of all in how things were run.

I don't know any students, staff employees, or alumni who think universities are democracies, but I have known faculty members who believe just that. A business dean once told me about an incident at her institution that illustrates that belief. She had spent two years cultivating a potential donor to make a multimillion-dollar gift to her college. She finally succeeded in securing a gift that would result in the college's being named in honor of the wealthy donor.

When she announced the good news at a college faculty meeting, she was astonished at the response of a few faculty members: They insisted that the dean submit the plan to a faculty vote. The dean was especially shocked because there was nothing controversial about the donor; he was a prominent community leader and philanthropist.

"Do you mean to tell me that we potentially might vote not to accept this huge, generous gift?" she asked the group incredulously. One of the faculty members replied, "It's our college, and we should together make decisions like this—in a popular vote."

Needless to say, the dean declined to submit the plan to a vote. She told the group that she would be happy to hear the views of anyone who wanted to write to her about the plan. But the decision itself was the responsibility of the dean, the vice president for advancement, and, ultimately, the president.

At another university, the faculty senate attempted to pressure the administration to alter a proposed response to state-imposed budget cuts. The senate objected to a number of closures of academic programs and preferred instead that the institution jettison its underperforming football program. The senate leadership attempted to initiate a "vote of the faculty" as to what the institution's approach to the cuts should be—despite the fact that most faculty members possessed little information about the inner workings of the athletics program or the university's long-term planning.

It is one thing for faculty members to vote on curricular change, or a new tenure policy—although even a faculty vote on those subjects should be understood to be not the final word, just a recommendation. It is quite another matter for the faculty to vote on whether the university should close a campus street to traffic to create a pedestrian mall, or establish a satellite campus in an adjacent town, or dip into its emergency-reserve fund to help cover a state-mandated budget cut. Those decisions typically derive from an institution's long-term master plan and are the purview of multiple constituencies—not just one. Yet they are all areas that faculty members at various institutions have attempted to control.

Perhaps the belief that all important university decisions should be subjected to a faculty vote derives from a misunderstanding of "shared governance." Some faculty members believe that it quite literally means that a faculty group, or the faculty as a whole, votes on a proposed plan and that's it. The vote decides the matter.

A dean once told me that a faculty leader at her institution informed her that shared governance means that "the faculty run the university" and the role of administrators is to "do the daily paperwork." The dean explained: "He said, in all seriousness, that the faculty have the primary role of governing the university and that administrators are appointed to spare them from the more distasteful managerial labor."

Shared governance, at least in the context of American higher education, is a product of the 1960s, when colleges and universities began to liberalize many of their processes. In fact, the foundational statement on the subject, "Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities," was adopted in the mid-1960s by the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Before the 1960s, it was not unusual for administrators to make decisions unilaterally, without consulting faculty members or any other constituents. The movement toward greater shared governance was an attempt to give campus constituencies more opportunity to participate in the decision-making process—not to exercise veto power through votes or other means, but to be able to provide recommendations that might help influence the final decision. Clearly, there is a substantial difference between providing advice and recommendations, on the one hand, and conducting a deciding vote, on the other. Genuine shared governance involves people engaging in reasoned debate over an issue before providing recommendations to the administration through their representatives.

In contrast, subjecting every important decision to a popular vote invites constituents to weigh in on issues without having studied the facts or having heard the perspectives of other constituencies—as, presumably, their elected representatives have. It would, in effect, mean governance by a simple majority—mob rule, rather than true shared governance.

I am not suggesting that constituent votes are inappropriate in a university setting. Handled professionally, they can serve as a barometer of a constituency's collective feeling at the time of the vote. That should not be confused, however, with the workings of shared governance.

The fact is, universities are not democracies; they are complex organizations comprising multiple constituencies all of which contribute advice from their unique perspectives. If universities really were democracies, where every important decision was subjected to a vote, they would be ungovernable.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor, with John Presley, of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives from America's Academic Leaders," newly released in paperback (Paradigm). He can be contacted at