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The Blessing and Curse of Shared Governance

The Blessing and Curse of Shared Governance

(p.81) 7 The Blessing and Curse of Shared Governance
Saving Alma Mater
Ernst R. Berndt
University of Chicago Press

There is a traditional belief among the professoriate that faculty governance is an indispensable component of academic freedom and institutional quality in higher education. According to this belief, all members of academic communities, but especially the faculty, share the responsibility for protecting the uninhibited flow of ideas and ensuring that academic priorities are not automatically subordinated to budget and practical considerations. Implicit in this view is the idea of ownership. Also implicit in this view is the idea of harmony. To make this vision work, it is believed necessary that faculty members be given a major voice in decision making, be consulted on all substantive matters, and be the primary source of academic innovation and inspiration. Costs are high, in the view of critics, because the shared governance model is intrinsically inefficient. When decisions are made only after broad consultation and extensive discussion, and when committees replace individuals as decision makers, then an organization's personnel costs are unavoidably great and the responsiveness of the organization is unavoidably slow. Furthermore, the search for broad consensus makes universities resistant to change. But the real issue is not a matter of choosing between two alternatives. The issue is whether shared governance is a sacred cow that is so reflexively protected by its advocates that they are blind to its shortcomings, just as its campus critics are intimidated into remaining silent about their concerns. At its core, shared governance is simply a methodology for managing a particular kind of diverse and complex organization, and like any methodology, it can go awry if implemented poorly.

Keywords:   shared governance, decision making, public universities, college education, higher education, academic culture, faculty governance

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