The paradox of university governance

How is a university run? I’ve been part of universities for many years, I’ve been a departmental Chair and a Dean, and I don’t know. What I do know is that academics spend a lot of time talking and arguing about how a university is run, and how it should be run, and (usually) about the supposedly large gap between those two things.

The reason academics argue about university governance is that there’s a paradox at the heart of the modern university. The idea of “collegial governance” is central to the academic concept of the university: decisions (other than routine operation) are made bottom-up, by academics governing themselves. At many universities, this means many decisions are supposed to be made by an academic Senate, with elected members from among the faculty (and students); other decisions are made in Departmental or Faculty meetings in which each faculty member votes. We object vehemently when decisions are made in other ways: by the appointed Board of Governors (heavily salted with businesspeople and political figures), by administrators* in Financial Services, Human Resources, or Technology Services, or from the top down by Presidents and Vice Presidents who come from the academic ranks but are now viewed with suspicion if not outright enmity.

But universities are huge and complex organizations, and that brings a paradox. I’m a reasonably smart guy**, but I don’t fix my own car or do my own wiring, and when I needed my gallbladder removed I didn’t wield my own scalpel. I understand that there are things I don’t know how to do, and running a $250-million/year organization with 3,000 employees and 11,000 students (my university; many are much, much larger) is one of them. If you have completely collegial governance, then you have a huge and complex organization run by people who have no experience with management, organizational psychology, non-profit accounting, human-rights law, and a dozen other critical things***. The result is sure to be disaster. But if you have top-down administration, then an organization whose core mission is research and teaching is run by people who have no experience with either research or teaching. The result, again, is sure to be disaster.

This is why good universities are in fact neither collegial nor top-down, but a weird mishmash of both. It’s also why tension between academics and administrators is universal. That tension can be destructive, with mistrust on both sides wasting time and resources and poisoning new initiatives from either party. But with the right group who understand the essential paradox, it can be very productive. It’s the right group if when academics and nonacademic administrators meet together, one party or the other says “whoa, why would we want to do that?”, and the other party stops to rethink.

How often does that right group exist? Unfortunately, not as often as it should. The fault can be on either side (and is frequently on both): I’ve dealt with faculty members oblivious of employment-equity law and the reasons for it (for example) just as often as I’ve dealt with administrators who have no concept of how research happens. But academics and administrators who understand when to consult each other and when to defer to each other aren’t as rare as you’d think (it’s just that disgruntled people are much louder than content ones, in academia as everywhere).

As a Chair I learned that one of the secrets of getting things done was to identify people who respect and understand each other across the academic-administrator divide, and have them be in charge of things. One of the secrets of building a better university is surely to increase the number of such people. And here’s where I think there’s a major untapped opportunity. Every university I’ve been part of has had training sessions to acquaint academics with some of the things administrators do: sessions on human rights, or employment procedures, or student counseling, or whatever. None has ever run a training session to acquaint administrators with what academics do: how field research gets done, how we put a lecture together (or why we choose to lecture vs. flip the classroom), or the like.   I don’t understand why not, and if I ever get back into academic administration, it’s something I’ll try to change.

© Stephen Heard ( September 24 2015

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*The term administrator can apply to academics who take leadership positions (Chairs, Deans, even Presidents), or it can apply to people without any academic background who run university offices and departments. In this post I’ll use academic administrator in the former sense and just plain administrator in the latter. I’m also glossing over distinctions between governance, administration, and management – it would take a full post to explain those distinctions and why they don’t matter to the point at hand.

**I heard that. Don’t make me come back there.

***Any given university may have faculty who teach these things, of course. Whether that makes them able to run a university is a topic for another blog post.


11 thoughts on “The paradox of university governance

  1. Peter Apps

    An excellent suggestion – and it is not only academia that could benefit. There is a general tendency to label scientists as barbarians and require them to take courses in the humanities to fit them for polite society, while at the same time a dismal lack of scientific literacy among humanities scholars is taken as a sign of good breeding and refined sensibilities.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeremy Fox

    Yup. Faculty bark, the provost bites:

    Also, can’t find it now, but a little while back Dynamic Ecology linked to a commentary on how universities are so loosely organized that it’s difficult to change their behavior (at least in any fine-grained way) by changing their incentives. In particular, the policymakers who hold the purse strings don’t have nearly as much power to change university behavior as one might think.


  3. Chris Buddle

    Nice post, Steve. You make some good suggestions at the end! Indeed, in my institution, I receive training for some the Admin duties I have, but it doesn’t work the other way!

    Overall I am strongly in favour of having academics involved in administration: it’s a system with pros and cons, but the benefits of having administrators with real experience in research and teaching helps in understanding and maintaining the good parts of academic culture. As an administrator at my Uni, I remain active in research and teaching, and see that keeping one foot in those areas is key to being a better administrator. I worry about Universities in which ‘big decisions’ are made by people without good first-hand understanding of research and teaching. Now, that being said, there probably is a place for administrators without academic background e.g., some of the finance or human resource portfolios are *so* beyond most academic’s expertise that it’s perhaps silly to place academics in those roles.

    Food for thought: Perhaps one reason that Universities remain relatively vibrant (and are still around!) despite a fast-changing and dynamic world, is because of their odd governance structure.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Chris! Interesting “food for thought”. As a scientist of course my first thought was “how could I test this hypothesis”, and that quickly got out of hand… 🙂

      I agree that we don’t need to place academics in some of the HR portfolios (for example). But I would like a chance to tell those folks what a university is all about!


  4. Jeff Houlahan

    Hi Steve, really enjoyed the post. And I do think education would be helpful (here it comes)…but I do think there are two fundamental mechanisms at play when sides disagree –
    1. Different understanding and 2. Different values

    We tend to focus on the first – perhaps because the second is less tractable. But if faculty and administrators want something different from a university then no amount of education will help. I think we see this often in conservation biology – conservation biologists thinking that “if people understood the peril that (place species name here) are in they would behave differently”. The condescending opinion that ignorance is the culprit when in fact many of the people in question understand very well the peril a species is in but simply don’t place much value on the golden toad or the sea turtle. Shifting people’s values strikes me as a much tougher sell than educating them. Best, Jeff


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      This is a good point, Jeff, although I guess I’d argue that we often assume administrators have different values when really we just don’t understand them (and the converse is equally true). So the two are entwined! It’s also often true that what seem like different values are in fact different perspectives: for instance, a Dean has to value the entire Faculty, while an individual faculty member may prioritize their own discipline. Still, for all the Panglossian veneer I’m trying to put on it, I’d admit there are awful value clashes. One that bothers me immensely, for example, is the valuing of grant funding by (some) administrators; to me, grants are completely uninteresting except as a means to an end (science)!


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