Collegial governance and crickets in the meeting room

Image: Two-spotted tree cricket singing, © Patrick Coin CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Warning: a little bit grumpy.

I’ve just come back from a highly successful Departmental retreat: high turnout, engaged faculty and staff, and some genuine problem-solving.  But just as a sidewalk sighting of Manute Bol might make me realize that some of my friends are rather short, our successful retreat reminded me of a weird but not altogether surprising thing about university faculty.  That thing: everyone loves collegial governance, right up until somebody calls a meeting.

As a general rule, university academics feel very strongly about collegial governance.  In fact, it’s one of the distinguishing features of the university: universities are organized and administered very differently from governments or corporations.  In fact, if you want to get an academic spitting made, mention the word “corporatization”, or suggest that what we really need is to streamline governance to make us more nimble.  Almost any decision made by a vice-president (or worse, a Board of Governors) without participation of the university’s Senate provokes howls of protest.  This is despite the fact (in my heretical belief) that collegial governance is very good at some things and fails miserably at a bunch of others – something I call the paradox of university governance.  What we academics want, instead, is decision-making that starts in small committees and flows through monthly departmental meetings up through Faculty Council (or equivalent body) to the University Senate.

At least, that’s what we say we want.  But perhaps you’ve been in that departmental meeting where only a third of the voting faculty show up.  Perhaps you’ve heard the crickets when a Chair or a Dean asks for volunteers to sit on a new committee. Perhaps you’ve heard the even more obvious crickets when a new Chair or Dean is needed.  If you have: I’ve been there with you (at least in spirit).

I said this was weird, but also not surprising. Weird, because you’d think that since we all believe so strongly in collegial governance, we’d be jumping at the opportunity to get involved.  Not surprising, though, because academics are people like everybody else, capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast even when two of them are contradictory.  Like, for instance, that collegial governance is critically important, and also that committee meetings are a waste of time.

To be fair, of course it isn’t all crickets: every department I know about has some committed, energetic citizens, who are often the ones we see serving on committee after committee.  These are people who are willing to walk the walk about collegial governance, or people who have found ways to feel satisfaction in academic service.  Quite possibly, they’re both.  But it shouldn’t have to be those people over and over again.  The rest of our colleagues – the ones who abandon meetings to the crickets – are abdicating decision-making to the hierarchical, corporate management systems they profess to hate.

Crickets are cool, mind you*.  It’s just that I’d rather not hear them while we’re trying to run the university.

© Stephen Heard  April 23, 2018

*^Look, I know this post is really only about metaphorical crickets, but I can’t help pointing out something really cool here.  Look at the photo again.  See the hole in the leaf?  The cricket chews the hole, then positions its body so it can use the leaf surface as a baffle to prevent acoustical short-circuiting from damping the volume of its song.  How cool is that?


2 thoughts on “Collegial governance and crickets in the meeting room

  1. Jeremy Fox

    Yup. What most academics want is for administrators to run the university for them, in exactly the way the academics themselves would’ve run it had they shown up to the meetings and participated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brian McGill

    I don’t think its paradoxical at all. Shared governance means we can stop things we don’t like. That doesn’t mean we want to show up to help the wheels turn when everything is going fine.

    In a top-down, more corporate model it takes much more work to prevent/veto/overturn a decision.

    I am on my local school board and see this all the time. The vast majority of the time the public never shows up. When they do show up they are really angry about something.

    Such an asymmetric response is entirely rational from the individual point of view, although it certainly suffers from a freeloader problem to keep the wheels turning in normal times.

    Liked by 1 person


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