From “Shared Governance” to Democratic Self-Rule in Public Higher Education

US public higher education institutions should be ruled by faculty, students, and local residents - not CEOs masquerading as public servants.

The US public higher education system is modeled on a capitalist corporate structure with, more often than not, appointed governing boards, presidents, provosts, and deans and other senior executive leaders hired by a search committee without a term limit. This contributes to making public higher education less affordable for students. Various other countries in the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe have different models that allow for a university president and deans to be elected for a set term with limited opportunities for renewal. Also, the presidents and the deans tend to be current members of the faculty who return to their faculty positions when their term expires. Such a democratic approach carries potential for greater focus on academic mission, servant leadership, greater accountability, and financial sustainability that benefits all stakeholders. This article advocates for a change of the capitalist corporate structure in US public higher education institutions  to self-governance oriented structures. In other words, the article proposes a university structure that is designed and ruled by faculty, students, and local community members.

Corporate Governance in US Higher Education

Public higher education institutions in the US use a corporate governance structure that include a governance board (e.g., board of trustees, board of regents), a chief executive officer (e.g., president, chancellor), an academic executive (e.g., provost, vice-president for academics), a team of senior executive leaders (e.g., associates to president, associates to provost, college or school deans), the faculty senate, and the student senate. At another layer, there are the heads of specialized schools, institutes, centers, divisions, departments, and programs. This corporate structure defines the direction of the policy decision making process, which is top down and oriented toward a corporate culture. The corporate culture encourages a focus on the “bottom line”: maximizing profit for its shareholders, and not for the greater good.

Corporate governance comes with its perks for governing boards. The governing boards tend to operate as corrupt political structures influenced by partisan politics or whatever political alignment is more influential. In fact, it is possible that policy decisions arguably become anti-academic because policy decisions tend to be influenced by the capitalist interests that control the votes of the members in the governing boards. Also, governing boards become an opportunity to develop social networks and social capital that eventually transform into transferable financial and economic opportunities. Members of governing boards are very mindful about such immediate and future opportunities that come with their position, and such reality influences their decisions. Consequently, it does not take too long for the interests of students and faculty to take a back seat when governing boards make strategic policy decisions, even though their deliberations might be framed as seeking to protect the welfare of the students and taxpayers. I have no doubt that governing boards include some people with a certain amount of good intention. However, they operate in a corporate structure that thrives on links with capitalist interests.

Corporate governance in US public higher education creates a line of work for people who have zero purpose related to the academic interests of students and faculty: executive search firms. Executive search firms have nothing to do with academics or scholarship. Executive search search firms had no role in academia in the past because members of the university community would volunteer to run the search process for a new senior higher education leader. Now, even though postsecondary institutions still have a search committee when making executive hires, the real search committee is the executive search firm.

Executive search firms are very open about their belief in conducting this process in secret. Therefore, it is a process with no transparency and accountability. Sometimes, such confidential search policy results in cases where a single finalist is announced. This happened in the case of the University of Colorado in 2019, the University of Texas El Paso in 2019, Georgia Tech in 2019, and University of Wisconsin System in 2020. The University of South Carolina paid Parker Executive Search $137,000 for a failed president search. The News-Gazette, a Central Illinois Newspaper reported that from 2002 to 2012, Illinois universities paid about $6 million to executive search firms in search of presidents, provosts, deans, and other senior executives. So much for governing boards that are supposed to be the good stewards of the financial and economic interests of taxpayers.

Such firms came into existence because current and former members of governing boards managed to find a way to create financial opportunities for themselves when their tenures end. For example, Academic Search, a firm that specializes in education executive recruitment, possesses a team consisting primarily of former members of boards of trustees and college and university presidents. Another example is Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, whose senior advisors include former senior higher education executives and ex-members of boards of trustees. In 2016, the University of Minnesota paid Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates hundreds of thousands of dollars before dropping it for another firm to complete the search.

The hard fact is executive search firms exist because they serve the current and future financial interests of members of governing boards and executive leaders of public higher education institutions. In brief, the hiring of university presidents, provosts, deans, and other senior higher education leaders has become a line of business in itself. Unless the structures of public higher education institutions change, such lines of business will not go away.

Corporate governance bestows too much power on the executive officers of US public higher education institutions. The executive leadership of US public higher education institutions has become a job, not a service. As such, it comes with lots of power to make authoritarian decisions masqueraded with appeals to “shared governance” that involve the complicity of civic-minded faculty senates. When a structure is designed as a job, it is shaped to be financially attractive and powerful enough to inspire one to try anything to keep it possible. This is where the role of executive search firms becomes instrumental. They claim to know the secret to help public higher education institutions attract the best and the brightest and operate lean like a Fortune 500 company. Is that an appropriate metric to measure the success of public higher education institutions? When a structure is designed as a job, the financial package and the authority to make unilateral financial decisions that are supported and stamped by governing boards become the primary motivation of executive position holders. In the process, faculty, students, and communities are fed with gimmicks of financial sustainability to garner support, when in reality the root of lack of financial sustainability is in the corporate structure itself.

Judith Wilde and James Finkelstein of George Mason University reviewed 115 presidential contracts for several years at state-funded institutions of higher education around the country. Their research found that they look like employment agreements for chief executive officers at corporations. They receive bonuses related to retention/contract completion, performance, and deferred compensation. When E. Gordon Gee retired as president of Ohio State University he received a $410,000 annual salary as a tenured law professor and $3.3 million in additional pay and benefits over a period of five years. Public higher education institutions should have a mission and vision that are significantly different from capitalist corporations that exist exclusively to maximize profits at any cost.

Some public higher education executives believe their role is to protect institutions from supposedly irresponsible faculty who could put them in trouble with legal compliance. The majority of faculty, however, strongly believe in the greater purpose of what they feel is a calling for them. And they are certainly not responsible for the sometimes reckless strategic and financial decisions that threaten the existence of public higher education. Powerful senior executives routinely make decisions that lead to budget cuts, layoffs, and loss of academic credibility. However, there is very little accountability for them. For example, even though Penn State University’s former president was fired during the Sandusky abuse scandal he still got paid millions of dollars after his termination.

Adopting Democratic Academic Governance Structures

The term “shared governance” has a nice ring to it. Shared governance is supposed to facilitate a distribution of leadership among the internal stakeholders of a college or a university (i.e., governing board, executive leaders, mid-level administrators, faculty, and students) in such a way that enables a negotiated, participatory, democratic, and transparent decision-making process. However, in the practice of US public higher education institutions, shared governance is really more like “leftover governance.” It is true that sometimes faculty participate in the decision-making process with respect to academic policies and practices. However, critical strategic academic decisions, except in some rare exceptions, financial and budgetary decisions are made, more often than not, based on the judgment of executive leaders with the support of governing boards. The objections of faculty and students to strategic academic and financial decisions that prioritize the bottom line are dismissed or ignored by governing boards and executive leaders, because the corporate structure provides them a legal framework to behave that way. Shared governance that does not factor the approval of the majority of faculty on strategic financial decisions is leftover governance.

US public higher education institutions should scrap their corporate governance structures and embrace an academic democratic structure that allows for self-governance instead of a false image of shared governance. It would focus on competence, representation, and bottom-up decision-making by students, administrative staff, and faculty through their qualified and experienced elected representatives. An academic-democratic governance structure would put the public, workers, and students in the driver seat of self-governance. There should be electoral committees with the ability to record the credentials and professional experience of candidates for leadership positions in public higher education institutions. These committees, which could include retired faculty and alumni, should be responsible for organizing the elections of university leadership representatives. Faculty in public universities where there is a faculty union should include demands for new governance in their next rounds of collective bargaining negotiation. Faculty in public higher education institutions where there is no faculty union should mobilize their communities to require academic democratic structures or strengthen and expand existing democratic structures, if any exist, across the entire life of their institutions. Self-governance structures should exist through, among other things, empowerment of faculty unions, democratic appointment of elected governing boards, and election for higher education leaders of public universities, and empowerment of faculty unions.

Empowerment of faculty unions. US public universities function within a capitalist mode of production. Even though they are public institutions, their operations are very similar to a privately-owned institution. The purpose is driven by the bottom line, which is making money, accumulation of capital, and market-based decision making. Faculty provide the commodities that public universities are selling: knowledge, skills, attitudes that are translated into competencies and credentials. Therefore, faculty are the forces of production: skills, knowledge, and physical and mental energy. Their labor power is a productive force. Some people may not see it that way, but faculty in colleges and universities are workers. They operate in a system that depends on wage labor. They sell their labor power in exchange for a wage. They should organize themselves as such through unionization. The only way workers can have their voices heard is when they unite, organize, and challenge the system.

Democratic appointment of elected governing boards. US public universities and colleges should be governed by governing boards elected by students, administrative staff, faculty, and taxpayers who are not directly affiliated with a higher education institution. The governor of a State or the mayor of a city may appoint a certain percentage of board members to represent the interest of the non-university affiliated public. Board members should be elected based on their academic credentials and their professional experiences.

Election for higher education leaders of public universities. University chancellor/president, provost, and deans should be elected for a set term with one opportunity for reelection. Holders of executive leadership positions in public higher education institutions should see their positions not as a job, but as a civic duty that includes some temporary benefits (e.g., free housing, course release, summer stipends, and budgetary allocations for all expenses related to the function). Presidents/chancellors, provosts, and deans should be current/active faculty members with proper academic credentials and experiences who are elected by their peer faculty, administrative staff, and students. The proportion of the representation can be determined by internal and external stakeholders of a given institution. They should be elected for one term of four or five years, with the possibility to be re-elected for another term.

Presidents/chancellors and provosts can be elected by institution-wide students, administrative staff, and faculty based on a certain proportion of representation. Deans can be elected by students, administrative staff, and faculty in their specific college/school. Similarly, heads of schools, centers, institutes, divisions, departments, and programs should be elected by their peers. Then, executive and academic leaders must return to their faculty positions. Decisions made by executive and academic leaders would be entirely different compared to when they are appointed or hired from outside of the institution.

The election of executive and academic leaders for public higher education institutions is not a radical idea. It is a common practice in many countries around the world. In fact, public universities in Argentina, Germany, Haiti, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, and Thailand – just to name a few countries – have executive leaders who are elected in one form or another, then return to become a faculty when their term expires.

The rector or president of the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, for example, is elected for four years by the university assembly. Deans and deputy deans must be faculty from their colleges or schools and are elected by a Board of Directors composed of faculty and students.

Goethe University in Germany is governed by an executive board, the university council and the senate. The executive board is elected. The university council is made of individuals external to the university. The senate includes representatives of faculty, students, and staff. The senate is responsible to organize the elections for the president and the vice-president or provost.

Rector or president and Deans (Council of three members per college) at the State University of Haiti are active full time faculty members elected for four years with the possibility of a second mandate of four years. Candidates for rector or president and dean campaign, debate before student and faculty assemblies, and present their strategic vision for the university or a specific college, then participate in a secret ballot. The students’ votes account for one third of the total ballots and the faculty votes are weighted for two-third.

The rector and deans at Trinity College of Dublin in Ireland are elected for five years with the possibility of one renewal. Candidates for rectors and deans must be a tenured full-time faculty member who has demonstrated leadership in university administration, research and teaching. An electoral committee called the faculty executive is responsible to verify the eligibility of a candidate and organize the election. If a candidate is not eligible, the committee is required to provide a justification. Faculty, administrative and service staff, and students participate in the elections. The faculty votes count for at least 70% of the total eligible vote, and the vote of the other three groups collectively account for no more than 30%. If there is only one candidate, such person must obtain 55% or more of the total votes cast to be elected, as well as 50% or more of the faculty votes cast.

The rector or president of the university of Cape Town in South Africa is elected for 10 years by an electoral college consisting of alumni, faculty, administrative and service staff, and students. The University of Barcelona in Spain selects its rector or president through an election. The rector must be elected by an absolute majority. Faculty, staff, and students vote in the election, but their votes are weighted based on different values for full-time faculty (51%), students (30%), administrative and service staff (10%), and adjunct faculty (9%). At Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, the president is elected for a period of 4 years by the majority of the faculty and staff votes. Students now are advocating to participate in the election of the university president.

The key is that financial incentives and power should not be the reasons that individuals want to become executives of public higher education institutions. The call for civic duty should be the primary motivation. Unfortunately, the corporate governance structure does not allow that. Only an academic democratic structure provides such opportunity. Public higher education institutions exist to serve the public good. They should be governed democratically. By adopting an academic democratic structure, universities and colleges would become more financially sustainable by eliminating the wastes made in compensating executive search firms, and the provision of expensive compensation and bonus packages to executive leaders.

Some will argue that universities need to provide financial and other incentives to attract the “best and brightest.” This is a false argument that one may dare to make only because of the existence of the corporate governance structure. If there is an academic democratic governance structure, higher education institutions will attract the best and the brightest faculty members, provide them opportunities to acquire higher education leadership experience through volunteer committee work, so that by the time they run for elected leadership positions they have enough experience to be effective higher education leaders. Today, none of the current chancellors/presidents of the top US public universities in the Association of American Universities (AAU) have their primary background in higher education leadership or administration. However, all of them have accumulated years of leadership experiences that transform them into rare commodities promoted by executive search firms and propel them for great compensation packages. The reality of existing university chancellors/presidents without a credential in higher education administration or leadership shows that faculty can develop the proper experiences to become effective leaders of their postsecondary education institutions as part of their civic duty, not as a job motivated primarily by financial incentives and power. This will foster a culture of focus on academic mission, servant leadership, greater accountability, and financial sustainability.

A self-governance democratic structure would take public higher education away from the corporate culture to embrace their public mission to produce knowledge, provide knowledge, and foster critical reflection and discourse for the larger society. A self-governance democratic structure provides opportunities for servant leadership to lead US public higher education institutions. Democratically elected leadership will have a responsibility to foster leadership development within the ranks of faculty in their institutions through democratic processes involving the elections of leaders for centers, institutes, divisions, departments, programs, and specialized committees. They would see themselves not as CEOs, but civil servants.

A self-governing academic structure will foster greater accountability. Elected higher education leaders would feel a greater sense of accountability to the internal stakeholders who elected them. There would be an opportunity to confirm confidence or provide a vote of no confidence after the first term expires. In the current so-called shared governance structure, faculty may provide a vote of no confidence to a president, a provost, or a dean, but it may be dismissed by the governing board. Simply put, the will of the faculty is meaningless in the current “shared governance” structure.

A self-governing academic structure will make US public higher education institutions more financially sustainable. There would be transparency and faculty voice in financial decision-making processes, using the academic mission as the key priority. There is nothing about financial sustainability when leaders in US public higher education institutions receive exit bonuses, deferred compensation, and loan forgiveness even after leaving their institutions in poor financial health while student tuition and debt skyrocket, tenured professors are replaced by part-time adjuncts, and faculty pay stagnates. A more effective use of the service obligations and talents of faculty would save lots of money.

An academically democratic university and/or college must always be in touch with the interest of internal and external taxpayers to remain financially sustainable. This requires high levels of local connectedness and transparency that is not possible with a corporate governance structure that constantly focuses on the bottom line: money. Further, a government that cares about human capital development, global competitiveness, and the future of its citizens has a responsibility to guarantee tuition-free public higher education for its society. Similarly, graduates, especially the ones who benefited from tuition free higher education have a civic duty to pay appropriate taxes to continue to support tuition free public post-secondary education.