Front Page
  Current Issue
  Back Issues
  About National CrossTalk

National CrossTalk
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

1 of 3 Stories  

University Governance
Why it matters and what to do about it

By Robert M. Rosenzweig

WHEN THINGS ARE GOING well, few people pay much attention to the way in which institutions of higher education are governed. Indeed, when attention is paid to how universities are run, the words used are more likely to be found in schools of business administration than in departments of political science.

Fortunately, since World War II (with one major exception and a few minor ones) the university world has been blessed by growth in enrollments and expansion across a broad front. During most of that time, money has been relatively plentiful and the world was reasonably peaceful and orderly. When the stars are in alignment, governance systems all seem to work pretty well.

When that has not been the case, though, it has been clear that the way in which universities are organized to make decisions makes a considerable difference. One such time came during the Vietnam War period when many universities faced a direct challenge to their ability to perform the most basic governance tasks-keeping order and protecting institutional values. Many, if not most, failed the challenge when the first wave of student disruptions hit them.

I believe we are in another such period now. The precipitating cause today is not disorder on the campus, but the prospect of a long period in which institutional progress cannot be achieved through growth, and in which seizing new opportunities for improvement must come at the cost of doing less of something currently being done, or of foregoing some other attractive opportunity.

For public universities, especially, the prospect of increased enrollment pressure not matched by increased state appropriations poses in sharp relief the question of how their decision-making processes (i.e., their political systems) either help or hinder them in finding solutions to the resulting problems. A recent report by the Rand Corporation concluded that, "In our view, the most pressing reform needed today in the higher education sector is redesign of the governance structure of institutions so that decision makers can think and act strategically."

When dissatisfaction about the way universities do their business breaks out publicly, it is usually the role of the faculty, in some form of what is commonly called shared governance, that is identified as the obstacle to whatever the need of the moment seems to be. This is as it should be, for it reflects the central place of faculty in any institution of higher learning.

Whether one approves of that role or not, and I believe that it is on the whole a good thing, it is important to understand that it is a political fact that grows not from conspiracy or from sloth, but from the very nature of the institutions in which the tradition grew. Viewed from the perspective of a corporate chief executive, the role of faculty often seems an irritating nuisance that would not be tolerated in any well-run business organization and should not any longer be tolerated in a well-run university. Faculty do not, as the Rand report implies, "think strategically," and so, the argument goes, they should yield their place in governance to those who do.

Even if that were a good idea, it could only work by making universities into something other than what they now are. Successful political systems grow from the culture in which they exist. If the framers of the Constitution had attempted to sell a unitary, non-federal system of government to thirteen fractious American colonies, much less to the nation of continental scope that grew from them, they would have failed. And if they had perchance succeeded at the outset, the system would have failed. A top-down command system of government cannot be imposed on institutions of higher learning.

While shared governance has come to have a rather bad name recently, it is, in fact, the most common form of governance in the United States. The Constitution created a system of shared governance between the states and the federal government and among the branches of the federal government. That is the only kind of system that could have worked in a society that was hostile to centralized authority, that valued liberty over order, and in which efficiency in decision-making had a much lower priority than the need for institutions that would mediate among competing interests without allowing any to dominate.

That is a fair description of a university. Thus, shared governance in a university is not an option, it is a necessity unless and until we decide that we want different kinds of universities.

If that is correct, does it mean that America's universities are bound to confront their problems without coherent and thoughtful approaches to them, hoping that the aggregate of separately made decisions will somehow add up to sound policy? That may well be the case in many places, but it need not be. A different view of the matter may come from understanding the nature of the university presidency.

The presidency of a modern university is, by any standard, a weak position. The reasons are fairly easy to see:

The president is chosen by absentee landlords who, in the case of public universities, increasingly carry their own or their political masters' agendas, and whose primary loyalty is not, in any case, attached to their president.
The president does not choose, and has little role in rewarding or punishing, the group that actually does the work for which the institution exists: the faculty.
The faculty has little structural reason to support their president. Faculty loyalties have turned increasingly to patrons outside the university. In the case of the sciences, that means principally government and industry. And in all disciplines, loyalties extend to what have been called the "invisible academies" of professional associations.
This development has enormous consequences for issues as disparate as the debate over indirect cost recovery to striking a reasonable balance between teaching and research, with many stops in between. In the present context it means that the one group that can most readily bring a presidency down, and without whose acquiescence little of consequence can happen, is severely distracted by competing loyalties.

Moreover, this development is not limited to faculty. Virtually every administrative function on campus is represented by a national organization that may well take positions on issues that are contrary to the best interests of any given campus.

The president has no control at all over the most numerous class on campus: the students. And their capacity to make mischief has been demonstrated many times in recent years.
The president has few powers of appointment, and for the key positions that are his to offer, his range of choice is often circumscribed by internal search procedures.
It is, all in all, a weak executive position, and the weakness is compounded by a disability common to all modern politicians-a growing distance from the polity over which they preside. Just as the life and outlook of career politicians has grown more distant from their constituents, so, too, has the life and outlook of career academic administrators.

Some try to deal with that by teaching a course or maintaining a laboratory, but no one really is fooled. The fact is that the modern university president has quite likely come to the presidency through a route that may have started in the faculty, but diverged into administrative positions. Once in the presidency, he or she lives in a different world from others on campus. Thus, the natural and healthy tension between faculty and president is no longer a tension between colleagues who happen for a while to be performing different roles, but between people in different careers and different lives. When times are tough and support is needed, that can spell the difference between success and failure.

All in all, this is not a recipe for strong leadership, but notwithstanding all of the disabilities inherent in the role, there is reason not to despair about the possibility of effective presidential performance. There is another example of a structurally weak office that has no business working, but often does: the presidency of the United States. The American president, like the university president, can only achieve his purposes with the cooperation, or at least the acquiescence, of a body-the Congress-which is constitutionally independent and over which he has little control, even if it is run by his own party.

In fact, most American presidents have been weak. In a system explicitly designed to prevent the aggregation of power, that is surely no surprise. But there have been strong American presidents, and they are generally reckoned the great ones. Their strength and their greatness has come from the interaction of the skills they brought to the job and the problems the nation faced during their terms of office.

There were no structural changes between the administrations of James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, or between those of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. What the latter of those two pairs brought that was new was a clearer vision and a keener appreciation of the problems the nation faced, a willingness to put forward ideas around which they could rally political support, and the skill to do so.

It does not take a Lincoln or a Roosevelt to be a successful university president, but it does take one who understands the system in which he or she operates, who is willing to put forward a coherent conception of the problems and opportunities ahead, who can offer a statement of the institutional values and purpose from which specific policies should emerge, and who has an appetite for the debate that will ensue when internal and external constituencies rub up against that formulation.

In truth, there is no real alternative-or to put it differently, the available alternatives are far less promising. If one accepts as a premise that universities can no longer afford to change simply through the separate initiatives of freely acting faculty-the principal engine of change in the past-because to do so will bring a kind of valueless free market into a situation in which assessments of value are the essence of the enterprise, then it is clear that what is needed is a process through which coherent deliberations about comparative value can take place.

That, in turn, requires that someone put forward a guiding conception that will form the backbone of the deliberations. That is, in somewhat oversimplified form, what great U.S. presidents have done, and it is only from that central position that it can be done. The faculty is no more able to produce such a conception on its own than is the U.S. Congress. Both can negotiate, shape and refine proposals put before them, and both are capable of stopping bad ideas, but it is the rarest of occasions when either is capable of generating a coherent program and executing it on it own. That's where presidents come in.

It's a tough job, and a risky one. Not many university presidents have been up to it, and I expect that only a minority will in the future have the courage and the political skill to try it, much less pull it off. Those institutions that are lucky enough to have such leadership will do well. The others had better hope for winning football seasons.

Robert M. Rosenzweig is President Emeritus of the Association of American Universities.

This article is adapted from "The Political University: Policy, Politics and Presidential Leadership in the American Research University," by Robert M. Rosenzweig, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

E-Mail this link to a friend.
Enter your friend's e-mail address:



National Center logo
© 1998 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

HOME | about us | center news | reports & papers | national crosstalk | search | links | contact

site managed by NETView Communications