why it matters and what we can do about it

It’s hard to overstate the disillusionment that many felt as their institutions withdrew collaboration with faculty, staff, and students when the pandemic hit. Not only were many university employees left scrambling to make sense of budget obfuscation, top-down program restructuring, and devastating layoffs, they also had to absorb the fact that many of the “partnerships” they’d shared with administrators had pretty shallow roots. At a number of universities, and as an investigation by the national AAUP has confirmed, shared governance has been gravely wounded during the pandemic. In fact, at some institutions, shared governance now appears to have been primarily a managerial tactic, an agreement made by administrators when such promises cost little.

Many university employees watched open-mouthed as decades-long policies and practices were swept aside under cover of “emergency.” Faculty and staff waited in nail-biting silence as deans rushed to compile lists of “expendable” employees and “unnecessary” academic programs. Tellingly, many such decisions were made according to criteria that were not shared, debated, or even plausibly explained to the campus community. Even life and death decisions, such as whether, when, and how to bring folks physically back to campus, often seemed to be summarily handed down from the top with little or no campus discussion.

Not only did it become clear that many well-paid university administrators across the nation were prepared to throw others overboard when times got tough, but many were also enabled by well-placed non-administrative apologists who urged co-workers to “stop complaining.” Shared governance, they claimed, echoing administration’s self-serving definition, doesn’t mean what the AAUP thinks it does. A university is a businesses, after all, and its presidents, provost, deans, and chairs are basically CEOs and managers charged with making the trains run on time.

But few of us are ready to concede that shared governance can be so easily tossed aside. At some of our colleges and universities, even as pandemic restrictions are easing, we watch as administrators continue to close rank, as public relations and marketing machines go into overtime, as critical financial information is manipulated or withheld. But we refuse to accept grim corporatism as the new normal. For one thing, at institutions like Western Michigan University, faculty have contractually guaranteed rights to participate in many aspects of self-governance and campus decision-making. It is a terrible failure, though, when faculty and staff are forced into legalistic squabbles to have their long relationships accorded a modicum of respect. After all, formal policies and legal contracts are meant to underwrite and guarantee healthy professional and collegial engagement, not to supplant fundamental academic values or basic personal and professional ethics.

Even though faculty can — and must— successfully wage contractual battles, then, much damage has been done. To many faculty and staff members, those decades of assurances about the value of their expertise and feedback now ring especially hollow. With the shallowness of many administrative commitments to shared governance now out in the open, it is not only the future of faculty and staff that is at risk, then, but their past as well. For some, their very sense of what their careers have meant — these professions and universities they have poured their lives into — threatens to collapse in the midst of institutional dissemblance and betrayal.

Although many of us are disappointed, hopefully we have learned a lesson about the importance of collective bargaining. For one thing, it seems clearer than ever that our most reliable companions on this winding, uncertain journey are not university leaders who insist they want to hear what we think. Rather, our stalwart allies are the policies and procedures we have at our disposal and the potential power of collective action to enforce them. If we have learned nothing else, let us have learned this: To get it in writing and hold feet to the fire when pretty promises and ceremony — including neutered “task forces,” “action teams,” or other merely decorative committees — replace genuine shared decision-making.

Some will say that this conclusion is unfair to administrators who, after all, are doing the best they can. But having the determination to enforce the legal, practical and ethical aspects of shared governance is good for the entire campus, including for administrators. Shared governance helps preserve a balance of power that discourages any of us from being as selfish, greedy, or shortsighted as we might otherwise be. We do others no favors by permitting them to treat us dismissively even if times are tough and they are “doing the best they can.” It is, in fact, in the very midst of uncertainty and fear that collaborative partnerships matter most. There is, then, nothing more hopeful, respectful or constructive — or more in keeping with deepest values that define both the AAUP and “university” — than for faculty, staff, and students to demand the immediate restoration of authentic shared governance.

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