- Shared Governance in an Age of Change
One common, albeit ironic, narrative of public education is framed this way: we were initially state supported, then state assisted, and now we are merely state located — or more recently I have heard “state related.” The progression, of course, speaks to the diminishing investment of states in their public colleges and universities, a diminishment that is even more marked when considered not merely as a dollar amount but as a percentage of state revenues. My purpose today is not to bemoan the loss of state revenues, although that loss is substantial and well worth bemoaning. My goal instead is to ask whether shared governance processes developed in richer eras for public education can survive these leaner times. And if those procedures need to change, what would that change look like? I am focusing on public higher education because that is the world I know, although I suspect that, for all but a few private institutions, the situation is not that different.
There has been a drumbeat of lament for at least a couple of decades over the increasing corporatization of the academy — a lament that coincides with the disinvestment of states in their public institutions. As public dollars have become scarcer, public universities and colleges have focused more on resource development and fundraising, tenure-track and tenured positions have been sacrificed, and increasing tuitions have meant that more and more students graduate with significant debt. University administrations have become more and more focused on how to do more with less, tenure-stream faculty struggle with the increasing workloads that result from their diminished numbers, and students worry over whether their education is worth their investment. In short, no one is happy.
Meanwhile, universities are still governed by procedures that developed, if not in a gentler age, at least in a more prosperous one for public education. My reference point for that more prosperous age is post– World War II, which is the academy with which most of us are familiar. And those procedures reflect a slower pace of change that allowed for both deliberation and consultation, as appropriate to the shared nature of the enterprise, [End Page 554] with everyone invested in the success of the institution. But change — in the form of diminished resources and increasing expectations coupled with public distrust of its institutions — is now visited upon us constantly by states facing both financial hardship and multiplying demands for funding from other sectors.
One possibility is to say to our legislatures, “If you give us fewer resources, then we will teach fewer students,” turning our public institutions into preserves for only the most competitive high school graduates. Many of our flagship state institutions are, for this reason, already closed to many students who might otherwise thrive there. Alternatively, top state institutions can continually raise tuition, remaining accessible to the wealthy and the poor, who are awarded scholarships, but increasingly inaccessible to the vast middle classes, a traditional source of broad taxpayer support. But if public education means anything, it should mean that students with the ability to succeed in our most competitive public institutions have the opportunity to attend them. Yet that promise and possibility is disappearing for many students in many states.
I have digressed briefly from issues of governance, but it is a digression that advances my argument because we cannot forget our public mandate. Even if states are finally providing almost no annual revenue to public institutions, nonetheless our mission remains unchanged, reflecting as it should the historic investment of states in laying our foundations with grants of land and then putting buildings, schools, and colleges upon that land.
But since then, as I have said, the world of public education appears to be coming unglued with the collapse of state budgets, the increasing demands on the public purse, and the refusal of legislators to levy taxes (even in a state like Arizona, whose constitution mandates that the legislature and governor ensure adequate funding for education).
In the last decade — from 2002 at the University of California, Davis, to the State University of New York, Purchase College, to Arizona State University — my entire experience has...