What are academic versus administrative decisions?

The gap between faculty and administration continues to grow. The fight over tenure and academic freedom in Wisconsin has only continued to demonstrate the challenges in thinking about the role of faculty and shared governance in higher education. I have been thinking about the divide between academic and administrative lately. In today’s post, I want to argue why I think we need to acknowledge that the divide between administrative and academic is far more gray than many people admit.

Photo credit: Patrick Feller

Before discussing the proper role of faculty and administrators in institutional decision-making, we have to accept one of the problems facing university administrators. Too often, administrative leaders have been asked to make short term decisions in an attempt to respond to the funding crisis of the moment or some other external demand.

As a result, administrative decisions are often rushed, fail to consider long term implications, and often create unintended consequences.

Too often, administrators are forced to think about mitigating funding cuts or maintaining sufficient enrollment not how to support the primary purposes of the institution.

Many critics, myself included, contend that funding cuts, accountability, and privatization are more about reducing government support for higher education than enhancing the teaching, research, and public service mission of higher education.

We must acknowledge that much of the push to remove faculty from decisions is about how to implement an agenda in support of privatization. The rhetoric around efficiency, innovation, and saving costs can confuse this point, but it is true more often than not.

At a foundational level, what is the difference between academic and administrative decisions?  We can easily identify academic decisions such as those related to the curriculum.

Identifying administrative decisions is much more difficult.

Some faculty would suggest that every decision on campus is related in some way to academics (and if not, why are we even talking about it). Moreover, many decisions impact faculty (such as retirement benefits) but are not directly tied to academics.

However, I take issue with many that suggest you can clearly and easily draw a line between academic and administrative decisions.

The line between academic and administrative is far more gray than many administrators or policy makers would like to admit.

Take for example, furniture purchases. Buying furniture should be pretty clearly in the administrative camp. In fact, many campuses treat furniture as an administrative function. Most of the time that is okay. But, what if we are talking about the furniture going into a classroom?

Now the line isn’t so clear.

In fact, I would argue one of the biggest determinants in student learning and faculty teaching is the furniture in a classroom. If the chairs and tables don’t move, I am going to have a hard time doing group work or discussions.

So even something like furniture can be an academic decision. There are examples such as this all over campus.

This is why we need shared governance. Higher education works best with shared governance. We need the ability to have different stakeholders involved in different decisions. In addition, we need to be able to vary who gets involved.

Higher education is complex and the ability to support the academic mission of the enterprise demands multiple stakeholders involved in decisions.

Is this messy?  Yes.  Is this slow at times?  Yes.  Is it vital to the success of the institution? Absolutely.

We can cede all authority to administrative decision makers. The bean counters can cut costs. But this will not move our institutions forward.

Higher education in the United States is built, in large measure, on the foundation of shared governance.

Our system has multiple stakeholders involved including trustees, administrators, and faculty. The multitude of voices has helped make better decisions for years.

Now, some want to tell us that higher education is failing and we need to throw out the old model. Critics and disrupters suggest faculty need to get out of the way of creating a more nimble and agile organization. We need universities to be more efficient and business-like the mantra goes.

Yet, the convenient fact that often gets ignored is that the foundation of higher education is built on shared governance.

We can make everything an administrative decision. It might help implement the privatization agenda and reduce public subsidies for higher education.

We can eliminate the faculty voice. But, let’s not pretend this will improve higher education.

No sensible builder would remove part of a stone foundation and replace it with sand.

Yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing…