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President’s message / Leadership & collegial governance

President’s message / Leadership & collegial governance

By James Compton

Are universities becoming anti-intellectual? I know that on the face of it the claim seems silly. I’m not referring to research produced by faculty, or their teaching. I’m thinking more about how the academy is governed.

Over the past three years I’ve found numerous occasions to return to a core theme: the transition from a model of collegial governance to a top-down corporate model of utilitarian managerialism. Now, for my final column as CAUT president, I would like to revisit the theme one last time.

Leadership is not simply a matter of giving a command and expecting it be followed. That may work in the army, but not in academe. I have, on occasion, illustrated this point by asking small groups of faculty association presidents what their response would be if I were to give them a direct order as CAUT president. Cue laughter.

CAUT is a member-driven federation whose individual associations are fiercely independent. That’s why CAUT Council puts in the hard work of debating policy and procedures, which then guide the work of our various standing committees and Executive. Not everyone is happy all the time, but that too is democracy. And, by sticking to our established procedures, we provide transparency and legitimacy to governance for the entire membership.

In universities, we call these same norms and conventions collegial governance. In short, this means the active participation of faculty in academic governance structures, such as departmental committees and senate. Collegiality does not mean congeniality. As our policy statement underlines, collegial governance is about ensuring all participants are provided an opportunity to engage in discussion and debate while also ensuring “that no individual is given inappropriate advantage (for example, due to power differentials) with respect to decisions.” Deans and departmental chairs, for instance, hold positions of power and shouldn’t be allowed to dominate or skew discussions. Collegial governance isn’t perfect, but it does provide the legitimacy required to support a healthy institutional culture. Sadly, this is not the current experience for many faculty members. Across the country we see a trend away from these historical conventions. In place of faculty-wide consultation we find diktats from above and the expectation that we applaud the announcement and dutifully execute it.

Take for example the corporatized hiring process for senior administrators. Searches used to include public job talks from shortlisted candidates. No longer. Increasingly, searches are closed and steered by corporate headhunting firms. And at the presidential level, once a decision is made the chosen candidate is revealed to the university community through a packaged PR campaign, complete with a scripted YouTube video. Cue applause.

Another tactic plucked from the business world, is the so-called “listening tour.” This is a favourite of PR firms, such as Navigator, that has migrated to universities. Sometimes it’s used to manage a crisis or scandal. Other times it’s used to provide the patina of consultation while unrolling a pre-determined agenda. To be clear, a genuine and sincere listening tour would be welcome. But emails asking for faculty input that impose boundaries around permissible discussion topics, or that signal preferred solutions to long-standing substantive debates around pedagogy or program structures is antithetical to collegial governance.

Here’s the thing. It’s not the job of faculty to agree with the administration. Neither is it our job to reflexively oppose anything they recommend. Rather, our duty is to use our academic freedom, including the freedom of intramural expression, to thoughtfully engage with the substance of issues presented at committees and other decision-making bodies, and to act always in the best interest of the university’s core goals — teaching and research. Sadly, these interventions are sometimes not met in good faith. And here’s where we return to my opening question. Academics are trained to make arguments. For example, a draft proposal is presented to change an academic program. According to the tenets of collegial governance, faculty are obliged to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Representatives of the administration are not obligated to agree, but one would expect a reasoned counter argument. Increasingly none appears. Instead, there is sometimes simply silence, but in most cases, there is strategic avoidance. Or, more often in the managed university, opposition is framed as an individual’s problem, rather than a legitimate critique of a proposal.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas makes an important distinction between “strategic action” and “communicative action.” His life project has been to replace instrumental forms of reason with an open and dialogical conception of communication. His so-called “ideal speech situation” is, therefore, well suited to help us understand the importance of collegial governance. Only when people come together to engage in face-to-face dialogue as equal participants, using mutually understandable arguments — made in good faith — can we reach a democratic agreement. Communicative action is thus distinguished from strategic action by its reliance on non-coercive, intersubjective deliberation. If collegial governance lacks open communicative dialogue, all that is left is power — power that lays predominantly with the administration.

Collegial governance only exists if it is exercised. My advice is to use it.

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