Democratic university governance

Universities for a Democratic Society (Part IV)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014
‘When we consider the future of academic governance, I think it benefits us all to see it as a means to a larger and higher end; the integrity of a class of institutions that, for more than a millennia, have brought practical knowledge, theoretical knowledge, innovation, wisdom and artistic creation for the benefit of all. Our model of governance for the future cannot be that of multinational corporations or executive branches of government. Our horizons are much further and our purposes much deeper than the transitory nature of commerce and politics.’

Rick Kool, ‘Academic governance: means or end?’

 ‘If governed as a university, it becomes a university…’

I loved that this session began with etymology, with Rick Kool tracing the meaning of ‘governance’ to ‘steering’.

[to govern (verb): from the 13th century Old French governer; this from Latin gubernare, to ‘direct, rule, guide, govern’; and originally borrowed from the Greek kybernan, ‘to steer or pilot a ship’ (also the root of kybernetics)]

Working with this metaphor, we can ask: who steers the university? Who is responsible for creating the parameters of movement, the regulatory forces of the material, the rules and norms, the relations and conduits of communication? Who speaks to, listens to, co-operates with and trusts whom?

Speaking in prefigurative prose, his point was clear: ‘Governed as a university, the institution becomes a university. Governed as a corporation, it becomes a corporation.’ Yet in universities across Canada as elsewhere, academics are increasingly retreating from governance or being shut out of it, as the steering power of new cadres of managers and ‘partners’ is strengthened. And as we are not governing the university as one thing, it has become another. We all know what is going on, according to graduate student and activist Kevin Godbout, but are afraid to say it out loud: many academics work to generate revenue for the interests of elite corporate power which have turned universities into private enterprises.

Democratising university governance everyday
Yet would it necessarily be an improvement if academics had responsibilities for governing the university? Claire Polster presented a provocative and compelling case for why it would be, so long as we understand the struggle for governance as part of a broader project of democratising academic culture.

Presently, academic culture is plagued by institutionalised competition between individuals, research groups, departments, institutions, confederations of universities, and national higher education systems. Within this context, even a substantial ‘democratisation’ of formal academic processes and systems of decision-making would not necessarily catalyse true democratic governance of education or research, much less collective governance in the public interest. We need to work towards deeper, more fundamental cultural and economic transformations of ways of being academic as well. What struck me most about her talk was her anticipatory imagination of the university of the future; the prefigurative consciousness that our principles and actions are not simply affecting what happens to higher education here and now, but are also shaping the reproduction of academics, the university and the parameters of its future possibilities.

Polster outlined a number of basic, everyday recommendations that can support the renovation of democratic forms of academic.

With students, she suggested, let’s prepare them for lives of social responsibility through greater exposure to and participation in kinds of learning which are collaborative and co-operative rather than individualised and competitive. Let’s help graduate students learn about and cultivate their own identities as public servants, intellectuals and activists rather than encouraging them to master the dark arts of ‘compulsive survivalism’.

She also recommended caring more for ourselves and others through challenging our relationship to punishing traditions of reward and recognition, and creating alternatives. Let’s abolish the culture of super-stardom in the academy, which normalises extreme hierarchies of value amongst researchers and teachers and diminishes so much of the good work that is being done.

We can also, she suggested, promote more dialogue and community within the university by creating times and spaces to come together, within and between academic departments, for open-ended, non-instrumentalised, reflexive and critical public discussion about matters of common concern. The rejoinder, of course, will be that there are no times or spaces in the work-intensified and precarious environment. But the point is precisely this: to redo time and space, which are in so many untapped ways political and accomplished through practice; to create new times and new spaces and new ways of being, by undoing those temporal and spatial imaginaries, habits and practices which make it difficult for us to come together.

But while these everyday activities are significant, and in many contexts may even demand various kinds of institutional activism, Polster’s main argument was more structural. For at the same time, she argued, we must develop a rigorous analysis of and work to transform the relations in and through which the governance of the university is possible. One of the reasons informal ‘hallway talk’ is politically wasteful is not because it is synonymous with ‘griping’; on the contrary, it is vital that those working within institutions speak openly and often with friends and comrades about their everyday world as problematic. The weakness of such conversations outside of a more structural analysis, however, is their tendency to individualise these problematics by focusing either on individual people in positions of power, or on the limits and possibilities of addressing power as an individual or subordinate group.

Studying and transforming the ruling relations of the university

What matters in the institutions, she argued, is not individual people but the policies, regulations and practices which shape what Dorothy Smith once called the ‘relations of ruling’, or the ‘extra-local abstracted relations organizing multiple sites of people’s activities in standardized ways’. What we need, therefore, is better and informed understanding of how these mechanisms shape and constrain possibilities for democratic governance in specific contexts, and the possibility of using this understanding to inform acts of strategic transformation. It is not insignificant that Smith’s early work on the relations of ruling emerged from a feminist critique of the North American university as an institution preserving  both patriarchy and what she described as a new form (in the 1990s) of ‘class totalitarianism’ (‘Consciousness, meaning and ruling relations’, p. 38). And while struggles against gendered and racialised inequalities in higher education did receive some attention during the conference, feminist consciousness and analysis remain in need of nurture everywhere.

Consider, for example, the problem of ‘pseudo-consultation’ within structures of university governance. Academics, students and occasionally other members of the university community are increasingly invited to sit on formal committees, participate in consultations, and etc. Yet in many cases, such participation takes place within anti-democratic relations of ruling, in which power to make the most significant decisions (including decisions about the frameworks of thinking and debate) – and often ultimate decisions as well – remains locked in ‘inner circles’, in non-transparent and often invisible committees or individuals. In such situations, Polster argued, and for particular people in the context of particular universities, there are many possible responses: engaging in dialogues and negotiations of transformation of existing relations, boycotting such ‘opportunities’ for participation, engaging in such work in order to further distribute knowledge and information, producing research which outlines the limits and the benefits and possibilities of such practices, producing and circulating alternative policies and strategic plans, and inviting wider attention to and discussion of the issue through internal and external media. Her point was that any decision about governance within everyday university life potentially presents opportunities to deepen our understanding of how these activities are framed by the relations of ruling, and presents opportunities for challenging and democratising them.

For an illuminating project in democratising university governance both internally and publicly, see Root Gorelick’s blogs on Carleton University’s Board of Governors and Academic Senate (the latter of which summarises Senate discussions about issues such as ‘strategic mandates’, ‘teaching and learning frameworks’, programmes, building work, hiring policies and various other matters of concern). In a recent post on the former, regarding both the OCUFA conference and the politics of the board, he wrote:

I am not saying that there are easy answers regarding governance. But given how much passion there is at departmental meetings, we should be able to translate this into effective and engaged higher-level democratic governance. It is difficult, but not impossible.

Defending the boundaries of the university
From a UK perspective, one of Polster’s most refreshing points was her reminder that academics and university communities have a responsibility to govern – or at least intervene in and mediate – policies, practices and regulations which originate outside the university (e.g., from government) but that impact upon higher education, academic research, the production of knowledge and the conditions and environments of study, labour and life in the institutions.

Yes. This is it. The gradual corporatization, privatization and marketization of higher education in this country have not simply ‘happened’. As elsewhere, they have been accomplished through a wide and intricate web of policies and strategic economic and discursive manoeuvres, many of which are made by largely unelected bodies on the basis of inadequate scholarly knowledge with little or no public debate. Furthermore, in recent decades, the most significant educational policies have increasingly represented corporate rather than educational or social interests. Who, in this environment, will defend the university against subordination to these external interests and logics, particularly when senior administrators claim they are compelled to serve them or risk ‘sector exclusion’ and foreclosure?

Remedying a democratic deficit within the university without responding to the democratic deficit that shapes if from without is not good enough. Yet at the same time, a substantial and meaningful democratisation of the university from within, which would increase academics’ and students’ collective capacities to resist anti-democratic pressures from without, could have significant effects on wider movements of social change.

Again, context matters. Work to challenge non-democratic relations of ruling within many British universities, where managerial hierarchies are more common than systems of professional governance, may need to take different form than that done in many Canadian universities with their bicameral structures of academic senates and boards –though it was noted by some members of the audience that these don’t necessarily provide space for genuine communication, conversation, deliberation or power-sharing (e.g., Nick Falvo’s discussion of board governance from a graduate student perspective).

Educating the university
Finally, Glen Jones raised an important question: how do we create academics for the universities of the future? What subjectivities, relations of ruling, values, knowledges and practices are being prefigured now in the everyday interactions between experienced and newer teachers, between teachers and students? It struck me that I have never heard this question asked quite this way before. It is not a question about the future of the institution, as in familiar predictions of its impending demise or the climbing of this or that university into the top-whatever-percent of random league table. It is not about what-is-happening-in-five-minutes. It was a great question about how people who are studying and becoming academics – teachers and researchers – learn about what the university is, was and can be; about its relationship to society and their relationship to the history of their fields and the project of higher education; about their role in relation to students, their role in governing and steering the institution; their place as part of a collegium. We are always teaching, modelling, mentoring things to be reproduced or rejected. What shape are we giving the future?

The history and future of the ‘civic university’
In a later talk, R. Fallis outlined three models of ‘the civic university’:

  • the historical British civic university, or ‘redbrick’, modelled on the University of Sheffield’s establishment as a community-oriented, industrially focused institution for ‘the people’;


  • the historical US civic university, whose purpose was to prepare (some) people for democratic citizenship through mass general and liberal education as well as specialist training (citing John Dewey’s work and the Truman Commission’s post-war  ‘Higher Education in a Free Society’ [1947]); and


  • the idea that the university itself is a fundamental institution of democratic life (along with, e.g., citizens’ rights, democratic political structures, a free press, spaces of activity which are independent from the centres of power), and which therefore must be strong and independent ‘institutional sanctuaries…of non-repression’ (Amy Gutmann, Democratic Education).

Fallis argued that while he believed there were some elements of the first form of ‘civic’ university alive in Canada (e.g., varying forms of public higher education, high rates of participation, and some public faith in the intrinsic benefits of higher education), he also suggested the absolute collapse of discourse around the public good means that that at present it is more appropriate to speak of building rather than rebuilding any kind of civic university.

The practically provocative part of this talk was the lines of reflective thought it opened up. Can you find, he asked, any mention of any of these missions and commitments in the regulations of your university? Is a social project of higher education present in the documents which outline the expectations of academics, students and those working in academic and educational support in your institution? What is your university doing to learn about and strengthen its commitments to civic life, democracy, and the individual and collective development and use of knowledge towards these ends? On inspection of universities’ own self-representation, of course, we find the answers to these questions are largely negative as the institutions ‘rebrand’ themselves as capital-driven and oriented competitors in the ‘education business’. And yet within these heaving corporations which are all proudly stampeding one another to the top of public league tables, much of the academic work being done already works intuitively through liberal democratic practices of dialogue, debate, argumentation and inquiry. How much do we draw on this to inform the governance of the university itself? And above all, do we walk around with a vision of being in an institution that is fundamental to the functioning and defence of a truly democratic society?

This paper ended with a number of suggestions for strengthening the social muscles of the university, including a pointer to Academic Governance 3.0 and ideas like:

  • emphasising the civic and democratic role of the university wherever possible, particularly in the ways we represent our academic work to the world, and expecting and helping those responsible for official representations to contribute to this project;


  • defending institutional autonomy and academic freedom wherever they are threatened;


  • democratising curriculum, pedagogy and governance in our own fields of work and spheres of immediate influence; and


  • including consideration of civic commitments, public intellectual work and pedagogies, and social criticism and engagement in expectations for academic standards, promotions and tenure.

Reading-room-in-prison type stuff?

Towards the end of this session, I asked about the relationship between the political and economic democratization of the university. It is possible, for example, to imagine an institution or university system that was internally governed in radically democratic ways – autonomous decisions made through processes in which faculty and students had efficacious voice and all the rest – but that, like the most creative corporations, channels the productive results into improving its strategic position in a decidedly undemocratic and unfair economic ‘marketplace’. Democratization in the university is not equal to democratization of the university, or to its governance as a fundamental institution operating in the service of democratic social life. This tension also emerged in later discussions of the paradoxes of participation, namely, that mass participation in higher education which is not supported by policies to proactively advance social justice often exacerbates stratification and inequality rather than reducing them.

How does a radically democratic university respond to government policies that force people to pay huge amounts of tuition fees to gain access to higher education? To financial and institutional regulations which force it to compete with other institutions for economic sustainability or survival? To pressures to spend more and more time on ‘marketing’ higher education as if it were simply a commodity to be bought and sold? How does it deal with questions of labour and livelihood: salaries, employment contracts, material resources, land, buildings?

It is impossible to have a fully democratic university existing within a fundamentally undemocratic society, particularly where its work is tied up with that of other institutions and corporations. In this sense, the very idea of faculty governance may be easily disregarded, as it was by radical students in recent periods of movement, as akin to a ‘reading room in a prison’ which ‘serves only as a distraction from the misery of daily life’.

I think, however, it is possible that the people who wrote this may never have been in a prison reading room, or given much thought to all the sub-emancipatory but important things such reading rooms can do. (Hence the importance of the present debate over the UK government’s prohibition on sending prisoners books – I know at least one prisoner who was indeed waiting for the next book to arrive, the next sign that there was reason to believe other worlds still existed.) Universities are sites of struggle and potentially sites of resistance, and there is every possibility that radical democratization within these critical institutions could catalyze or inspire the radical democratization of other institutions and power relations beyond. There is also every possibility, as the dual character of possibility demands, that it cannot do these things.

But what have we not yet attempted? In my department, we have not yet tried to institutionalize really radically democratic processes of decision-making that would facilitate the collective governance of financial and material matters as well as political and academic ones.

Claire Polster was much more creative, suggesting that we could develop practices modelled on participatory budgeting and community development budgeting – particularly as these are mainstream practices that have been used by local government and community groups for many years. In 2012, Brooklyn College became the first US higher education institution to allow participatory budgeting (of 10% of its student budget). See here and here.

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