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Yvonna Lincoln

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A Blog by Special Guest Contributor Yvonna Lincoln

The Corporatization of Shared Governance

The most recent AAUP Online Member Newsletter reports on “The Near-Death Experience of Antioch College:  A Cautionary Tale”, and queries “What happens when a university’s corporate management betrays the institutions core educational mission;  when it abandons its key constituencies;  when it hides intentions and plans; and when it manipulated or withholds essential financial information?”  Antioch College may be the most disastrous of the cautionary tales, but it is not the only one.  Faithful readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education will know a part of the story begun at Texas A&M this past spring semester, and continuing as late as Friday, September 4.   

The Board of Regents, having hired a “stealth candidate” as President of the institution in the face of a presidential search advisory committee’s list of highly suitable candidates, and in the face of faculty backlash at the Board’s rank disregard of the search committee’s opposition, determined some 16 months later that she was unsuitable, and prepared to fire her, claiming that combining the roles of president of the flagship campus and the systemwide chancellor, was one option which was under consideration in a “variety of ways to cut costs” (Eagle, May 27, 2009).  The faculty, having determined that she was the president, and they would—however she was chosen—support her, now had reason to be concerned again. It soon emerged that the Board was not happy with the president. The only “evaluation” of her presidency or performance was a hand-scribbled form, with sketchy notes, released by the Chancellor of the system to the local newspaper, prior to any discussion with the president.  No other constituencies were involved in assessing her performance, or contributing to the appraisal of the job she had done.   

When the faculty claimed some right to evaluate alongside the Chancellor, in the name of shared governance, they were told, via the local newspaper, that the chancellor’s “approach to governing is making decisions without the use of committees or constant and diverse input” (Eagle, May 28).  He went on to say, “There’s nine people [the Board of Regents] who can tell me what to do;…I’ll make my arguments to them.  They argue, they listen and then they make a decision and I carry it out.  You want shared governance?  That’s shared governance.”   

Faculty and alumni alike expressed concern in various editorials and letters to the editor over the summer regarding whether the Board was sufficiently cognizant of the multiple roles of the institution and its faculty to make the kinds of decisions it was making.  The Board continued to claim that cutting costs and creating economies of scale were its major purposes, although firing the President became central, and careful analyses of the budgetary picture demonstrated clearly that costs were, alongside other institutions, tightly contained (Eagle, July 12, 2009).  Rumors concerning the involvement of the governor in institutional decision were rife, and reported on the front page of the local newspaper (as well as in various Texas-oriented blogs, e.g., Burkablog.com, and the Austin Statesman-Democrat).   Indeed, the governor has been often linked to Board decisions, and Texas is one of the few states remaining where the entire Boards of Regents at the three largest (and two landmark) institutions have been entirely appointed by the governor, with the current Chancellor at Texas A&M being the governor’s former Chief of Staff.  Consequently, it is not surprising when the faculty feel that the “institution’s core educational mission(s) are in danger of being betrayed,  when its key constituencies feel abandoned, when “its intentions and plans” are being hidden, and when faculty feel that the Board has “manipulate[d] or with[e]ld essential financial information”.   The “no confidence” vote on the Chancellor from the Faculty Senate was not unexpected;  an e-mail referendum on the no-confidence resolution—with virtually none of the faculty on contract over the summer—elicited an 82% agreement of all faculty to go forward with the resolution.  Meanwhile, the son of a former president has gone on record as arguing that “those chosen to govern should govern, and those chosen to teach should teach,” thus indicating once and for all that he fails to understand the profound differences between governance and administration (Eagle, July 5, 2009).  At the same time, a major donor—himself a denizen of the corporate world, but deeply committed to the principles and necessity of shared governance–went on record in a second editorial chiding the Chairman of the Board for thinking that A&M could be run like the Chairman’s oil company, arguing that institutions of higher education were very different from the corporate world, and required a vastly different kind of leadership. 

The institution is now some weeks down the road, and a new committee has been named to search for a new president, one which the Board has announced will be on board in January!  Various forums are being held to survey faculty, staff and students regarding the proposed qualifications for the new president.  But even now, participants in the forums are asking the question:  What will be the involvement or manipulations coming from Austin [code 1=”the” 2=”governor’s” 3=”office” language=”for”][/code] (Eagle, September 4, 2009).   

Texas A&M is not, like Antioch College, having a near-death experience;  the institution will go on.  But the corporate and political interests represented by the Board and the Chancellor have created distrust, a poisonous atmosphere, a precarious sense of shared governance, disturbing and demoralizing accusations around the role of faculty, and a difficult way forward in what needs to be an ongoing dialogue.  It is a second “cautionary tale” signifying the damage that can be done when key stakeholders are not consulted, and when shared governance is ill-understood or despised by corporate moguls placed in charge of institutions of public trust.    

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