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Competing Conceptions of Academic Governance: Negotiating the Perfect Storm

reviewed by David Ayers - October 15, 2009

coverTitle: Competing Conceptions of Academic Governance: Negotiating the Perfect Storm
Author(s): William G. Tierney
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801892112, Pages: 264, Year: 2009
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In this edited volume, William G. Tierney describes the current environment for higher education as the perfect storm. It is intended to be a resource for higher education researchers, academic leaders, faculty, and others seeking to navigate the turbulence and contradictions of academic governance in the early 21st century.  The organization of the book is straightforward.  The preface and introduction direct our attention to the perfect storm and its threat to higher education governance. Subsequent chapters offer diverse and in some cases competing views on current governance structures as well as their strengths and weaknesses. In the concluding chapter, Tierney assesses these critiques and synthesizes the valid points into a cultural framework to improve organizational performance.

In the book’s preface, Mary Burgan of the American Association of University Professors creates a sense of urgency. Higher education, she explains, could lose its vitality if we neglect the model of collaborative and democratic governance, which Burgan associates with freedom and progress in the United States and around the world. Indeed, contributors to this volume share one view: Complacency with the status quo is not acceptable. William G. Tierney follows this preface with an introduction to the book, which describes the political, economic, and cultural complexities of the perfect storm. In the six chapters that follow, a president emeritus along with scholars in the fields of higher education, business, and law report on current conditions, the threats therein, and forecasts for future conditions.

The atmospheric disturbances which cultivate the perfect storm are explored in depth in Chapters One and Two. In the first, Simon Marginson situates the contemporary university within a global context. He discusses five cross-border activities associated with higher education: (a) education of foreign students in the university’s home nation, (b) education of foreign students when a university establishes a campus site abroad, (c) online education involving students of multiple nationalities, (d) international institutional partnerships and consortia, and (e) professional associations. These activities present challenges; first, in the form of plural accreditation and quality assurance requirements at local, regional, and state scales; and second, difficulties engaging local faculty in often distant, transnational decision making.

David J. Collis, lecturer at Harvard Business School, continues the conversation with an introduction to the paradox of scope, which he views as a challenge for higher education governance.  By paradox of scope, Collis refers to the shrinking technical core—in the case of higher education, faculty—and the simultaneous expansion and blurring of organizational boundaries as strategic partnerships, joint ventures, long-term contracts, and other institutional innovations meld universities to external organizations. Collis points out that this expanding grey area—the expanding space between the technical core and the organization’s periphery—cannot continue to grow indefinitely because of limited resources. Accordingly, governing boards will need to make strategic decisions about areas of expansion and retrenchment. Paradoxically, as this becomes increasingly important, it also becomes increasingly difficult because the university’s periphery extends beyond the reach of traditional governance structures.  

Authors of the next two chapters highlight governance structures of state higher education systems. The author of Chapter Three is Neil W. Hamilton, associate dean of academic affairs and professor of law at the University of St. Thomas. Hamilton points out the glaring absence of scholarship on faculty roles in system-wide governance. Examining four state systems, he suspects that faculty are assuming a passive role, which sets the stage for business models typical of other organizations to emerge. Ironically, high-tech commercial entities have pursued participative management systems remarkably similar to shared-governance models of higher education. The university’s mission of producing knowledge that can withstand multiple critiques necessitates a shared-governance model, and other knowledge-intensive industries could benefit from the same “checks” on knowledge creation. Ironically, whereas some businesses are becoming more college-like, colleges are becoming more businesslike. To maximize the resources toward the knowledge production mission, faculty and administration must become much more proficient at communicating with one another.

If ensuring faculty involvement in system-wide governance is a dilemma, it is compounded by ambiguities of governance. Terrence J. MacTaggart, research professor in the University of Maine system, discusses the ever-shifting balance between local autonomy and centralized control.  Focusing on the planned yet unproven governance change in Maryland and the haphazard and contested changes in the Florida system, McTaggart pleas for rationality in developing functional governance systems that focus higher education resources on the public good.   

James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, condenses the discussion into concrete and practical wisdom. He illuminates shortcomings of the existing system and suggests new roles for participants in governance: boards as higher education advocates, not agents of political agendas; faculty as loyal citizens of the academic community, not discipline-based lone wolves; and administrators as strong leaders with authority to expedite decision making, not captives of indecision and inaction.

The theme of shortcomings continues in Chapter Six, in which George Keller eschews traditional governance processes. He mocks the supposition that professors are “a tidy community of scholars, united in principles and warmhearted care for their home institutions, and eager and able to share in the administration, financial management, and strategic planning of their colleges or universities” (p. 168). He caricatures faculty as developing “boutique courses,” with no accountability for their consumption of university resources while strategically and selfishly revising curricula to attract students. To adjust governance to current realities, Keller suggests five points: (a) balancing faculty rights with vigorous management practices, (b) recognizing the diversity of institution types and implementing equally diverse governance structures, (c) limiting democratic governance to department-level decisions and safeguarding against the “failure” of faculty senates and shared governance at the organizational level, (d) limiting faculty involvement in organization-level governance to fleeting task forces and “Kleenex structures” that address short-term dilemmas and then disband, and (e) more commanding loyalty to collective-organizational goals and dispensing with feelings of victimization and disproportionate attention to individual rights.

In Chapter Seven, Robert M. O’Neil returns the discussion to academic freedom and governance. He writes from the perspective of director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and professor of law at the University of Virginia. Within and external to the academy, he observes, notions of academic freedom range from an essential mechanism of unlimited faculty discretion on one hand to an outdated and irrelevant basis for faculty retrenchment on the other.  His discussion of academic governance plays out within this context. Although resolution of cases at the extremes of either viewpoint is simple, the more nuanced cases present complex questions that have yet to be resolved. Examples include the tensions between academic freedom and collective bargaining, competing and incompatible claims for academic freedom between campus constituencies, tensions between freedoms at the individual level versus those at the institutional level, and hotly debated discussions of academic freedom in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In the final chapter, William G. Tierney distills from a broad sample of institutional constituents four mental models of shared governance.  Each mental model carries a distinct vision for faculty involvement in shared governance, leading to competing expectations for faculty-administration relations. According to Tierney, academic leaders seeking to improve governance and enhance organizational performance should resist the tendency to tinker with structures and instead interpret challenges and opportunities both internal and external to the institution. More importantly, the effective leader will channel energy and attention to shared goals and end results.  Tierney offers four suggestions for achieving high performance based on a cultural framework: demonstrate trust, develop a common language, walk the talk, and concentrate on developing and maintaining a core identity.   

The contributors to this book do not hesitate to disagree with one another and frequently both support and take issue with their co-contributors.  This ongoing referencing across chapters engages the reader in a lively discussion. Consistent with the theme of the book, the deliberations are turbulent, but the authors negotiate differences of opinion with audacity, intelligence, and prowess — all crucial for navigating the perfect storm.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 15, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15805, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 5:02:14 AM

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About the Author
  • David Ayers
    University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    E-mail Author
    DAVID F. AYERS is associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His research explores the cultural, political, and economic contexts of higher education governance. His most recent publication, “Institutional Contradiction in the Community College,” appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Community College Review. Correspondence may be addressed to dfayers@uncg.edu
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