Shared governance in the public university

A case study from the US Midwest

in Learning and Teaching
Author:
Jose Leonardo Santos Associate Professor, Metropolitan State University, USA Jose.Santos@metrostate.edu

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Matthew Filner Professor, Metropolitan State University, USA Matthew.Filner@metrostate.edu

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Abstract

Public universities in the United States confront drastic changes as labour relations continue to evolve towards neoliberal managerial practices. Increasingly, faculty feel excluded from decision-making processes influencing their lives. This article provides a case study of Public Midwestern University (PMU, a pseudonym), where a faculty union went from protest to participation with administration to formulate a new model for shared governance. While PMU produced such a model, interviews with participants depict a larger economic context that cultivates mistrust and a great sense of uncertainty. The article discusses conflicting attitudes around unionisation, managerial practices and the future of higher education.

Research describes divisive debate as modern universities wrestle with issues of academic labour, the relationship between instruction and revenue and universities’ roles in an expanding knowledge market (Bosquet 2008; Gross 2013; Hyatt et al. 2015; Leitch 2014; Newfield 2016). Some advocate a customer service approach towards students. Others feel such managerialism aggravates inequalities and reduces educational quality. Hostility between US conservatives and academia fuel this conflict concerning the management of universities (Gross 2013; Pew 2017; Turnage 2017).

At the same time, dramatic changes have influenced labour relations in the United States. Labour unions represent workers through collective bargaining with management, negotiating work contracts and policy. Members pay fees to fund the union. In some workplaces, union membership was required. In others, non-union members did not have rights to participate or vote in the union but still paid a smaller ‘fair-share’ fee. The logic was that all employees benefit from collective bargaining (receiving the same contract protections and benefits as union members), regardless of whether they participated in the union or not. Over the last decades, resistance to both required union membership and fair-share fees led to a conservative ‘right to work’ (RTW) movement in the United States. The RTW movement claims it advocates for the freedom to work without a union. Unions counter that the RTW movement weakens collective bargaining and gives management the upper hand in labour negotiations. This struggle culminated with the landmark US Supreme Court Janus vs AFSCME decision in 2018, which eliminated fair-share fees and successfully reframed power relations between labour and management (see Janus vs AFSCME 585 U.S.; Tang 2019).

Any US university with unionised faculty now finds itself caught within both education and labour policy disputes. This complicates issues of a university's structure, such as faculty's role in determining a university's goals or administrators’ right to direct curriculum towards maximisation of profits. Higher education in the US wrestles with how labour and management share power within its institutions, and the meaning of the phrase ‘shared governance’.

Divisions between managerial and faculty perspectives result. For some, shared governance simply implies information sharing by management with periodic solicitation of input. For others, it means democratic, consensus-based decision-making. Organisations that accredit higher education institutions require universities to address shared governance but provide little guidance. If both education and labour are disputed, how can universities agree upon definitions of shared governance? Does organised labour, such as a faculty union, make a difference?

Through interviews and process analysis at Public Midwestern University (PMU, a pseudonym), this case study examines the development of shared governance models. First, a brief literature review situates the case study within larger contexts of change. An exposition then describes the PMU Union of Faculty (UF, another pseudonym), how it and PMU's administration formed a Shared Governance Task Force (TF) and resulting decision-making models. Following this, the article analyses interviews with seven TF members and discusses the results.

Literature review

Labour/management conflicts have expanded in the USA in recent decades. In the 1960s, the US achieved public sector employee/employer balance with pro-union legislation. Unionisation provided management with satisfied workforces and efficient negotiations, while employees gained collective advocacy (Tang 2019: 686–687). Shared governance for mutual advantage became the norm. Fair-share fees had obligated employees in union-represented sectors to contribute towards their representation, often at lower rates for those not actively involved in organising but still benefitting from negotiated contract protections. Union fees covered organisational costs and legal representation, including for grievances against employers.

By 2012, RTW laws in several states (‘Right-to-Work States’) prohibited unions from requiring fair-share fees. Eventually, the 2018 Janus case ended fair-share funding nationally, with scholars predicting unions would lose between 20 and 70 per cent of their resources as a result (Tang 2019: 691–696). Nonetheless, unions continue (in some states are legally bound) to protect all employees, even those not paying dues. Even before this, the United States’ largest elementary and secondary public-school union's lack of funds required significant reallocation from pro-labour states to support employee struggles in RTW states (Finger and Hartney 2021). Public sector higher education faces similar issues. Insufficient funding weakens labour's ability to negotiate contracts and protect union members, favouring managerial notions of shared governance.

Marc Bousquet (2008), Neil Gross (2013), Susan Brin Hyatt and colleagues (2015), Thomas Leitch (2014) and Christopher Newfield (2016) describe simultaneous parallel neoliberal shifts in higher education. Political moves to delegitimise universities, burgeoning managerial models and privatisation leave instructors uncertain as institutions change. Neoliberal economics trap professors and students, making universities ‘an important location of hegemonic struggle’ (Shear and Hyatt 2017: 3).

Most US Republicans view colleges and universities negatively (Parker 2019). Fewer than half of Americans view higher education positively. Gross (2013) blames a decades-long ‘campaign against liberal bias’ (220–251). Though he challenged this by demonstrating professors look negatively at indoctrinating their students (185–219), political debates continue to challenge the legitimacy of academia. For example, Florida's Individual Freedom Act (popularly referred to as the ‘Stop WOKE’ Act), specifically sought to regulate instruction concerning race and gender out of concerns that academia has become too liberal (Izzaguirre 2022).

As political debates concerning academia grew, the cost of higher education in the United States escalated. From 1989 to 2014, state funding for public higher education dropped by 25 per cent, while tuition costs doubled (Newfield 2016: 18). As academia became increasingly politically vilified and economically costly, it turned to market-based managerialism, marginalising instructors (Bousquet 2008). Low-paid adjunct labour became the norm, tenure-track positions became rarer, and graduate students taught an increasing number of courses.

Despite the academy's political vilification, loss of funding, increased price and neoliberal approach to instruction, the need for college degrees persists, as the ‘global knowledge economy’ requires commodification of education to sustain globalisation (Cantini 2017: 2). Students are caught, knowing ‘pursuit of education is the only chance to secure an increasingly elusive place within the middle class. Yet they also know that the quality of education is problematic and uneven and feel there is little they can do to change those conditions’ (Lyon-Callo 2015: 84–85).

Amid nation-wide cuts to academic programmes and continued scaling back of state funding in public universities, Newfield (2016) sought to explain the process. His model of a ‘Devolutionary Cycle’ in public universities notes retreat from the public good, increased contracting of outside firms to provide university services, cuts to the number of full-time instructors and an overall reduction in educational quality, in the name of cost-saving, efficiency and growth. Others agree that such neoliberal reforms compound the issue: ‘Academic administrators are sorely challenged to define students as acolytes, apprentices, consumers, or customers. . . . Contemporary debates about liberal education . . . are largely driven by inabilities to resolve the resulting conflicts’ (Leitch 2014: 27). In short, by lowering priorities around instruction and the ‘public good’ of education, the Devolutionary Cycle fomented new conflicts in the relationship between students and the colleges and universities they attend.

Higher education's issues with instructional labour thus reflect larger processes that include the political vilification of the academy, withdrawal of state funding from public universities, increased costs for students and managerial responses that marginalise instruction. Authors offer solutions. Newfield (2016) recommends political realignment, and collective advocacy before state legislatures. Bosquet (2008) suggests faculty and students organise to challenge administrations, pointing simultaneously to unions’ failures and potential. Both strategies require labour organisation in a post-Janus context. Could shared governance processes clarifying which university decisions require faculty input constitute a solution? Does organised labour make a difference? This case study examines attempts by the administration and faculty union at PMU to resolve such conflicts.

Methods

In interests of transparency, both authors proudly declare union membership at their home institution, Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Both joined at hire, and Filner served as campus union president at the time of writing. Research authorisation came from Metropolitan State University's Human Subjects Review board. A membership roster of PMU's Shared Governance Task Force provided individuals for recruitment. Further, Task Force members supplied agendas, minutes, figures and tables. Union Faculty members described union structure and history. After contacting fifteen TF members, seven agreed to interviews. These occurred through Zoom, following informed consent. Two informants were administrators (one dean, and a senior administrator), another a mediator hired through the state. The other four were faculty and members of the UF. Of these, one was adjunct faculty, the rest tenured.

Interviews ranged from thirty minutes to two hours. Questions focussed on notions of shared governance, views on neoliberalism, narratives around the TF, and advice for other universities facing similar challenges. Informants voiced concerns over anonymity and fair representation, citing contention around the TF. As such, we provide no identifying demographics beyond their role at PMU. Gender-neutral pseudonyms help protect anonymity.

A qualitative analysis of the interviews with TF members revealed four main themes: the contentious presence of the faculty union; problems in communication and trust within PMU; a deep sense of uncertainty concerning PMU's future; and economic dilemmas facing PMU. Informants below refer variously to situations prior to Task Force formation, TF work from Spring to Summer 2020, and the period from Fall 2020 through Summer 2021 when the TF did not meet.

Exposition

Faculty union

PMU faculty belong to a Union of Faculty spanning a state university system in the US Midwest, with several four-year universities. While the system has over two dozen two-year colleges, those faculty form a different union. UF faculty coordinate through a state-wide network, working under a contract negotiated with the state. Characteristically democratic, union processes revolve around debate and voting. Schools and colleges within universities meet monthly, passing motions internally. A larger, state-wide network exists between the different universities. It coordinates a number of committees among the universities and holds a biannual assembly of UF delegates from each campus.

Biennial state-wide assemblies of representatives bring motions forward from universities for popular vote. Several committees (some composed of elected members, others of volunteers) from the universities provide information and propose motions. One committee negotiates the union contract biennially. This contract codifies the relationship between union and employer (the state public university system). It directs much of the faculty career course, including pay schedules, tenure criteria and procedures, schedules for professional development plans and reports, and more. The union and state-level administrators negotiate, then vote on contracts. First, union members have a popular vote on it. If approved, a Board of Trustees then votes on behalf of the state system. If they agree, the contract moves on to the state government for approval.

When negotiations stalemate or the state does not approve a contract, the previous contract still applies. All instructors at PMU (tenured, non-tenured, adjunct) may pay union fees (which allows voting in union meetings) but cannot be obligated to do so (due to the Janus decision). Regardless of payment and voting participation, the contract protects all instructors. If any report a contract violation, the union files a grievance against the university.

PMU and its sister universities within the state system have similar internal union structures. Faculty negotiate with their particular university's administration and make internal decisions through this structure. Within PMU, for example, are a number of smaller academic units (colleges). Each of these has a corresponding faculty union branch, such as the CLA-UF for the College of Liberal Arts, or COB-UF for the College of Business, and so on. These meet monthly to discuss college affairs. Further, each college has proportional representation (based on number of faculty per college) within a Faculty Council. This council functions as the governing body for the faculty union within the university. A Faculty Association President is elected biennially by popular vote among dues-paying members. They preside over the Faculty Council and serve as the primary representative of the union before the university administration. Importantly, the Faculty Council's resolution constitutes the official requests and positions on university issues by the union. Union decisions for PMU come from this Faculty Council, not from any particular union member, including the Faculty Association President.

UF committees are also populated by UF members from different colleges. These address numerous issues: course proposals, general education credits, equity and diversity, online learning, and more. UF committees determine their own leadership and meeting schedules and put forward concerns and motions to college meetings. These then work their way from the colleges to the Faculty Council to be voted on. Membership in UF committees is generally decided on a volunteer basis, or elections in cases where multiple faculty wish to serve the same position.

Monthly, each college discusses a union packet (provided by the Faculty Association President) with news and proposals from PMU committees and colleges. A College Convener moderates these meetings, moves through the packet, and conducts voting. Members may support, reject, or abstain when votes are called. They may also introduce news and motions. Council representatives from within the college attend these meetings, then represent the votes and sentiments of the college to the Faculty Council.

Faculty Council also meets monthly, the week after college meetings. Council reviews the monthly packet, and representatives debate their colleges’ positions. They also vote on motions. Motions, information, and concerns approved by council vote become official UF positions at PMU. The Faculty Association President communicates these in a monthly two-hour meeting with PMU senior administrators known as Meet and Confer. Senior administrators present include the university president, provost and vice presidents (finance, marketing, equity and inclusion, etc.). Only one dean is present, as the deans from the different colleges take turns attending. Meet and Confer constitutes the official dialogue and exchange between faculty and administration at PMU, the core of shared governance.

Shared governance conflict

In October 2019, about fifty UF members entered a Meet and Confer session, staging a ‘walk-in’. While open to the public, this unexpected arrival of faculty at the meeting marked a protest. Since the previous academic year, they had protested against administrative decision-making and now demanded changes. Concerns included course size and offerings, faculty representation, and University Councils (distinct from the previously mentioned UF councils). Course concerns involved increased students per course and fears of a consequent loss of instructional quality. Further, budget-based cancellation of courses made both faculty schedules and course offerings unpredictable. Concerns over University Councils demonstrated greater complexity. University administration had found committees across the university (including UF committees) problematic. Too many existed, often with overlapping purposes and unclear responsibilities. As a solution, the administration created the University Councils a few years prior to consolidate the functions of existing committees across the university. Faculty were asked to join University Councils and often did.

Two primary faculty complaints existed around this. First, several felt participation amounted to little. Resulting decisions did not incorporate their views. Second, faculty objected to the University Council's structure of representation. While administration held that the presence of faculty members on councils honoured shared governance, faculty noted that no single committee member represents the UF's position on issues. Rather, UF representation occurred through the deliberative process from colleges and committees to Faculty Council, to Meet and Confer.

Faculty interrupting the October administration meeting voiced these and other concerns. The University President soon convened a Shared Governance Task Force, composed of administrators, UF representatives and mediation personnel contracted through the state. Goals developed organically but centred on models for shared governance.

Shared Governance Task Force

Interviewees described the meetings of the Task Force (TF) as being civil. Participants discussed, reflected, conducted break-out sessions and identified problems and solutions. This began in spring 2020. Soon, the COVID-19 pandemic obligated online meetings. A framework for shared governance resulted by the end of semester. Two faculty co-chairs and two administrators worked through Summer 2020 on details for tenure, promotion and university budgets. Why meetings did not occur from Fall 2020 through Summer 2021 remains unclear. Speculations range from the gap as the model's ‘test period’, to a lack of commitment by the union, administration, or both. Meetings resumed Fall 2021, after the present research concluded.

Committee members explained the model and shared figures presented here. The model's decision-making matrix concerns two axes: established practices around a decision-making topic; and degree of agreement or acceptance around the topic. As these grow further apart, shared governance discussions kick in. Exceptions include emergencies, called ‘Crisis and Mitigating’ decisions, where ‘sudden, urgent, and unanticipated changes require rapid decision-making to ensure safety and/or to continue operations’. Examples include a collapse of resources, system failures and natural disasters. While the model was still in development during the 2019–2021 period, COVID-19 likely constitutes such a situation, though the process for declaring one remained unclear.

The two situations requiring shared governance discussions are, first, ‘Strategic and Shaping’ decisions involving recurrent themes benefitting from stakeholder input (such as strategic planning, budgeting and accreditation requirements). Second, there are ‘Emergent and Creating’ decisions when there are not established clear best practices (such as new facilities or technologies, shifting student needs, concerns around equity and antiracism). ‘Routine and Procedural’ decisions (under established procedures and policies) fall to respective departments. Examples include hiring, faculty selection of texts and curriculum, human resources processes, and tenure procedures. ‘Crisis and Mitigating’ decisions assume emergency conditions and accompanying need for quick decisions. These therefore favour administrative control.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Shared governance decision types framework.

Citation: Learning and Teaching 16, 2; 10.3167/latiss.2023.160205

Findings

Union

All interviewees repeatedly mentioned the faculty union. Some described an outdated organisation that simply complicated things. Others valued the union but lamented dissent between its members. Professors felt it bestowed power other faculties lack. Many described differences between union and administrative organisational structures and priorities as problematic. All agreed the union's existence set the stage for conflict with administration.

Comments suggest the relationship between union and administration had been deteriorating for some time. This spawns communal frustration, critiques of all parties and open conflict. This seems to reflect discontent with both the pace and quality of decision-making. Some comments portrayed oppositional stances between union and administration as inherent, resulting from the structural relationship between them:

The administration ‘administrates’, . . . from a top-down structure – the faculty and its mission is often to question corporate top-down structures. . . . Also, it's more contentious because our governance is intertwined with our union. (Chris, Faculty, UF Member)

Other comments suggested administrators felt basic processes involving the union had become unproductive and deadlocked:

Increasingly the UF leadership, and the executive [administrative] team were getting frustrated about our inability to have an effective Meet and Confer process. (Sam, Senior Administrator)

One comment revealed that UF members had increasingly been citing breach of contract by the administration, and following grievance procedures:

[Assessing] the health of a unionised environment like ours, one of the measures you might look at is the number of [union] grievances. And [PMU] went a very long time, with almost zero. . . . It's had a lot more in the past five years than it had in the 20 years before that. (Brie, Dean)

Administrative decisions are centralised, while the UF's are democratic. Informants focussed on the difference. Informants described a general administrative desire to get things done while the union required time to deliberate among units to come to decisions. Union members lamented how their process allows for internal division, which they felt administrators exploited by making decisions while faculty debated, or by influencing those debates.

Even if we individually feel it's not the best, we have to follow [UF] bylaws and our own processes and sometimes historically we haven't done that. And so, I think administration capitalises when we're kind of arguing among ourselves. (Madison, Faculty, UF Leadership)

The administration would use any kind of voicing of counter position [among UF members] as a way to undercut what was being said and so it's really important in this if faculty is going to have power that it has to be from speaking with the unified voice. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

Informants often contrasted the union with the administration, particularly as models for communication, leadership, and decision-making.

[UF members] have a chance to talk among units. It rolls up through a deliberative body. . . . That does not happen on the administrative side. I will find out about things after the fact . . . ‘Oh, we're doing that now? Oh, really? Okay’. The administration doesn't come to the table having built their positions the same way. Deans and other middle management – honestly, I know some of the teams [of administrators and staff] are kind of operating more or less in the dark. (Brie, Dean)

Both union members and administrators mentioned non-union members’ lack of familiarity with union structure. Previously mentioned issues with University Councils frequently came up unsolicited. Union members felt administrative assumptions about work processes ignored the realities of the union contract. Administrators felt frustrated with these complaints.

I remember the faculty being frustrated that [the university president] really didn't seem to understand how things worked at [PMU]. And didn't know really much about our contract. . . . [They were] just someone who came in with particular kinds of group processes that [they] wanted us to follow. (Tate, Faculty, UF Member)

You know, we [administrators] didn't have clarity [concerning union policy]. I guess, maybe not realising we needed as much clarity, because it seems to me clear in the contract that [UF] appoints representatives to councils. (Sam, Senior Administrator)

Despite all complaints about the union, informants clearly described a force to reckon with. UF represents a centre of power. Faculty felt it represented resistance, a challenge to the larger neoliberal processes engulfing higher education.

All universities are closer to neoliberal. But we're probably less close than some because of our union. . . . I've been at different universities, state universities and private colleges, that do not have a union. The power of the faculty . . . and the expectation of power they have is much greater [at PMU] than it is at other universities. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

The union occupied a large space in informants’ reflections. They felt it impeded administrative decisions, though disagreed whether this was positive or negative. Equally, internal union dissent received universal acknowledgement, but was interpreted alternatively as either simply frustrating administrative progress or as a weakness for administration to exploit. All informants acknowledged the union as a presence to contend with.

Communication and trust

Such conflicts revealed another dominant discourse: intrinsic problems with communication and trust. Union and administration confrontations revealed a more fundamental problem where individuals do not communicate in ways that foster good faith. Rather, communication created frustration and exhaustion. For example, one faculty member's use of university listservs to condemn administrative decisions was cited as toxic:

I thought [one faculty member] kind of took everything in a bad direction when he started sending these long emails out that just inflamed people and upset people. And then there became camps about what had happened. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

In another example of communication issues, an administrator mentioned both constant critique and the burden of answering to it:

I don't think there is one person on this campus who doesn't think that they can't do my job. Based on the emails they send me. I feel like I try to be thoughtful and respond . . . tell them how they can be included. And that takes time. (Sam, Senior Administrator)

Other examples of communication problems described the issues complicating the functioning of the Task Force itself:

There was a lot of good faith and transparency around [the TF] but there was still a twinge of not trusting, and that's not the person but the position that they represent. And they represent a particular interest. I think that's always going to be competitive. (Bailey, Mediator)

I went through optimism and pessimism. . . . Because ultimately [the university president] is a good person. [The provost] is a good person. . . . So, it seems like we should be able to [cooperate]. It doesn't serve anyone to have to be butting up against [each other]. . . . It doesn't make for a good organisation. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

Informants often described mistrust and faulty communication in terms of an ‘us versus them’ mentality, even while criticising such divisions. Basic assumptions seem siloed within different groups. Communication issues were cast as differences in cultural worldview between assumptions made by a managerial mindset and those made by an instructional one. Importantly, existing structures aggravated rather than resolved such differences.

There's just an automatic [belief that] once you get into administration, you're ‘Them’ automatically. Then there's the ‘Us’ and then there's the ‘Them’. That seems to be indelible. (Bailey, Mediator)

When it comes to the actual application of [the shared governance model], then you start to realise maybe the questions you didn't discuss. Because you didn't realise. You just make some assumptions about, ‘Well, this is the way things operate and everybody knows that’. Then you have a different discussion when something actually occurs. (Sam, Senior Administrator)

Faculty are talking on their side all amongst themselves and the administrators are talking on their sides all amongst themselves. And the conversations go and go and go and they [UF and administration] don't meet until Meet and Confer and that's actually too late. (Brie, Dean)

‘Us vs them’ mentalities revealed themselves in narratives where one side did not listen or compromise. Most complaints concerned administrative failures in listening and/or providing transparent communication. For example, faculty perceived certain communication from administration as promises or pledges, when they, in fact, were not:

I think a lot of faculty, including myself, get frustrated when we hear commitments from administrators, but, for whatever reason, they don't get follow through. (Madison, Faculty, UF Leadership)

Others referred to a desire for communication to participate in the decision-making process rather than to be simply informed of it:

The actual bringing up issues to the faculty, always happen[s] late in the process after [administrators] sort of had settled on . . . how they wanted things to happen. Then they would involve faculty. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

[Administration] made some decisions about sabbaticals . . . then they backed off. . . . But, the fact was that they didn't see at the time when making that initial decision, that that was not shared governance, to change policy on sabbaticals without having a discussion. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

Concerns also centred on whether information was clear and complete:

Communication challenges [include] . . . accuracy and faith in accuracy of information . . . people tend to be working either with partial information . . . or a vacuum. (Brie, Dean)

Complaints about obstinacy populate interviews, directed at both UF and the administration. Two major sentiments develop. Some felt administration simply either did not solicit outside input or simply ignored it. Conversely, others characterised the union as stubborn and dug in.

Councils operated in a way [where faculty] were really just being guided along to make the decision that the administration wanted anyway. Faculty was a minor voice, and their concerns weren't necessarily taken seriously. . . . Huge course cancellations happened fall of 2020. . . . But just no sense that they would be good to consult with faculty. . . . I think the administration is much more comfortable [with] their top-down hierarchy. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

The dug in nature has to do with faculty and their rights and the union, which felt really, at times, unbending. . . . So, you know, I hate to say it because I'm a good liberal myself and would like to imagine that all those things can coexist but they're not doing a very good job right now. (Bailey, Mediator)

Informants seemed concerned, even anxious that communication and trust problems characterised their environment. Everyone shared interpretations of them. They displayed great eagerness to analyse its nature, offering narratives of explanation. These sometimes relied on the ‘us vs them’ trope.

The [TF] didn't really accomplish much of substance. . . . Unions and administrations have an adversarial relationship to begin with, and the [administrative] approach lacked something – I'll call it the inability to operate outside of the corporate mindset. (Chris, Faculty, UF Member)

Other narratives explained communication problems as resulting from structural limits:

The impatience [was] about how slow the shared governance processes [were] in an environment that needs to move [quickly] like this. . . . Then there were some personalities involved at the time that were just sort of dug in and that kind of thing. (Bailey, Mediator)

A lot of the log jam that happens when you try to put everything to one process, everything through one channel. . . . And again, it's fine, but trying to do all that in a two-hour [Meet and Confer] meeting once a month can be very, very challenging. (Brie, Dean)

As informants narrated their analyses, they also pointed to what they saw as solutions. All of the informants described how communication should function. They offered models, theories and approaches they felt might help. One such model centred on addressing frustration in order to persist in communication:

The best way to resolve conflict and issues, and at least achieve collaboration, is to work in that way, in a collaborative process. I don't think hand wringing and throwing up your hands and saying okay we're not going to meet . . . is an effective problem-solving mechanism. (Madison, Faculty, UF Leadership)

Another informant felt trust and communication issues required mindful responses based in human psychology:

I would start with ‘Okay, the organisation is traumatised’. We need to talk about a trauma-informed response. . . . Let's talk about what we can start doing to lower the level of anxiety in the place and start talking about being a healing organisation. (Brie, Dean)

Some responses suggested a re-structuring of communication is necessary:

This is a struggle for all kinds of organisations. To recognise who needs to be at the table when you're just batting around ideas. And I think that administrators think, ‘Well, no, we come up with the ideas and then we go to the faculty, and we say, “Hey, this is what we'd like to do, what do you think?”’ But even by that time they've made the decision. . . . I think that's the real challenge for administrators. . . . You should be getting input before you even decide . . . then it's truly been a participatory kind of design. (Tate, Faculty, UF Member)

Another suggested model focussed on identifying and addressing value-based concerns:

[Higher education] is a vocation. It's a way to achieve those much greater goals outside of ourselves. Our aspirations are not for ourselves individually so much. So, you know, that threatens your sense of identity. I think in some ways it's just a bigger existential thing. But of course, it's expressed on the ground in conflict. (Sam, Senior Administrator)

Informants described an environment of faulty trust and communication. They characterised this through ‘us versus them’ divisions, feelings of being ignored or critiqued, and obstinacy. Their own analyses point to radically different cultural perspectives between groups, though all offered solutions intended to foster trust.

Uncertainty

Complaints about mistrust pointed to a context of great uncertainty. Interviews described changes that either occurred or are occurring, and unknown outcomes. Images of scarcity, of larger threats both to PMU and higher education in general, seemed foundational to the communication issues. Informants contributed labour without knowing whether it made any difference to the institutions’ decisions and direction.

People feel as if their freedoms are being violated by virtue of all the changes. . . . And one can feel as if they're obsolete very easily. So, I think that's sort of the fear. The ongoing fear. And I think there's just a general weariness about what is happening in higher ed. . . . How relevant is it? How is it going to be delivered in the future? (Bailey, Mediator)

[The TF] did achieve a number of goals. . . . People worked on both sides of the aisle in good faith . . . but now the real test is: Will these results be able to materialise? Will we be able to actually do what we pledged to do during those lengthy meetings? (Madison, Faculty, UF Leadership)

Whether or not [the TF] was [beneficial], certainly I know that the [University] President and [UF representatives] were doing their organising work. . . . I'm not sure if the TF accomplished the most important parts of its charge. . . . I'm not sure if anyone feels like shared governance is any better than it was. (Brie, Dean)

I think it was [a union leader] that said [the TF] has basically done nothing [for months], and I was shocked. So now I'm thinking what was our work for? I don't know. (Tate, Faculty, UF Member)

All felt higher education exists tenuously, within processes of dramatic change. They agreed political attitudes towards universities, and withdrawal of state funding meant university labour exists on uncertain ground.

You know, the sort of loss of the agreement that the university and educating our population is a collective good, and therefore we should fund it. . . . We say that in our mission, but the way decisions are made often are very much . . . short-term budget driven. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

Under scarcity, comes the desire to hang on to what you have and hang on to your piece. . . . [Every tenured professor] in the field right now is grandfathered in. . . . I just don't think it's going to look like anything like it looks like now twenty years from now. . . . I think it might be a dying profession. (Bailey, Mediator)

[Higher education] is under assault in so many ways. We're lucky in that we're not in a state which has performance-based funding for its public institutions where a public institution has to earn its funding by showing they graduated so many students. (Sam, Senior Administrator)

Informants report impending doom, scarcity and general uncertainty. Uncertain if their labour mattered, they feared larger neoliberal contexts and national politics. They agreed higher education had already gone through tremendous changes and deeper changes loomed.

Economic dilemmas

Communication problems and mistrust developed from uncertainty. Informants believe this uncertainty results from a sense of economic crisis. Loss of funding, perpetual budget problems, and moves towards neoliberalism create a context of uncertainty, leading to an environment of mistrust. Many pointed to disinvestment by the state and student debt as fundamental problems. They felt collective national decisions to marginalise universities explain their dilemmas.

Underfunding of universities has come as a result of neoliberalism: the idea that we should be running – just like, you know, transportation should run on user fees. A university should run on tuition rather than funding. . . . We have dis-invested in higher education. . . . For some reason, that's not the first thing that we talk about every time we go to the legislature. . . . We can't function, we can't serve our mission, as long as we're so precariously funded. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

Between so much student debt money, student debt just inflating new buildings, making institutions more expensive than they have to be. . . . Tuition price is going way up, textbook prices. At the same time, again, the ‘credential society’ thing. People have to have a piece of paper to have any upper economic mobility. There's a national crisis around that playing out. (Brie, Dean)

One [issue] is the financial pressures for public universities that aren't getting the funding they used to. I think the administration wants to take full control of financial decisions . . . Seven years ago . . . I just didn't feel there was this pressure that faculty somehow are responsible for how many students are in their classes. It seems like it's now faculty responsibility to get butts in the seats . . . so I think that the financial pressures have increased the pressure on everyone. (Tate, Faculty, UF Member)

I suppose it could be tied to a neoliberal agenda which is: ‘Education is not a public good. It's a private consumption good’. So, legislatures, the public boards, are trying to treat the institutions this way . . . the way that programmes get closed, and institutions around the country. . . . As a whole the academic enterprise can be threatened by these forces. (Sam, Senior Administrator)

In such a context, informants believe scarcity models determine decisions. Anxiety about budgets seems central to the university's functioning. They described an economic dead end, where instruction itself is simply too costly to sustain.

Unfortunately, faculty have less of a role in governance of administrative procedures issues that affect them. . . . Why? . . . The most pertinent issue that come to mind would be economics. Institutions, by and large, are hiring fewer and fewer tenure-track positions. . . . When are we allowed to actually go teach a class, even if the enrolment tends to be a little bit low? That's where the economic factor comes in. (Madison, Faculty, UF Leadership)

It's all been driven by the same idea that making money is the fundamental that you have to always make decisions based on. . . . Teaching is the most expensive thing that we do. I don't think [administrators] are being bad or mis-serving our population when they cut classes. Because they think they have to because of the budget. . . . I think pushing back on it and moving us more towards a mission driven institution is going to be swimming against the tide. (Harper, Adjunct Faculty, UF Leadership)

Universities aren't state funded really anymore. . . . It used to be that the philosophy was society benefits from educated people. . . . Since that doesn't occur, everyone is so focussed on how much tuition is. They're also focussed on well, ‘Look at what those professors make’. . . . Administrators can look and say ‘Well, what's our biggest expense?’ It's always payroll. (Tate, Faculty, UF Member)

When asked about business management and customer service models in higher education, informants showed ambivalence. Most attempted to dispel notions that higher education is a customer service-based business, yet quickly gave contradictory statements justifying such approaches. Others simply branded it as the future of higher education.

Consumer choice is going to be driving this in the future. Consumers are going to determine what they want to buy. . . . Higher ed in the past has been arrogant enough to think that they know what I need to know in order to be an enlightened successful human being. I think that's probably changing. (Bailey, Mediator)

It's not a business. You can sign up for classes and fail. . . . [Conversely,] you and I are talking on Zoom right now. I need a computer on my desk. We need financial management to purchase things. We need it to support enterprise software . . . so they're meditating the impact on the bottom line. . . . That's really no different than any other business. (Brie, Dean)

People look to the schools to do so much that they become a customer in a way. That can be demanding. Like I can go into Target [large US retailer] and say, ‘I'm sorry I changed my mind about this, will you give me my money back?’ There's some of that attitude now . . . very much a product of how students have been treated and . . . societal expectations. (Tate, Faculty, UF Member)

[There's a] feeling that administratively we're managing universities like a business.Actually, we maybe are in some sense outside the core academic and student affairs area. . . . I do want to see customer service if a student has a question about their bill. . . . If a student needs assistance, through counselling or tutoring. (Sam, Senior Administrator)

Informants portrayed an economic bottom line to their quandaries. They saw the state retreat from public education as determining the conditions of their environment. Some protested against this neoliberal model. All described budgeting that required decision-making through a bottom-line lens, as instruction requires a seemingly unsustainable cost. Deliberating the rise of more cost-conscious and customer service approaches, they demonstrated ambivalence at best. Some demonised this approach. Most, however, seemed caught between avoiding labelling the university a business while pushing business solutions for its economic situation.

Discussion

Administrators and faculty at PMU might dispute the objectivity of informant perspectives or details in their comments. Regardless of disagreement or potential misinformation, TF members described the same organisational context. They all clearly pointed to economic fears spawning uncertainty and mistrust, while the union remains institutionally relevant.

While attitudes towards the union varied, it dominated responses. This suggests faculty solidarity constitutes a negotiating tool, validating Bousquet's (2008) advice on activism and unity. He chastises unions for paternalism and failures to represent all instructors equally, but nonetheless suggests they represent great potential (90–124). Noting how neoliberal practices divide customers into the ‘vital few’ (‘privileged students, corporate vendors, revenue producing disciplines’) and the ‘useful many’ (the less-elite majority, including students in loan debt, student workers, adjuncts, etc.), he insists ‘academic unionism will once again be a movement’ when it can address the question of who the useful many are (124). Both Bousquet and this case study suggest organisation around common need can obligate dialogue.

In terms of Newfield's (2016) strategy, this case falls short. His primary focus lay on advocacy to state legislatures to return funding for public universities to previous levels. While union members suggest state-level representatives occasionally confer with administrative counterparts in the state-wide university system to discuss appeals to the state, responses here suggest no such dialogue at the local level. Informants clearly articulated PMU's dire economic situation. Yet no solidarity before the state resulted. The shared governance model PMU created treats the university's budget problems as isolated, foregoing appeals to the government which employs all parties. Instead, it treats economic context as de facto, something PMU must suffer but has no say over. Could other models of governance include shared advocacy? While worth speculating, this case study provides no answers. Instead, PMU remains highly cognisant of how state economic policy creates great mistrust and uncertainty but does not confront it other than through hypervigilance towards budgets.

Such anxiety in uncertainty complicates communication and trust. This must be taken seriously when seeking cooperation within university settings. Faculty vilify administrators. Administrators vilify faculty. Both suffer deep emotional costs and toxic working conditions under PMU's economic constraints. Inability to organise around mutual misery suggests powerful barriers to communication and solidarity. Some responses above project failure unless these are addressed. Informants recognised this and suggested models based on open communication and vocational identity, as well as trauma-informed models.

With communication, differences in cultural meanings (Geertz 1973) materialise. Take the phrase ‘shared governance’. For managerial culture, ‘shared’ might mean sharing information and polling feedback from stakeholders. From labour perspectives, it could imply all stakeholders collaborate in planning and building. ‘Governance’ could respectively connote a clear hierarchy of command, versus insistence on democratic models. One interview addressed meaning issues, noting:

[When] an administrator or director or admissions person or adviser [are] advocating for a ‘customer service culture’ and ‘customer service mindset’, it's more what we at [PMU] would historically have called ‘student-centred’. That if a student comes in, you're going to engage them, talk to them, try to help, walk them over to [student services] or walk them up to the dean's office. . . . All of us, all the time, needs to be centred on making sure that students are finding and getting [what they need]. (Brie, Dean)

Such meanings are contested. From some perspectives (such as the authors’), ‘customer service’ connotes protecting brand reputation to encourage further sales. ‘Student centredness’ for some means extending teaching outside classrooms, so all university employees support student learning regardless of profit. Clearly, meanings of simple phrases like ‘customer service’ and ‘student centredness’ require deeper discussion.

The same goes for ‘shared governance’. Unions may perceive a potential utopia in the term, but managers do not. Instead, perceptions of uncertainty may stoke managerial demands for immediate results. Union-style democratic processes do not provide this. Shared governance invites disagreement, distracting from profit and efficiency. Managerial meanings of ‘shared governance’ therefore imply engagement with self-obstruction – committing to a process that slows down decisions you could otherwise make quickly, with less potential conflict.

PMU's accrediting institution, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), provides a single stipulation: ‘Shared governance at [accredited institutions] engages its internal constituencies – including its governing board, administration, faculty, staff and students – through planning, policies and procedures’ (HLC Criterion 5.A.1). Note that this does not clarify what shared governance is, simply that universities should engage in it. Debate over its meaning thus becomes a contest of power between faculty and administrators. From a strict interpretation of the criterion, as long as administrators engage in discussions about shared governance, even unproductive discussions, they have satisfied the requirement.

Given such barriers, success of PMU's shared governance model seems unclear. First, in a context of economic uncertainty, adherents of managerial culture might argue most decisions fall into Type 4: Crisis and Mitigating. The ongoing higher education ‘crisis’ clearly favours administrative control. Second, who decides which decisions fall into which type? In a context of mistrust, this becomes problematic, simply another decision to argue over. One clear lesson: any shared governance model must include processes to clarify communication and resolve mistrust created in an ambience of scarcity and fear. This model does not yet do this.

Several limitations exist here. Only two administrators agreed to interviews. If more responded, would it alter dominant themes? Further, the COVID-19 pandemic no doubt influenced results in unexplored ways. Perhaps most importantly, most university employees, non-faculty staff who are not administrators, remain invisible. How do staff share in governance when the two most powerful groups (administration and faculty) argue among themselves? How should student representation be factored into shared governance?

After our research concluded, a faculty TF member updated us on resumed TF meetings. They described growing awareness of the weaknesses described here: difficulties determining a decision's ‘type’, a lack of framework testing, and a sense that goals were not yet achieved. They explained that a primary administrative complaint was ‘faculty want to provide input when they may not have expertise’. Themes presented here suggest this reflects a lack of trust (faculty mistrust administrative leadership), but administrators experience this mistrust (as themes here predict) as further truculence by faculty. The faculty member stated, ‘My personal view is that the Task Force has not been effective this year; I think we are overwhelmed by the charge of defining shared governance because [UF] appears to want to be involved in everything, and this slows down admin, which at some point decides to proceed anyway’. Nonetheless, the TF produced a survey intended to poll attitudes and suggestions around shared governance. The authors surmise faculty will decide in the coming year whether to continue to invest in the TF. Issues identified above may thus be mitigated or may result in the TF's disbanding.

The future of shared governance at PMU remains unclear. However, results provide lessons for universities in similar situations. Can faculty and administration agree upon definitions of shared governance, where multiple stakeholders take part in decision-making? Does organised labour, such as a union, make a difference? Clearly, organisation among faculty and concerted appeals for dialogue with administration can begin larger processes of reform. The union made a difference here. Also, administration and faculty certainly cooperated here. Though unfinished, work producing the shared governance model took months of such collaboration. Future research, however, must chronicle whether such processes can be replicated at other universities and whether they lead to consequential change.

References

  • Bousquet, M. (2008), How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York: NYU Press).

  • Cantini, D. (ed.) (2017), Rethinking Private Higher Education: Ethnographic Perspectives (Boston: Brill).

  • Finger, L. and M. Hartney (2021), ‘Financial solidarity: The future of unions in the post-Janus era’, Perspectives on Politics 19, no. 1: 1935. https://doi:10.1017/S1537592719003438.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Geertz, C. (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books).

  • Gross, N. (2013), Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

  • HLC (Higher Learning Commission) (2020), ‘Policy Title: Criteria for Accreditation’, https://www.hlcommission.org/Policies/criteria-and-core-components.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hyatt, S. B., B. W. Shear and S. Wright (eds) (2015), Learning Under Neoliberalism: Ethnographies of Governance in Higher Education (New York: Berghahn Books).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Izaguirre, A. (2022) ‘Judge blocks DeSantis law on barring “woke” education’, Associated Press, 17 November. https://apnews.com/article/ron-desantis-florida-discrimination-business-racial-injustice-a6f340a48989e67669418e85f2986ebf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leitch, T. M. (2014), Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lyon-Callo, V. (2015), ‘To market, to market to buy a . . . middle class life? insecurity, anxiety, and neoliberal education in Michigan’, in S. B. Hyatt, B. W. Shear and S. Wright (eds), Learning Under Neoliberalism: Ethnographies of Governance in Higher Education. (New York: Berghahn Books), 79102.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Newfield, C. (2016), The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Parker, K. (2019) ‘The growing divide in views of higher education’, Pew Research Center: Social and Demographic Trends. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/the-growing-partisan-divide-in-views-of-higher-education/ (accessed 21 March 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pew Research Center (2017), ‘Sharp partisan divisions in views of national institutions’, Pew Research Center, 10 July. http://www.people-press.org/2017/07/10/sharp-partisan-divisions-in-views-of-national-institutions/ (accessed 21 March 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shear, B. W. and S. B. Hyatt (2017), ‘Introduction’, in S. B. Hyatt, B. W. Shear and S. Wright (eds), Learning Under Neoliberalism: Ethnographies of Governance in Higher Education. (New York: Berghahn Books), 129.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tang, A. (2019), ‘Life after Janus’, Columbia Law Review 119, no. 3: 677762. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26652185.

  • Turnage, C. (2017), ‘Most Republicans think colleges are bad for the country. Why?The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 July. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Most-Republicans-Think/240587.

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Contributor Notes

Jose Leonardo Santos is Associate Professor of Social Science at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He received his PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Southern Methodist University, where he researched immigration, evangelicalism and masculinity. More recently, he has focussed on diversity initiatives and teaching efficacy, exploring the effects of political polarisation and the COVID-19 pandemic in higher education. Email: Jose.Santos@metrostate.edu

Matthew Filner is Professor of Social Science at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. An active leader, having served as both Chair of the Social Science Department and Faculty Association President at Metropolitan State University. Professor Filner holds a PhD in political science from Indiana University (2001) and teaches courses in constitutional law, American politics, global politics and political philosophy. Email: Matthew.Filner@metrostate.edu

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Learning and Teaching

The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences

  • Bousquet, M. (2008), How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York: NYU Press).

  • Cantini, D. (ed.) (2017), Rethinking Private Higher Education: Ethnographic Perspectives (Boston: Brill).

  • Finger, L. and M. Hartney (2021), ‘Financial solidarity: The future of unions in the post-Janus era’, Perspectives on Politics 19, no. 1: 1935. https://doi:10.1017/S1537592719003438.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Geertz, C. (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books).

  • Gross, N. (2013), Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

  • HLC (Higher Learning Commission) (2020), ‘Policy Title: Criteria for Accreditation’, https://www.hlcommission.org/Policies/criteria-and-core-components.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hyatt, S. B., B. W. Shear and S. Wright (eds) (2015), Learning Under Neoliberalism: Ethnographies of Governance in Higher Education (New York: Berghahn Books).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Izaguirre, A. (2022) ‘Judge blocks DeSantis law on barring “woke” education’, Associated Press, 17 November. https://apnews.com/article/ron-desantis-florida-discrimination-business-racial-injustice-a6f340a48989e67669418e85f2986ebf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leitch, T. M. (2014), Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lyon-Callo, V. (2015), ‘To market, to market to buy a . . . middle class life? insecurity, anxiety, and neoliberal education in Michigan’, in S. B. Hyatt, B. W. Shear and S. Wright (eds), Learning Under Neoliberalism: Ethnographies of Governance in Higher Education. (New York: Berghahn Books), 79102.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Newfield, C. (2016), The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Parker, K. (2019) ‘The growing divide in views of higher education’, Pew Research Center: Social and Demographic Trends. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/the-growing-partisan-divide-in-views-of-higher-education/ (accessed 21 March 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pew Research Center (2017), ‘Sharp partisan divisions in views of national institutions’, Pew Research Center, 10 July. http://www.people-press.org/2017/07/10/sharp-partisan-divisions-in-views-of-national-institutions/ (accessed 21 March 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shear, B. W. and S. B. Hyatt (2017), ‘Introduction’, in S. B. Hyatt, B. W. Shear and S. Wright (eds), Learning Under Neoliberalism: Ethnographies of Governance in Higher Education. (New York: Berghahn Books), 129.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tang, A. (2019), ‘Life after Janus’, Columbia Law Review 119, no. 3: 677762. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26652185.

  • Turnage, C. (2017), ‘Most Republicans think colleges are bad for the country. Why?The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 July. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Most-Republicans-Think/240587.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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