Twenty-first century public colleges and universities fulfill key roles in their local, regional, and national communities—not only as providers of education, but as employers, drivers of policy and disseminators of scientific and political thought. They educate a broader, more diverse student body than ever before. They are major employers with widespread regional economic impact. Within universities, faculty and staff represent the educational and economic needs of whole communities, serving as the best advocates for students, workers, and families. For these reasons, the question of shared governance in public higher education is a central question of democracy: universities support the work of community-engaged research, education, and economic growth.
Shared governance in public institutions of higher education must be grounded in the ability of our constituents to exercise meaningful democratic control over decision-making that affects work at the department, school, and university levels. This democratic process is exercised through a variety of worker organizations: unions for all workers, faculty and staff senates, and democratically-run committees.
Attacks on Shared Governance are a National Problem, with its Roots in Virginia
The erosion of Shared Governance on our campuses is the result of decades of strategic disempowerment of faculty, staff, and students. Administrators have grabbed power that once was more widely shared to make decisions about the direction of the university, strategic goals, budgets, tenure. This has been accelerated by the restructuring of higher education at the state level, which granted institutions unprecedented discretion to operate without oversight or regulation from the state. That is why university Presidents are now making so much money, that is why state support has dropped, and that is why administrations have gotten so bloated.
Below are some examples of how that shift affects the real world, our work lives, and the communities we live in:
Deprofessionalization and Adjunctification – The deprofessionalization of faculty and staff into part-time and contract labor has dramatically reduced the number of workers on our campuses who have both the capacity and institutional memory to engage in shared governance, particularly for long periods of time. An adjunct with a huge class load who does not get benefits and is struggling to make ends meet, has less time and capacity to engage in governance than a tenured professor who has a permanent contract, a fair workload, and does not have to worry about survival.
The Shift to Corporate Culture – Cultural disempowerment of governing bodies and expanded executive administrative positions have replaced a culture of democratic debate and decision-making with top-down initiatives. Universities rely on faculty and staff to engage in the work of governance by serving on committees. Increasingly, committees have become advisory-only bodies with little say in outcomes, even while committee service loads for faculty, staff, and students have increased. Members of such committees realize the lack of efficacy and often disengage from these tasks.
Reorganization at the State and Campus Levels – Through the Higher Education Restructuring Act of 2005, many Virginia state colleges and universities made a deal with the Commonwealth for more legal independence. In exchange, they are now able to pay executives very high salaries and expand the ranks of administrators at the expense of teaching faculty. Those administrators force internal reorganizations in the name of “efficiencies,” further consolidating power at the top. Students are paying for this with higher tuition. Workers are paying for it with lower salaries, additional responsibilities, and diminished job security.
Bad-Faith Budgets – Universities in Virginia have shifted away from their mission of offering broad-based enriching education, defunding universal classroom spending, setting departments and colleges in competition with one another for funds, and undemocratically favoring “innovative” pet projects that draw funding from the private sector. Establishment of private foundations for land acquisition paired with institutional independence from state oversight has allowed universities to focus spending on capital projects, often at the expense of spending on teaching, learning, and research.
While these trends are national, many aspects of these attacks on public education are most intensely felt in Virginia, where the Charterized University Initiative, as laid out in the Higher Education Restructuring Act, debuted an unprecedented new advancement in privatization and deregulation of public higher education. The outcomes of these efforts today are clear: skyrocketing tuition, use of university funds to undemocratically drive real-estate development schemes, and conversion of institutions of higher education from sites of collective knowledge-seeking to servants of consumer markets.
Reclaiming Shared Governance, Reclaiming Community Voice in Higher Education
The fight for Shared Governance is the fight for democratic control of public institutions and public resources. We believe that improving shared governance is an important step towards creating outcomes that benefit the public and lead to improved working conditions for us. Today, we work for universities that increasingly resemble the corporate world. Our administrators and executives make six or seven figure salaries, while faculty and staff pay has stagnated—for some workers far below a living wage. Workers are increasingly treated as expendable and replaceable, and we no longer feel like partners with a say in the direction or policies of our workplaces.
We believe that campuses should embody the ideals of a democratic society. This must include:
Workplace control – All higher education workers deserve greater say and a greater responsibility for decisions regarding the goals, direction, policies, and initiatives of the university. This means freedom from administrative overreach, micromanagement, and retaliation for engaging in good-faith debate over decision-making.
Fair Representation – Governing bodies at every level must be representative and fully-engaged in governing decisions at the early stages. Faculty and staff have a right to early inclusion and representative participation in choices that affect their daily work.
Democratic votes – Faculty and staff must reject the narrative that they “have a voice, but not a vote.” Democratic process at its foundation must include robust debate followed by recorded votes of participatory bodies. This must be true from the Department to the university level, where faculty and staff representation is guaranteed on our governing bodies. At the university level, this means governing Boards of Virginia universities should include faculty, staff and student representation. These representatives should have a vote, just like the other Board members.
Collective Bargaining – All workers have a basic human right to negotiate the conditions of their employment. This must include good-faith negotiation with democratically elected representatives of members of our workforce to ensure all workers have negotiating power to scale.