Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Challenge of University Governance

I am in the midst of a twitter argument with a Canadian expert on universities.  He started his series of tweets thusly:

And I jumped in quickly mispeled anticipation:
 Anyway, I teach via analogy all the time, so I cannot complain when folks use analogies, but it made me realize a problem folks have when they seek to run universities: that faculty are not ordinary employees.

How so?  It is not that employees elsewhere are not smart or highly educated.  No, it is that university professors are hired to be curious and critical.  These two attributes are baked into the job description.  Sure, there are issues of faculty governance as well, that make analogies with corporations or non-profits problematic, but it all starts, alas, with the reality that the agents in this principal-agent relationship are fundamentally different creatures. 

This requires the principals (the president, the board, whoever) to be aware of this difference.  Also, the principals need to be aware that universities often have "employees"with expertise in an inconvenient area (such as the one in this question).  Which combined with that built-in curiosity and critical outlook means that they will get burned if they ignore/deny/squelch such folks.  After all, one of the iron laws of academic life is that if you tell a professor to shut up, they will just get louder.

So, if you run a university, you may think it is like a corporation or a non-profit, and there might be much insight to be gained from thinking that way.  But then you might forget that the folks you are running are not the same--that the faculty are inherently pesky creatures. 

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