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Dispatches on academic freedom

Two misconceptions about ‘collegial governance’

Academic staff are not only employees; they are also the ‘collegium’ charged with the academic governance of universities.


Two quite distinct misconceptions about collegial governance threaten its vigour and good functioning. Before I describe them, a quick overview will be helpful.

Collegial governance is one of the crucial aspects of academic freedom. That is, academic freedom clauses in collective agreements protect academic staff not only in their scholarly work, like research, teaching and public engagement, but also in their participation in the running of the university.

Sometimes called “shared governance,” collegial governance is distinct to universities but it derives from a model that stretches back to mediaeval guilds. Those guilds were led by master craftspeople selected by and from the guilds’ own members. In much the same way, senior university leaders on the academic side come from the ranks of the professoriate and are appointed by the professoriate.

I recently had a conversation with someone who works in a human resources department. They observed that employees don’t – and, on my interlocutor’s view, shouldn’t – hire their own bosses. I demurred. That characterization may in general be true, but not in academia. Not only do academic staff play a central role in the appointment of senior academic administrators; they likewise play a central role in deciding whether or not to renew them.

Unlike corporate managers, senior academic administrators such as department heads, deans and academic vice-presidents are appointed to their positions for a set term rather than permanently and require members’ support for reappointment. Further, most universities have procedures in place in case academic staff wish to remove senior leaders from office before their terms are up. While such procedures are rarely deployed, their existence speaks to the democratic character of collegial governance.

Appointing senior leaders is only a tiny part of collegial governance. Academic staff likewise hire their rank-and-file professorial colleagues, and are closely involved in performance review, tenure and promotion for those colleagues.

Collegial governance extends not only to personnel decisions but to all academic decisions at the university. Via department-, faculty- and university-level bodies, academic staff decide together on such matters as curriculum design, course scheduling, the creation and deactivation of academic programs, and the establishment of research chairs, centres and partnerships.

They also approve the graduand lists before convocation. This last task is more pro forma than the others I have listed. Voting members don’t go typically see graduands’ transcripts before they approve the lists. However, it is symbolically resonant that no one graduates from university without a majority vote by a university governance body that substantially comprises academic staff.

Collegial governance – and robust protections to support members’ participation in collegial governance – arguably has two main rationales, one positive and one negative.

The positive rationale for collegial governance is that decision-making about universities’ academic work requires scholarly and subject-matter expertise. The experts in the field make the initial academic decisions based on scholarly standards, and then those decisions move up level by level through the university, with ever-widening input from colleagues across the disciplines. This approach ensures that universities’ academic programming is first and foremost guided by scholarship.

The negative rationale is the other side of that coin: collegial governance prevents non-scholars – for instance, state or corporate organizations – from driving the academic mission. Collegial governance is thus the main mechanism used to ensure universities’ institutional autonomy.

Now, you might point out that both the government and corporations influence the academic mission via grants and funding. It’s true, and I’ll have more to say about that side of things in a future column. However, most universities have governance systems in place to mitigate that influence.

One such system is the bicameral (or two chamber) governance model that is common at Canadian universities. Within a bicameral model, a non-collegial body, like a board of governors (which typically includes financial experts and government appointees), manages the financial side of university operations while a collegial body, like a governing or faculty council or a  senate, manages the academic side. This unusual structure helps to ensure that financial expertise drives the budgetary decisions and scholarly expertise drives the academic decisions.

Arguably, the two misconceptions about collegial governance to which I alluded correspond to these positive and negative reasons for collegial governance.

Collegial governance is so named because it is governance by the collegium of scholars. The first misconception is that collegial governance means polite or agreeable governance. We often refer to individual colleagues who are good-natured and pleasant as “collegial.” Hence, some people misunderstand collegial governance likewise to connote governance characterized by “good manners” and cooperativeness.

I recall the aftermath of a tough but important senate debate at another university. The faculty association had raised a delicate matter at senate because they regarded it as urgent for the university community to weigh in on the matter. Afterwards, some administrators described the union as having been uncollegial because they regarded it as unfriendly to raise such matters on the senate floor.

Alas, this sense of “collegial” overlooks why it is scholars who do the academic governing of universities – not to be agreeable but to defend and promote academic standards. Sometimes, this defense and promotion involves tough questions and difficult debate. To impose norms of collegiality in the sense of politeness on academic governance bodies and processes risks discouraging those tough questions and difficult debate. Professors’ academic freedom includes the freedom to participate in collegial governance and to criticize the institution because the academic mission relies on the scholarly experts full-throatedly defending academic standards.

The second misconception is the characterization of senior academic leaders as “management.” Of course, deans, vice-presidents and so on perform management roles. I wrote about it here. However, they (we) come from the professorial ranks precisely to avoid managers from outside of academia directing universities’ academic mission.

Most Canadian professors are unionized, and so it is unsurprising that the union argot of “labour” and “management” seeps into our characterizations of university governance. Academic staff members are indeed employees, and are entitled to robust employment protections, including union membership and collective bargaining. These are good things to fight for.

Further, it is normal for employees to get frustrated at their bosses. When they do, it is easier to think of those bosses as “management” than as “colleagues.”

However, it is important not to conflate collegially appointed academic leaders who are themselves professors with managers like those found in other sectors. Collegial governance is self-governance, governance by fellow scholars. Academic staff are not only employees, they are also the “collegium” charged with the academic governance of universities. Much of that governance work is conducted by the rank-and-file, but universities are too big and complicated to be run as direct democracies. Thus the need for some professors to take on administrative roles in order to provide leadership on complex academic and governance processes and decisions.

The language of “management” and “labour” is apt at the bargaining table, but within academic governance, it obscures the character and importance of professorial self-governance. Whatever rank-and-file academic staff might think about professors who become administrators, it would be far worse for universities if those administrators came from outside the collegium of scholars.

In the end then, if universities are to remain autonomous and properly centered on their academic mission, they must be led by their scholarly peers, those who are always held to account through vigorous deliberation and debate within collegial governance bodies.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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  1. Michael Clair / April 23, 2021 at 11:09

    This is a wonderful exposition of a complex issue. Congratulations, Shannon, for making it understandable to the general public, who generally do not understand the inner workings of universities.

  2. AnonAbroad / June 1, 2021 at 23:46

    This was a wonderful column — very interesting. I currently work abroad at a university where faculty do not govern collegially except in name. Instead, the university is largely run by administrators.

    It’s certainly been a wake up call for me personally about how important service roles actually are. At some point, it seems that faculty here delegated their important governing powers away. The current generation of faculty find ourselves working effectively as employees in an organization that finds us largely dispensable. (We were recently threatened with layoffs, but enough senior staff took packages to appease those in charge.) Now, of course, people are returning to school wanting to retrain so we find ourselves short staffed. We have been asked to “pitch in”.

    To me, your article speaks to the importance of service. On that note, I hope you’ll speak to the growth of administrative roles in universities. Are we losing sight of our core mission? Can academics using our legacy governance system properly manage complex institutions or is the collegial system only feasible for educational institutions with a narrow focus on education alone? I don’t know the answers here but I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

  3. Lisa Shapiro / September 25, 2021 at 12:35

    This is a great column and it ought to be shared widely.

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