"Inextricably Linked": Shared Governance and Academic Freedom

By Gerber, Larry G. | Academe, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

"Inextricably Linked": Shared Governance and Academic Freedom


Gerber, Larry G., Academe


Top-down management threatens the core values of academe. It also erodes institutional quality.

CRITICS OF SHARED GOVERNANCE ARGUE that changing conditions in higher education and increasing demands from the public for accountability require substantially new approaches to institutional governance. Many of these critics contend that a more hierarchical corporate model of management must replace the long-established collegial model of shared governance enunciated in the AAUP's 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities if our institutions of higher learning are to fulfill their mission and serve the public interest effectively.

I would argue that just the opposite is true. Maintaining and even strengthening substantial faculty participation in institutional governance is at least as necessary today as it was when the AAUP first established its standing committee on governance back in 1917. Now, as in the past, the practice of shared governance deserves to be supported not as a means of serving the particular interests of faculty, but rather because shared governance ultimately serves the needs of society. Without shared governance, our colleges and universities would be less likely to foster the unimpeded pursuit and dissemination of knowledge that are necessary for the healthy development of society; they would also be less likely to provide students with the broad liberal education they need to become informed citizens who can participate fully in our democracy.

Academic Freedom

According to the AAUP's 1994 statement Ott the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom, these two principles have always been "closely connected, arguably inextricably linked." That statement concludes with the observation that academic freedom and shared governance "are most likely to thrive when they are understood to reinforce one another." It is hard to imagine effective governance if faculty do not enjoy the right to speak freely without fear of reprisal on issues relating to their own institutions and policies, but it is equally true that shared governance, along with tenure, are the two principal institutional bulwarks for academic freedom. A discussion of tenure is beyond the scope of this article, although it is hardly coincidental that many of the attacks on shared governance have emanated from the same people who have also questioned the need for tenure.

Few people today would directly challenge the idea that academic freedom is necessary for the proper functioning of colleges and universities. Too often, however, references to academic freedom in public discourse are formulaic or disingenuous and fail to take into account the full meaning of the concept and its close connection to faculty governance. In public discussion, academic freedom is sometimes mistakenly viewed as being simply coterminous with the legal right to free speech protected by the Constitution. Academic freedom cannot, however, be reduced to the constitutional right to free speech. The First and Fourteenth Amendments do little to protect teachers and researchers working in private institutions, and the protections of free speech rights for those employed in public institutions are, in fact, limited.

The Constitution, by itself, does not adequately safeguard faculty engaged in teaching and research from various forms of intimidation, including the threat of losing their jobs, if they challenge conventional beliefs or existing authorities. Moreover, the intellectual basis of the constitutional right to free speech differs considerably from the underlying justification for the concept of academic freedom as it has developed in the modern university. In "Justifying the Rights of Academic Freedom in the Era of Power/Knowledge," Thomas L. Haskell argues quite persuasively that "no justification for academic freedom can succeed unless it provides ample resources for justifying the autonomy and self-- governance of the community.

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"Inextricably Linked": Shared Governance and Academic Freedom
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