Sunday, June 3, 2012

How to Make Online Courses Succeed


The Wall Street Journal  published an opinion piece this week, “Higher Education’s Online Revolution,” by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe. The piece provided a balanced and insightful analysis, but whether online courses turn out to be a “revolution” or not remains to be seen. Delivering educational content to distant students is of course not a new idea. Correspondence courses have been around for decades, and while the delivery mechanism of online courses offers greater opportunities for self-pacing and feedback, the core concept is the same. There have been many attempts to commercialize computer-aided instruction over the years, but I think it is fair to say that so far none has really flowered.

To me, the key problem with online distance education is a human failing, not a technological failing. Students sign up for an online course with high expectations, but relatively few have the self discipline and habits of mind to stick it out. In a traditional residential college, there is strong social pressure to show up for class, turn in homework, and study for exams. Having peers to talk to and to study with keeps student interest from flagging. Interaction with a like-minded community helps fend off the other demands on one’s time. Remove these social incentives, and the odds of a typical student successfully completing a course drop precipitously.

The opinion piece mentions Stanford’s online artificial intelligence course, which has an enrollment  of 150,000. At this scale, there is virtually no opportunity for a student to interact with a teacher or any other human being associated with the course. The authors don’t discuss Stanford’s course completion rate, but I can’t imagine the percentage is very high.

So, to me, the challenge is how to build into online courses a mechanism that socializes the experience for students and enhances their motivation to complete their studies. Here’s a practical idea.

Ask each enrollee to fill out an initial questionnaire that captures demographic information – age, gender, native language, employment, marital status, time zone, geographical location, educational background, extracurricular interests, and so forth, the goal being to create a snapshot of the student’s life and interests, analogous to the information admissions officers collect at traditional residential colleges.  (Obviously, privacy issues would have to be carefully thought out.)

The school would then use this information to create a database about the profile of its enrollees. With this information, the school (or, more precisely, the school’s computers) could then create virtual classrooms of, say, 25 students, who have comparable backgrounds, interests, and goals. This virtual classroom would become the students’ personal social group for the course. Thus, a virtual class might consist of young working adults, or single mothers, or casual hobbyists, or PhD physicists – in other words, a group of traits that fosters a community that makes sense for the students. The algorithms for defining such a cohort would, with experience, be adjusted continuously to maximize course completion rates. If, for example, shared hobbies were found to have no impact on completion probabilities, then that field would be deleted from the database.

Once a virtual classroom was formed, students would then be given the  opportunity to interact with their fellow students.  Interaction could be via email, a Facebook-like page for each class, Skype-arranged conference calls, or whatever, all arranged automatically by computer. Students could ask each other questions, discuss course topics, debate, develop friendships, etc., all with the course being the common topic that binds them together. The computer could schedule regular “class meetings.” To preserve privacy, each student  would be given the chance to opt in at various levels of involvement, e.g., first name only, personal information withheld, etc. After all, the goal is that classmates share traits only that contribute to course completion and interaction. Sharing personal information that goes beyond this level is not necessary.

One benefit of this model is that the results would be easily quantifiable. In a large course with thousands of enrollees, there would be many opportunities for experimentation. For example, the computer could create a virtual class of, say, 20-year-old working adults with a high school education, and benchmark their course completion rates against a similar cohort of enrollees who were not part of a virtual class.

As course providers refined their algorithms, improvements in completion rates could be directly quantified. In a for-profit environment, algorithms would be proprietary information, and those providers with the most successful algorithms would gain a significant competitive advantage over other providers. In this sense, the marketplace would resemble that for on-line dating services, where competing services vie with each to develop the most effective sorting strategies to match up their participants.

The key idea, however, is to use modern technology to create unique social networking sites tailored specifically to each student’s needs, in part to enhance student learning, and in part to provide the social and peer motivation essential for successful course completion. The enormous benefit of modern technology is that, having defined the algorithms and written the software, all of this can take place with minimal human intervention by the course providers.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

University Search Procedures - A Recipe for Failure


A bill introduced in the Illinois State Senate by State Rep. Chapin Rose would ban public universities from using search firms and external search consultants to fill senior administrative positions. Although the stated goal of the legislation is to curtail the high costs of external search consultants, underlying the legislation is the university’s unfortunate experience with Michael J. Hogan, who resigned from his presidency after only two years. The search for Mr. Hogan mirrored the practice at most universities; it entailed a 19 member search committee and the use of an outside search firm.
In October 2009 I wrote a piece in this blog critical of the presidential search process at the University of Illinois (http://www.savingalmamater.com/2009/10/u-of-illinois-presidential-search-off.html).  Today, the dismal but increasingly common outcome of that search should serve as further evidence that procedures for hiring senior administrators in higher education are deeply flawed. At a time when tuition is unaffordable and university budgets are being decimated, it is inexcusable that the appointment, say, of a dean can take up to a year, cost a hundred thousand dollars, and involve hundreds of hours of committee time.
However, it is an oversimplification to blame search firms for the failures. True, the worst firms (which include some of the largest, in my opinion) trade mostly in gossip about who is “on the market,” collecting exorbitant fees without probing deeply to evaluate candidate credentials, looking for troublesome personality traits, and assessing the “fit” of candidates to the institution. But I have also seen search consultants who are insightful, think carefully about the institution and its needs, and are excellent judges of character and ability.
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the search process itself. Huge clumsy search committees, chosen primarily to satisfy constituency demands for inclusiveness are endemic in higher education. Representatives from the faculty senate, alumni organizations, local politicians, the student body, classified civil service staff, senior and junior professors, humanists and scientists, all carefully balanced to reflect racial and gender parity may send a reassuring message about participatory democracy but are seldom qualified properly to evaluate candidates. Lacking  sophistication about the nature of the position (presidential search committees typically have members who may never even have met a university president) and having little in common with each other, such groups often overemphasize qualities of demeanor, physical appearance, the ability to remember names, and other superficial candidate traits. Questions often probe generic, issues (Does the candidate support diversity? Shared governance” Believe in consensus-building? Have an open door policy for students? Respect faculty values?), which are easily rehearsed by candidates.
In this context, the best search firms can provide enormously valuable advice, cutting through the clutter, zeroing in on the skills which are truly germane to the position, and inquiring deeply about past performance. While I agree that the use of search firms may have gotten out hand at some institutions, the “fix” is to reform the deeply flawed search process itself rather than forcing campuses to go it alone.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ohio State's Terrible Mistake

When the New York Times reported that Ohio State had just signed a new football coach, paying him $4 million yearly plus bonuses, putting a private jet at his disposal, throwing in a country club membership and the other accouterments of an opulent (many would say decadent) lifestyle – a seven-year package valued at nearly $40 million – the venom in the reader responses practically dripped off my computer screen:

” The nation's false values could not be more graphically displayed by this action…”

“What a terrible waste of money.”

“This is unacceptable and perverted.”

“I am appalled at this contract. I hear from my daughter that [Ohio State] academic programs go without funding and needed supplies.”

And on and on and on…..

The Times readers have it right. By brazenly capitulating to the grotesque arms race in college sports, Ohio State has tossed its academic values into the trash bin. It has betrayed its faculty and cheapened the degree of its three hundred thousand alumni. Forget education. Forget research. Forget public service. At Ohio State the name of the game is football.

Am I taking this personally? You bet I am, and here’s why. I was a professor and administrator at Ohio State for twenty-six years. As a department chair and dean I worked my butt off trying to raise academic standards, recruiting talented faculty, raising money to strengthen programs, writing research proposals, and singing the praises of my department and college to anyone who would listen. For twenty-six years I sat through endless numbers of meetings, wrote thousands of memos, agonized over budgets, did my best to make smart decisions – and I did all this because I wanted to do my part to make the university – my university – better. My son was born in the Ohio State hospitals, my wife and ex-wife are Ohio State alums. Our family bleeds scarlet and gray.

So how do I feel about Ohio State’s decision? I feel like the university has turned its back on what I spent most of my career trying to accomplish.

Here’s how Ohio State President Gordon Gee rationalized this move: “I’m about having the best physics faculty, the best medical school faculty and the best football coach.”

Well, Gordon, you’re my friend and former colleague, and I don’t want to get personal, but you know and I know that’s pure baloney. That spin may play in some quarters, but it sure doesn’t with your thousands of current and former faculty members. Where we expected you to stand up for the academic heart of the institution, you cheapened it. Instead of using this opportunity to restore balance, you embraced the madness. Instead of acting courageously, you capitulated to the corrupt sports materialism in college athletics that is anathema to the university’s core academic values.

Sure, you’ll find thousands, maybe millions, of Ohioans who applaud your decision. For them it’s all about winning games. But for me, and for the young Ohio State economics professor laboring over a journal article, or the senior chemistry professor fighting to renew an NSF grant, or the debt-burdened medical student, or the tens of thousands of Ohio families struggling to put their kid through Ohio State – to us, this issue isn’t about football. It’s about the priorities of the institution. It’s about what Ohio State University really stands for. And now we know.

Symbolism matters in academia. In some ways, it’s more important than anything else, and understanding that is what we expect from our academic leaders. Ohio State has had more than its share of sports scandals, and these are deeply embarrassing to many Buckeyes, including me. At a time when there is public outrage about the culture of impunity in major collegiate programs, at a time when Americans are fed up with the excesses, the greed, the win-at-all-cost mentality, the hype and the hypocrisy of college sports, it’s high time for college presidents to speak out.

Now it’s time for them to say “that’s enough” and to reject the corrosive influence of out-of-control sports on American higher education. Now it’s time to rein in the excesses and restore some sanity to campuses. To stand up and defend the academic heart of the university. To put one’s money where one’s mouth is. At Ohio State, that’s a lesson yet to be learned and that fact makes me sick at heart.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Future of Rock and Roll

It is hard to get faculty members to agree on much of anything these days, but I bet one common bond would be a dislike of the mind-numbing sounds that blare out of college dorm room windows and leak out of iPod headsets. If you live on a college campus, as I did for a decade, there’s simply no escaping the vulgar lyrics, headache-inducing drumbeats, and repetitive synthesized squeals that sound like a car with worn brake pads scooting over railroad tracks. How could the great rock and roll sound of our college years have morphed into such an unattractive – okay, I’ll say it – such a repulsive genre?

Yesterday I came across a Washington Post opinion piece by Daniel de Vise lamenting the closing of Wesleyan’s WESU, the nation’s second-oldest college radio station. His blog took me back a few years to when Oxford Ohio’s WOXY, one of America’s great independent alternative rock stations, shut its doors. (I’m sure you know WOXY’s slogan: “97X BAM! The Future of Rock and Roll,” because you heard Dustin Hoffman repeat it over and over and over in Rain Man. Yes, it’s that WOXY.)

WOXY’s demise caused heartbreak among the Miami University student body. A colleague’s sophomore daughter broke down when she learned the station was pulling the big switch forever. Another listener posted on a bulletin board, “There are a lot of us who grew up listening to this station and it has provided the soundtrack to virtually our entire lives. Somebody DO something!! Seriously, I'm going to cry.”

The listener is correct. College students not only experience an extraordinary personal bond with their radio stations but, more fundamentally, the stations really do provide a soundtrack for their lives. Rock and roll comes to us when we first become aware of the universal problems of life and yet are least able to understand them. When we are in this fragile state and for a decade or two thereafter, rock and roll has the power to put us in touch with our humanity:


It is late on a bleak Sunday night in January 1972 and I am finally headed home from Ohio State’s Smith Laboratory. I’m listening to Melanie on “92X” in Columbus, Ohio. My experiment is a mess, none of the data is reproducible, and throughout the long day I could practically hear my tenure clock ticking.
Now Melanie starts another song:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye…

In my depleted state, the lyrics seem profound. I picture my three year old daughter asleep at home and resolve to spend more time with her, to be a better father. Something makes me turn up the volume and roll down the car window, releasing the music into the frigid air…


Rock and roll has always commingled the celebration of life with a challenge to the establishment. Whether it was Elvis gyrating his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show, John Lennon paying tribute to illicit drugs in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, or merely the bone-jarring drumbeat from a car passing through a residential neighborhood, the music has always expressed the universal angst-ridden lament of adolescence: “I am me. I am not like you. You need to respect me for who I am and take me seriously.”

But rock and roll is much more than about seeking independence during a time of self-discovery. Hard as it is for some of us of a certain age to admit, it is also about art. The best rock and roll is creative and meaningful. But that doesn’t mean we can all appreciate it.

I have a theory, unsupported by data or deep reflection, that like ducklings people are imprinted on with the music of their youth. Each generation grows up believing that its own music is natural and attractive, and that that which follows is unpalatable and discordant.

To me, rock and roll will forever be about taking it easy in Winslow, Arizona, about meeting Memphis barroom queens, and about being busted flat in Baton Rouge. For my wife, Carole, rock and roll will forever be about asking Alice when she’s ten feet tall, and about hiding her heart because Eli’s coming.

If my theory is true, then Neil Young had it right: rock and roll is here to stay. Rock and roll is an exuberant musical reflection of the human spirit, and one way or another, that spirit will find a way to express itself, just as it did during the Cold War when pirate radio ships floated like lily pads in the coastal waters off totalitarian states.

And so, “the future of rock and roll” is still bright. The genre will continue to morph into other forms and find other venues, just as it has since the days of Bill Haley and the Comets. About all I can predict is that whatever the next form takes, I won’t like it and I won’t understand it. But that’s just fine, because the music is no longer meant for me.

And so, while our students' radio stations may be dwindling, the spirit that created their music is alive and well. One day our students will be us, carping about the young and the foolish, but still truckin’ down the road on that long strange trip, listening to the doodah man in their memories.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

So How About Those Faculty Lounges?

If you haven’t already done so, take a look at Dan Berrett’s Inside Higher Ed interview with Naomi Shaeffer Riley, author of The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the Education You Paid For. Ms. Riley, a Wall Street Journal editor and the daughter of two academics, writes with the flair of a skilled provocateur, and in her new book she takes aim at an easy target, the institution of tenure – sacrosanct to those who have it, but which to non-academic hoi polloi conjures up images of lazy, grass-mowing professors.

What I find most interesting – and dismaying – are the dozens of reader comments following the interview. Evidently the world of higher education hates Ms. Riley and everything she stands for. One reader finds her views "threaten the fabric of our nation..", while another says "I question her integrity," going on to suggest that she is yet another one of those "political hacks who misrepresent and cherry pick to score cheap points."
And on and on:

-"What utter balderdash"

-"Why has Inside Higher Ed made this incoherent drivel its leading article?"

- "...she wants to get rid of those that don't agree with her politically."

-" …laughable mistakes and wild, unsupported generalizations"

- "Wow, someone from Wall street has the temerity to question the business practices in the academy."

-"[Her] blather is simply disgraceful!"

- "What's next, Paris Hilton's book on how to be an ethical researcher?"

Of course, this being academia, there are a few weak countercurrents:

-"In my experience Ms. Riley is much, much less wrong than almost all the academics posting here claim."

-"The truth was out there and it was found. Get used to it."

Despite the vitriolic reader comments, Ms. Riley strikes me as having thought quite deeply about tenure and the meaning of academic freedom. She may not be a pedigreed scholar, a fact that offends many of her critics, but she’s smart and thoughtful and knowledgeable. Do I agree with her recommendations and conclusions? No I don’t, in many instances. But some of them ring true and all of them are thought-provoking.

For example, she asserts that tenure reduces job mobility by locking its recipients into one place of employment. If tenure were replaced by e.g., five year contracts, would senior faculty members have more opportunity to change jobs? That’s an interesting conjecture, arguable perhaps, but certainly worthy of discussion.

And what about the oft-heard complaints that tenure provides a haven for the lazy, the incompetent, the unproductive, the disruptive, the anti-social, and the unstable? Such concerns are a serious worry to the public, but are usually brushed aside by us insiders. “Sure,” we say, “ but every barrel has a few rotten apples. Look at every big corporation and you’ll find such people. Big deal.” Is that really an adequate response to such a widely held viewpoint? Based on my own observations, I think we’re probably talking about ten percent of tenured professors.

Or how about Stanley Fish’s opinion that academic freedom, the main justification for tenure, should not extend beyond the classroom? Academic freedom, he believes, doesn’t mean professors can mouth off without consequence on any topic they happen to feel strongly about. So what about that idea? I recently read a blog by an assistant professor of education who took great offense at her chancellor’s efforts to stabilize the school’s finances. Never mind that the young professor had zero administrative experience, had no conception of the complexities of the chancellor’s job, not to mention the schools’ finances, and was unwilling even to acknowledge that her chancellor’s decades of experience counted for anything. Do tenure and academic freedom obviate the need for humility, and if so doesn’t this fact undermine the very foundation of a liberal education? (See How I Almost Became an Academic Superstar.)

One problem with tenure is that any criticism of the practice provokes black-white responses. Those who have it seemingly cannot brook any mention of its shortcomings, and those without it are seemingly hard-pressed to acknowledge any benefits.

Cary Nelson, AAUP’s current president, is one of those who can’t see any shortcomings. Actually, that’s not quite true. The one big problem with tenure, Professor Nelson evidently believes, is that universities should be more generous in granting it, even to contingent instructors. Never mind that the main reason schools hire contingent instructors in the first place is that they can’t afford to hire tenured professors. Turning a blind eye to critics, refusing to acknowledge or ameliorate problems, to consider alternatives, or to understand other viewpoints is not going to save tenure. On the contrary that’s the surest way to wreck it.

Academics are supposed to be good at on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand reasoning. So let’s get serious about fixing the shortcomings of tenure. Surely there must be ways to stop protecting the incompetent, to clamp down on unwarranted classroom politicization, to moderate the costs, to put teeth into faculty self-policing, to deal responsibly with unproductive older professors. Surely there must be ways to protect academic freedom while also providing reasonable job security for professors. Unless the professoriate stops shrugging off these kinds of concerns, soon there won’t be enough of us left to worry about. I suppose that’s one way to solve the problem.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Full Moon Setting


John Fogerty’s classic 1969 song, “Bad Moon Rising,” is a tempting metaphor for the current state of American higher education:


I hear hurricanes ablowing

I know the end is coming near

I fear rivers over flowing

I hear the voice of rage and ruin.


But in 1969 when I embarked on my academic career who could have known that there was a bad moon lying unseen below the horizon? The golden age of the American academy was just beginning. As a freshly minted PhD, my future then held the glowing promises of lifetime tenure, sabbatical leaves, conferences in exotic places, NSF research grants, bright and alert students, and the noble and unfettered pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Today, only in their wildest dreams could the vast majority of aspiring young academics entertain such fantasies.


Who in 1969 could know that in the next century America’s preeminent universities and colleges would no longer reign supreme in the world, that many regional state universities would deteriorate into grim places filled with dingy concrete block buildings, ill-prepared and unmotivated students, crowded classrooms, and legions of overworked and underpaid contingent instructors? Could anyone then have imagined that America’s serene academic communities of scholars and students would devolve into environments that spawned grievances, accusations, and angry words, that trust and goodwill between faculty and administrations would deteriorate into negotiation across a bargaining table, and that collegiality would succumb to a corporate mindset that emphasizes bottom-line efficiency over academic values? Here is the dismal end game of the rising bad moon:


Hope you got your things together.

Hope you are quite prepared to die.

Looks like we’re in for nasty weather,

One eye is taken for an eye.


The bad moon rising, with its bleak message of hopelessness and inevitability, is an ugly, ugly metaphor for American higher education. It is a message of despair that sees only a ruinous future. And worse, it blinds us to new opportunities by encouraging us to look backwards, to stave off as long as possible our inescapable doom by fruitlessly trying to reclaim past glories.


So here is a better metaphor, courtesy of Dr. Wu, my wife’s former T'ai Chi instructor. Dr. Wu believed that the problem with Americans is that they want to be full moons throughout their lives. But being a full moon forever is not the natural order of things. The history of civilizations and of all social and biological organisms shows that they rise, some achieve dominance, and then they all inevitably decline. Learning to decline gracefully and intelligently, to accept reality without railing pointlessly against the inevitable, and to not waste one’s precious energy lamenting for a past that will not return, in Dr. Wu’s opinion, is the mark of maturity.


The full moon of American higher education is setting and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. The golden age is not coming back because it can no longer be afforded. Each passing year the irresistible forces of global competition, pressing social needs, and widening economic inequality grow stronger, and in the coming decades there is virtually no possibility that they will weaken.


A setting moon means that our future will be different in many ways and that the adjustment will be difficult. But just as an aging star quarterback can go on to find fulfillment in other arenas, so can we. The key is to accept the reality of those opportunities that have been closed off and to go on to exploit the new ones the future holds out.


The setting moon of American higher education will be dominated by economics. Declining revenues from state and federal governments, combined with intense pressure to rein in tuition increases mean most colleges and universities will get along with less money. For public universities especially, tenure track appointments will continue to dwindle. Class sizes will grow and more students will require remedial education. Research opportunities for professors will contract, and there will be even greater emphasis on controlling costs and becoming more efficient and productive.


This all sounds pretty grim, so what about the opportunities? Like any period of transition, the era of the setting moon will spawn winners and losers because the future is not preordained. The winners will be those schools that learn to compete and be self-sufficient. The winners will reassess their core mission by focusing on their strengths and ridding themselves of weak and inessential programs. They will deliver their services more efficiently than others while learning to accommodate the needs of a changing student body. They will do away with costly peripheral ventures, eliminate wasteful administrative practices, and find an acceptable balance between the oppositional forces of administrative efficiency and shared governance.


Responding to the challenges of this daunting future will require sacrifice and enlightened leadership. But the full moon is setting, as it always does and always has. What is is, and it behooves all of us, therefore, to put aside our differences, to stop yearning for what is no longer possible and to face the future realistically and imaginatively.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shared Governance: Sacred Value or Sacred Cow?

Today’s Quiz: What do the Culinary Institute of America, Oral Roberts University, Harvard University, and Gallaudet University have in common? Answer: In the past five years, their presidents have each received faculty “no confidence” votes.

Membership in the “No Confidence” club is hardly exclusive. Oakland U., Idaho State, Sonoma State, Kutztown U., Kean U., Urbana U., New Mexico State, Plattsburgh State, Northeastern Illinois U., St. Louis U., South Carolina State, and Texas A&M are recent members, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Googling “university no-confidence vote” yields nearly two million hits.)

So what are faculty members so upset about? There is a smorgasbord of complaints – lavish presidential spending, favoritism in hiring, too many administrative appointments, excessive construction (on sports facilities, mostly), and inappropriate relationships with subordinates. If true, such allegations reflect either poor presidential judgment or an abuse of the office, and as such merit careful scrutiny by trustees.

However, the complaint running through most no-confidence votes is that the targeted administrator is unwilling to share power. Often, this allegation is a response to a president’s or provost’s efforts to reorganize an academic unit, phase out a department, eliminate a lightly enrolled degree program, or push back against a faculty union. Such actions typically draw hostile criticism from faculty legislative bodies, as in this charge by a Texas A& M faculty senator: “Our president missed that part in kindergarten where they talked about sharing.”

Typically, those at the receiving end of no-confidence votes are described as authoritarian, arrogant, and contemptuous of shared governance. Their alleged aloof, high-handed, disrespectful and undemocratic behavior is seen as an ingrained “management style” that harms the institution by marginalizing its faculty. From the sheer number of such complaints, it seems that American universities and colleges must surely be headed by ruthless and uncaring despots.

And yet outside the campus gates one hears a very different voice. Colleges, say legislators and taxpayers, are too often headed by weak-kneed, buck-passing marshmallows who cannot rein in campus spending, curtail tuition increases, and respond to changing circumstances.

So which is it, marshmallow or despot? One way to resolve the paradox is to consider what faculty no-confidence votes do not allege. Here is a no-confidence petition I guarantee trustees will never see:

Be it resolved: We the undersigned members of the Faculty Senate no longer have confidence in the president’s ability to lead the university. Specifically, we find that the president:
  1. has not acted forcefully against incompetent teachers and scholars.
  2. has not merged or eliminated weak academic programs and departments.
  3. has failed to raise promotion and tenure standards.
  4. has appointed too many large committees and commissions.
  5. has not increased efficiency, sped up decision-making, and lowered costs.
My message is that shared governance doesn’t always work to make an institution better. John Lombardi, president of the Louisiana State University system has warned of the pitfalls awaiting leaders who seek broad consensus before acting. Only rarely, he says, will universities “make the considerable and often unpopular effort required to increase their standards to match those of excellent universities.”

The innate resistance to change is the Achilles heel of shared governance, and during hard times this weakness can morph into a ruinous paralysis. Shared governance ensures that many voices are heard but does not ensure closure, and to those whose ox stands to be gored, there is never enough consultation, never enough dialogue, never enough exploring of options.

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe in shared governance, and in most respects – particularly at the department level – it generally works well. The University of Michigan Faculty Handbook sums up the strengths:


Faculty participation in governance promotes and encourages diversity of ideas, a sense of shared responsibility, collaboration, collegiality and institutional excellence, and is essential to the well-being of the university.

But there is another side to the coin, mostly talked about behind closed doors in administrators’ offices (and which appears in no faculty handbook):

Faculty participation in governance promotes the rule of mediocrity, perpetuates the status quo, and leads to a wasteful use of time and resources that is detrimental to the well-being of the university.

Thus, like any form of government, shared governance has its pluses and minuses. As is often said about democracy, it may be superior only in comparison to the alternatives. But to the extent shared governance has become a sacred cow, immune from criticism, and a weapon wielded by those who oppose change, it can do great harm to an institution.

America’s colleges and universities are under unprecedented stress, with no easy solutions in sight. To survive this century’s harsh realities, they must find a balance point between administrative efficiency and the protection of core academic values. Doing so will require honest and open conversations about a governance mode that is increasingly dysfunctional.