I guarantee you that I can disturb and alarm any businessperson just by explaining to them how a university works. It’s foreign territory for them, a place they don’t want to go when they hear about it. The object of their disdain is the concept of shared governance.
A business is run with a clear line of authority, with a CEO in charge of decision-making. In a university, culture and tradition grant the teaching faculty a special position within the hierarchy, presumably because their output – the teaching of knowledge – is the reason the university exists. Shared governance gives professors the right to have a say in how things run at the institution. The mechanism is the University Senate, to which the president submits things for approval.
When I first joined Western I noticed that when someone mentioned that a proposal would have to be considered by the University Senate, groans and the rolling of eyes inevitably followed. That’s because, I soon learned, the University Senate is much like the U.S. Senate. Ideas go there to get talked to death. It makes it difficult to move with alacrity or respond to business trends.
This is the set-up at a university, however, and to make it work, the administrative leaders must concede some of their authority in a way that business people have difficulty comprehending.
Western’s current president, James W. Schmotter, is retiring this summer, which has given some of us the impetus to critique his performance over the past 11 years. One thing he has done well is work with faculty. He understands the framework in which we accomplish our goals. He goes before the Senate to explain what he wants and why it would benefit the university. He asks the body to approve. Although there were a few times that his requests were sent to committee for further discussion, he has always gotten what he wanted.
Working against the faculty and their power – which is guarded jealously by them and exercised when not acknowledged — is the downfall of many a university administrator, no matter how reasonable they might consider their arguments to be.
The point is this: It’s important to understand your audience and figure out how to build a relationship with them. That is how you get what you want.