The limits of North American forms of university governance - From University World News 

The latest round of international rankings of universities have been announced and they are now subject to the close scrutiny of academic leaders and national government officials. Much is at stake for both groups since conventional wisdom holds that these rankings speak to the strength and wellbeing of institutions and also reflect similar aspects of the nations themselves.

As a result, governments increasingly focus on the quality of their universities, the degree of access they provide, research and the production of new knowledge and its applications, and the extent to which graduates’ knowledge and skills are aligned with workforce needs and aspirations.  

Many have ambitions for their universities to achieve international excellence within the near future.  

But as Professor Jandhyala BG Tilak cautioned in his 19 August commentary in University World News, there are risks involved in trying to “fast track to international excellence”, particularly with respect to granting universities more autonomy, as is sought in India with the passage of the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill 2012.  

Those risks are compounded if the forms of institutional governance are ill suited to the culture and circumstances of a society and its universities.

Policy-makers and researchers alike promote greater institutional autonomy as an (but not the only) essential means for universities’ attainment of critical ends, contending that autonomy affords the institutions:  

• More flexibility and agility to respond to needs and opportunities.  

• Greater latitude in selecting areas of scholarship, research and experimentation.  

• More authority and freedom to generate monies through student tuition and fees, licensing revenues and other commercial activities.  

The North American model  

American and Canadian universities are often singled out as potential models of governance for other nations’ institutions.  

Both enjoy a fuller measure of institutional autonomy than virtually any other countries’ universities. Both are seen as producing research of integrity. Both are well represented in the various international rankings.  

Not surprisingly, therefore, some governments and their universities look to North American forms of governance as models by which to gain and manage autonomy.  

But however compelling the relationship appears, the connection between autonomy and institutional performance is not straightforward and the form of governance plays an important role.  

American and Canadian experiences are similar to one another in some important respects. The two countries share strong ties as former British colonies, lack a national ministry of education and delegate virtually all authority for education to state or provincial governments.

These similarities also serve to distinguish the two countries’ systems of tertiary education from most of the rest of the world’s nations. In particular, the practice of vesting formal authority of a university in a governing board composed primarily of ‘lay’ people is quite distinctive.  

Moreover, by delegating authority to several sub-national jurisdictions, variation – and, sometimes, substantial variation – in forms of governance are almost inevitable and, in some cases, desired as expressions of local preferences.  

At the same time, variations in the forms of university governance frequently defuse actual authority among the various stakeholders and institutional interaction among those stakeholders.

This is especially the case for North American universities since authority is, to a degree, shared among stakeholders such that faculty typically retain some measure of decision-making over curricula and scholarship-research, while administration is delegated to the university’s president or vice-chancellor.  

‘Organised anarchies’  

The result of this form of governance long ago earned US research universities the description of ‘organised anarchies’; places where many inhabitants choose what they attend to and thus may choose to ignore corporate direction and strategy in favour of subjects of greater individual interest.  

Indeed, in a manner of speaking it is precisely this matter of choice and discretion, this academic freedom, that is one of the more powerful results of increased institutional autonomy.  

It may establish conditions in which new knowledge and invention flourish. Whether in the aggregate, the various and sundry choices made by faculty and students align more closely with societal needs is less certain.  

For that matter, greater institutional autonomy can make the process by which a university responds to or anticipates needs and opportunities in the broader world more problematic. Given that many of the key inhabitants can choose what they attend to, leadership often consists of the proverbial herding of cats even before a collective effort can be mobilised to address needs and opportunities.  

Most countries’ universities are only beginning to exercise much in the way of institutional autonomy. National ministries authorised to administer tertiary education are loath to give up their authority and not necessarily out of bureaucratic self-interest.  

For example, even a casual observer of American and to somewhat less of an extent Canadian universities cannot help but be concerned at the rising costs to students or the seemingly insatiable needs of universities for ever more financial support.  

Moreover, failures of lay governance in the US are frequent and serious enough to create doubts about the efficacy of that nation’s form of governance for universities granted greater autonomy.

Observers may see in the flexibility and the agility of more autonomous universities a lack of focus and seriousness of purpose, affection for fads and an inability or unwillingness on the part of universities to take on major issues confronting a nation.  

It may seem that more autonomous universities are less led than coaxed by those entrusted with the responsibility to lead. And no one may seem accountable, even for something so basic as whether an undergraduate education has, in fact, changed the student in the ways promised.  

Take care when importing models  

Whatever the merits of such claims, their allegations ought to encourage a very careful look at the forms of governance that serve as candidates to replace direct government administration of tertiary education.  

Transporting McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s to different cultures and nations inevitably entails some sensitivity and adaptation to cultures other than a firm’s own. The same holds for exporting or importing a form of tertiary education governance that evolved out of historical experiences and environs quite different from those of other countries.  

Tilak noted and we concur that “apart from the fact that [new Indian ‘innovation universities’] will be fully autonomous, there is no clear indication of how these universities will become world-class universities of exceptional quality in terms of research and innovation”.  

He concludes: “One of the most important features of the bill is complete autonomy or unbridled freedom, which may be very dangerous in our society…it needs to be autonomy with accountability.”  

Ironically, American and Canadian universities continue to struggle to find sufficient measures of accountability to balance the autonomy that is theirs.  

The particular forms of governance fashioned for American and Canadian universities have their merits and it could be the case that greater institutional autonomy can, in time and by careful design and modification, contribute to improved institutional performance in places other than the US and Canada.

At the same time, caution and circumspection are very much needed in the adoption of one country’s form for governing more autonomous tertiary education institutions to another country.

American and Canadian universities – however high the rankings of some – themselves still wrestle to make their forms of governance work effectively. It may well be the case that those forms suffer the defects of their qualities and possess the quality of their effects when grafted on to another culture.

In either case, those forms do have limits.  

* Emily R Miller is a staff member of an American higher education membership association. Richard A Skinner is senior consultant to the executive recruitment firm of Harris Search Associates in the US.


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