No democratization of universities without self-government

In February 2015 long smoldering discontent with the administration of the University of Amsterdam erupted in the occupation of its administrative center, the Maagdenhuis.

This discontent has many sources:

  • Considerable cuts in the funding of education and research, partly due to the university’s real estate policy.
  • The position as temporarily employee without tenure prospects of most(!) members of the staff
  • The complicated and fragmented organization, which prevents staff and students having a say in major policy topics, as the relation between research and education.
  • The domination of the university’s policy by principles of efficiency and centralization, which is impairing smaller programs of study.
  • The loss of a feeling of ‘ownership’; staff and students no longer consider their university as a place for academic discourse and critical reflection
Onderwijs - Maagdenhuis bezetting 2015

Maagdenhuisbezetting 2015

The Maagdenhuis has been occupied before, nearly fifty years ago. At that time, staff and students revolted against the hegemonic power of the professors. Then, within two years, parliament ratified a new law, which created councils at university and faculty level. In these councils staff and students had substantial influence. This structure eroded when the harsh political climate in the eighties drove university administrators in hearty embracement of New public management principles.

Fifty years ago, staff and students revolted against the hegemony of the professors; now managerialism is targeted. For many persons who are involved in the ongoing protests, the cure is the same: a significant extension of the legislative power of the councils at university and faculty level. Members of parliament – albeit in opposition’s seats – try to pave the path, as I sincerely hope with success. However it is not enough.

The new legislation in the seventies brought another novelty, the departmental structure. The department – often below faculty level – was meant to be a group of professors and other staff members who were responsible collectively for the education and the research within a certain field, for instance sociology.

Onderwijs - Maagdenhuis bezetting 1969

Maagdenhuisbezetting 1969

In a certain degree the departmental structure represented quite a number of principles of self-government. I guess that I never have seen my colleagues as happy as in those years. At the same time, many of them did not feel much affinity with the discussions in the academic councils[1].

In the nineties, responsibility for education and research was allocated to independent institutions, so called schools. Departments lost their formal power and became capacity groups who lend staff to directors of research and education, losing much of their formal influence. Apart from the brake-down of the relation between education and research, many staff members felt alienated, especially when the compensation in hours they received for their work got worse year after year.

What to do? Rehabilitation of the power of the university and faculty councils is one thing; rehabilitation and strengthening the autonomy of the departments – students included – is something else, which in my view earns priority.

Principles of self-government have been introduced successfully in quite a number of organizations. In the nineties I was involved in a rather successful process of implementation of self-government in my former university. It represents the best that I have accomplished ever professionally and many colleagues regained happiness in their work. There is no best way to implement self-government and all organizations, universities included – have to go through a process of redesign and deliberation.

It is of utmost importance that a university that enters the path of redesigning its governance starts at the bottom-end, probably the department level. The question how to redesign the higher levels (faculty and university) should be raised only after the agreement of a satisfactory solution at the bottom-level. In the end, the result probably is a significant decentralization of power and as a consequence a more light governance structure at faculty and university level.

Science fiction? You should read Laloux’ account of the implementation of self-government in 12 companies and institutions[2]. What nurses, employees of a construction company, teachers and consultants have accomplished, must be feasible in organizations like universities with so many smart people on board[3].

[1] Which was my thing in those days…….

[2] Many ideas about self-government come together in the highly praised best-seller of Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations. Nelson Parker 2014. This book is nominated as the best management book of the 21th century.

[3] The author of this blogpost is a member of the committee ‘Decentralization and democratization’ of the University of Amsterdam. This committee is installed to develop principles for a new governance structure of the university in close connection with the academic community.

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