The power at most universities, then, lies in veto power, not implementation power. And the protests at Gallaudet (and, earlier, at Harvard, when Larry Summers was president) were veto-power protests. Those who were responsible for Dr. Fernandes’s pre-presidential rejection have no direct responsibility for finding her successor. If the next presidential search fails because of the protests, none of the protesters will lose his job, or be demoted, or have to run a university in the interim.
The reason that the “real world” doesn’t understand university governance is that the “real world” has (for better or worse) repercussions for actions. The workers are more likely to feel immediate repercussions, with management’s repercussions coming later, if at all, but that subject is for another day and another blog.
Imagine a company run entirely by its workers—not by representatives of the workers, but by all of the workers themselves. Imagine that, in this company, committees study each issue, make recommendations, present those recommendations to the workers as a whole, and (sometimes) watch their recommendations fail because a few of the workers don’t trust the committee’s work or just choose to go in a different direction. Maybe some of those who are unhappy will ask the company’s customers or vendors to weigh in on some issues.
In such a company, every decision of the company’s management is fodder for criticism, both by those who have some understanding of the complex issues underlying the decision and by those who don’t. Some of those criticisms will be fair and wise (after all, humans make mistakes), and some won’t. And even if the criticisms of decisions are unfair, and public, and highly disruptive, the governance of that company assures that no one can lose his job for speaking out. Sounds a bit like power without responsibility, doesn’t it?
When the faculty and administration of a university “play fair,” respecting each other’s knowledge and understanding that all hard issues have at least two sides, then the practice of shared governance can come close to the theory underlying it. The good will and honest intentions of the faculty and administration should result in better decision-making. But when one side demonizes the other—or worse yet, when the faculty or administration drags students, alumni, or outsiders into the fray—then shared governance collapses, and no one wins.
What now, Gallaudet? You have a much larger problem at hand than choosing a next president. Now you have to decide how your community will handle the discussion of controversial decisions in the future. Silence the critics, and you lose the spirit of free inquiry that is the indispensable soul of higher education. The critics undoubtedly had good points to make about the presidential hiring process. But the preemptory protest got out of hand by preventing Dr. Fernandes from being able to learn or grow into her new role as president. By tolerating such tactics, Gallaudet, what are you teaching your current and future students about how educated people should behave?