Can a University be Democratic?

Today I thought I’d pick up on a topic I mentioned in last week’s post about Simon Fanshawe, about University governance.

The Royal Charter which formed the University of Sussex way back in 1961 includes the following clauses:

1.         By this Charter there shall be constituted and founded a University by the name of ‘The University of Sussex’ (‘the University’).

2.         In this Charter: ‘Council’ means the Council of the University; ‘Regulations’ except when otherwise required by the context, means Regulations made pursuant to this Charter or the Statutes. ‘Statutes’ means the Statutes of the University set out in the Schedule.

3.         The objects of the University shall be to advance learning and knowledge by teaching and research to the benefit of the wider community.

7.         There shall be a Council of the University which shall be the governing body of the University and shall have the custody and use of the Common Seal and shall be responsible for the revenue and property of the University, its conduct and activities, and shall exercise all the University’s powers.

8          There shall be a Senate of the University which shall, subject to the general control and approval of the Council, be responsible for academic standards and the direction and regulation of academic matters.

9.         There shall be a Students’ Union of the University.

This makes it quite clear that  the Senate (on which I happen to sit) is specifically meant to focus on academic matters; see below for a comment on this.  The role of the Student’s Union is not specified at all in this document, although it should be said that there are student members of Senate and Council too.

The reason for including this in a blog post is that it demonstrates an organization formed in this way has to strike a difficult balance between, on the one hand, listening to staff and students when it comes to forming policy and, on the other, having an efficient and effective executive that can implement those policies. There are about 16,000 people working and studying at the University of Sussex (c. 13,000 students and c. 3,000 staff), most of whom are highly intelligent and independent-minded so there’s bound to be a divergence of opinion on almost any topic under discussion. Even if it were possible for everyone to get involved in the University’s governance, it’s inevitable that decisions will be made that run counter to some of the input.

Difficult balances that have to be struck in the governance of any organization, whether religious, administrative, commercial or educational. The Council of the University of Sussex is its supreme governing body and everyone who works here is in some way accountable to it. In turn, Council is accountable to its “stakeholders”, not just funding authorities and students, but the wider world; its Charter states that

The objects of the University shall be to advance learning and knowledge by teaching and research to the benefit of the wider community.

In a nutshell, a University is not a democracy. It can’t be, not unless “democracy” is defined in a very limited way. A university can employ some democratic structures, and may (for many reasons) desire to include as many people as possible in its governance, but in the end this is limited by the need for effective and efficient management. We can – and do – debate where this balance should lie, but anyone who has ever worked in a University will agree that if it were allowed to be run “democratically” by some of academic collective then the result would be a complete shambles. Democracy has to be balanced by the rule of law.

Similar issues apply further down the pecking order. Since I took over as Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here earlier this year, I have had a wide range of responsibilities for the School, including its finances, academic matters, and even health and safety. I’m not an autocrat, so I try to do things as democratically as possible within the constraints I have to work, but this democracy is necessarily limited. I like to keep staff informed about and involved in decisions, but I sometimes have to make decisions without any consultation at all. This can be because such a quick decision is required that there is no time to consult widely, or because there is some issue to do with confidentiality which means that it can’t be discussed in an open forum (including, e.g., email). More often, though, it is just because they pay me to be Head of School and its my job to take responsibility so staff working in the School can get on with what they are supposed to do without being inundated with requests for input from me on trivial things.

On the other hand there are things in  MPS that are extremely  democratic compared with other places I’ve worked. We have a  Joint Committee which gives students direct input into various aspects of School life. In particular, the School has ceded part of its building to form Student Spaces and given students a budget to manage them (i.e. choose furniture, equipment, etc). These are extremely popular and no doubt contribute a great deal to our healthy position in the National Student Satisfaction (NSS) Survey. I think it’s great to have students involved in this way, but we have to remember that students are not the only stakeholders in a University; we also have obligations to other bodies whose requirements may run counter to the wishes of the student body.

Anyway, these ramblings are given a bit of topicality by an item in the Times Higher recently about two student representatives on the University of Sussex Senate who resigned in protest against alleged lack of consultation by the University management. I was at the Senate meeting when they resigned, as well as the previous one where there was a lengthy discussion at which they and others were given an extremely good hearing despite the fact that the matter concerned was not to do with academic so wasn’t strictly speaking in the remit of Senate anyway.

Eventually Senate voted and the two students concerned were on the losing side. I’m sad that they subsequently decided to resign from Senate, although to be absolutely factual both were due to be replaced next academic year anyway so it was a pretty empty gesture.

The point is that democracy isn’t just about being given the chance to express your own views. It’s also about acknowledging that others might feel very differently and accepting the decision when it turns out that you lost the argument.

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3 Responses to “Can a University be Democratic?”

  1. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here. You start off by saying that universities can’t be democratic, and then conclude with something that seems to be a description of how democracy works, with that seen as a positive.

    As to your initial point, I would point out that if Oxford wasn’t governed democratically by all it’s academics, then Thatcher would have got an honorary degree from them, and if the same was not true of UCL then it and Imperial would have merged about 10 years ago. Some universities do work as democracies of academcs. They tend to be the older ones, and I would posit that these institutions are the ones doing best at holding back the malign influence of mamgerialism.

    • telescoper Says:

      My point is as written:

      “In a nutshell, a University is not a democracy. It can’t be, not unless “democracy” is defined in a very limited way. A university can employ some democratic structures, and may (for many reasons) desire to include as many people as possible in its governance, but in the end this is limited by the need for effective and efficient management.”

      The examples you quote illustrate some ways in which some universities allow some democracy. But even these are extremely limited.

  2. […] “Today I thought I’d pick up on a topic I mentioned in last week’s post about Simon Fanshawe, about University governance …” (more) […]

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