The Unintended Consequences of Ending Shared Governance

September 7, 2013 | Blog

As I wrote in my last post, efficiency-minded legislators are raising questions about the role faculty play in decision-making on campuses across the University of Wisconsin System, and whether shared governance represents an expensive and wasteful practice.

I understand where these folks are coming from. Involving more people in decision-making is costly, in terms of time in particular.   But attending only to those costs without considering the benefits is short-sighted and will generate unintended consequences.  This is because economic evidence indicates that the costly process of shared governance generates cost-savings as well.  It seems that without the cost-savings generated by shared governance, college would be even more expensive for Wisconsin families.

Professor emeritus Robert Martin of Centre College explains this counter-intuitive process in a set of papers written over the last 15 years, and most recently summarizes his conclusions in a paper written for the American Enterprise Institute, titled “Higher education governance: a barrier to cost containment.” That paper examines the hypothesis that former student Regent and current Representative Robin Vos expressed at the recent Regents meeting: that “facets of the governance structure push higher education toward higher costs, minimal transparency about outcomes, and a low level of quality control.”

Martin finds that Vos is right in one sense– the governance structure matters for college costs.  But his evidence points to the opposite conclusion that Vos and his colleagues reached– the answer is increasing the faculty role in governance, not decreasing it. He describes this finding using clear and accessible prose in a piece authored for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “College costs too much because faculty lack power.”  In it, he explains that “it is not the “shared” part of “shared governance” that has failed; quite the opposite. The fault lies in the withering away of the shared part. Reason and data alike suggest that the largest part of the problem is that it is administrators and members of governing boards who have too much influence over how resources are used.”

In a recent email to me, Martin provided an analysis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the trends mirror those described in his national work. In his words,

 I attach a Word file that contains a summary statistical table for University of Wisconsin-Madison (see below) that corresponds to Table 1 in my SSRN article with Carter Hill on “Measuring Baumol and Bowen Effects in Public Research Universities.” There are several things to note. 

1) The dramatic increase in reported spending for instruction, research, and public service after 2008 [which supposedly] came out of overhead and into academics. See my SSRN article on “management” of financial reporting in higher education — that article will be published this month in Challenge. [Note to readers: this paper concludes that while this apparent resource reallocation might be legitimate, they may also be indicative of a new “management” of financial reporting that simply reclassifies expenses, as frequently done by corporations.]

2) If you look at the pre- and post-2008 staffing patterns for academics versus administrative staffing you will see reductions in academic staffing and increases in administrative staffing after 2008. So, it is hard to explain where the supposed increases in academic spending and reductions in overhead spending could have come from.

3) Throughout the 1987 to 2008 period the university economized on the use of tenure track faculty while rapidly expanding the number of nonacademic professional employees.  If tenure track faculty are the primary cause of higher cost, it is clear they are not very good at looking after their own interest.  Clearly, tenure track faculty would want more of their own and fewer contract and part time faculty and would not prefer more administrative staff.


While I appreciate Robin Vos’s attention to college costs, on behalf of Wisconsin families I do hope he will take this information into account when deciding how to work on lowering them.  Relying on instinct rather than evidence could have disastrous consequences for the state’s future workforce.


  1. Reply


    September 16, 2013

    Well I want Mr. Martin's article to be true but I can't help but note it has serious logical errors. Such as:
    "A popular hypothesis is intransigent tenure-track faculty prevent costs from being minimized by cost conscious administrators. If this is the case, the shared governance metric (the ratio of tenure-track faculty to full-time professional administrators) should be positively correlated with cost. However, the ratio is significant and negatively correlated, which suggests the cost problem is primarily due to overspending by administrators." There is no basis to say that the influence of the faculty is a function of their number. That's nonsense. If it was all about number the more numerous academic staff would be calling the shots but they certainly aren't. A factor that seems to have a lot to do with the mystique of the faculty is how much grant money they bring in and how much world-wide prestige they have. The institution cares deeply about "star faculty", people with buckets of patents, who are on every board, reviewing grant applications, reviewing articles, people who are clear leaders in their field. Just one of these super-stars has a huge amount of influence. It's not about numbers, it's about access to money and influence.
    Further, there seems to be some kind of assumption in the paper that the faculty would if they could increase the number of tenured faculty. They don't do that. Possibly because they don't want more hands in the till. Instead they want to hire the lowest paid people or students to do the work that they don't want to do, leaving the most high status duties to tenured faculty. There is so much concern about not having the money to support tenured faculty in the future, that the faculty don't want to hire more tenured faculty. And the ones they hire are required to in many cases to mostly fund themselves with grant money. As grant money gets harder and harder to come by the number of faculty will decrease further. If they really had control over the system I highly doubt they would have this system. They aren't in charge of it.

  2. Reply


    September 25, 2013

    I have to reply to the following statement by the previous commenter:

    "Further, there seems to be some kind of assumption in the paper that the faculty would if they could increase the number of tenured faculty. They don't do that. Possibly because they don't want more hands in the till. Instead they want to hire the lowest paid people or students to do the work that they don't want to do, leaving the most high status duties to tenured faculty."

    I can't speak for faculty everywhere, of course, but I can say that the above conjectures don't ring true at all for me and my department - quite the contrary. As we see it, our department has an increasingly desperate shortage of tenure-track faculty. I and all of my colleagues want to return to the number of faculty we had 15 years ago, which was 50% higher than it is now. Yes, teaching can theoretically be covered by lower-cost lecturers, but that's not what we want. Rather, we want full-fledged, loyal colleagues who not only teach but who can be counted on to share the load of doing the important governance work of any active department, who recruit and mentor the graduate students who populate (and thereby justify) our advanced courses, who have a deep personal stake in the long-term future of the department, and who will still be the recognizable face of the department in 10 or 20 years when we reach out to our alumni for their support.

    Far from worrying about how many hands are in the till, we're deeply concerned that our school is asking us to cannibalize vacant faculty lines to finance pay raises for those who remain. That's an unsustainable model, akin to eating one's seed corn. We realize that a critical mass of teaching and research-active faculty is essential for a vibrant undergraduate and graduate program and that, without those things, there is little reason to take much pleasure in even being a tenured professor.

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

© 2013 The EduOptimists. All Rights Reserved.