The Evolution of Faculty Roles in Governance of Higher Education

reviewed by Rozana Carducci —

coverTitle: Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education
Author(s): William G. Bowen & Eugene M. Tobin
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691166420, Pages: 400,2015

The practice of shared governance is contested terrain in American higher education. Despite consensus that shared governance is a collaborative approach to decision-making characterized by the distribution of authority across various institutional actors (e.g., faculty, senior administrators, trustees), models and norms of effective shared governance remain elusive. Indeed higher education critics within and beyond the academy often identify the practice of shared decision-making as a major barrier to innovation and fiscal efficiency, two organizational qualities deemed essential for survival in today’s rapidly changing global knowledge economy.

In Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education, authors William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin offer their insider perspective on the promise and pitfalls of shared governance. They draw upon both historical analysis and their own extensive university leadership experience to explain why antiquated, yet omnipresent, governance structures and processes are ill-equipped to resolve contemporary higher education challenges. At the heart of Bowen and Tobin’s shared governance treatise is the assertion that since faculty are pivotal in advancing and/or thwarting institutional change efforts, higher education actors seeking to improve governance processes and institutional outcomes need to first understand the historical evolution of faculty roles in governance. Bowen and Tobin argue that this historical knowledge is key to successfully navigating and perhaps shifting the political, economic, social, and cultural factors that influence the exercise of authority in American higher education.

The structure of Locus of Authority is comprised of an informative preface, five chapters, and a lengthy appendix consisting of four institutional case studies. The narrative is engaging and fairly easy to digest thanks to Bowen and Tobin’s decision to use footnotes to cite sources and provide extended discussions of material readers may find interesting but that are not crucial to the main story. Readers looking to dive deeper into the historical sources and governance anecdotes will appreciate the accessibility and depth of the footnotes. Bowen and Tobin’s familiarity and focus on the governance roles of arts and science faculties in selective institutions are evident throughout the book. Individuals interested in learning about the history and practice of governance in more diverse institutions will need to consult other sources.

The Introduction provides a coherent overview of the book’s organizational framework and clearly articulates the authors’ focal argument—century-old shared governance norms are ill-equipped to tackle the complex problems confronting contemporary higher education. In support of this argument, Chapter One presents a historical overview of faculty governance from the establishment of the Harvard Corporation in 1650 through the World War II era. Chapter Three extends the historical analysis to the present day, supplementing the authors’ general historical overview with extended excerpts from four institutional case studies. It closes with a discussion of faculty governance tensions occurring within institutions seeking to engage in or expand online learning endeavors. Drawing upon analysis of successful and unsuccessful online education efforts, Bowen and Tobin seek to illustrate: (a) the need to respect institutional culture when launching major reform efforts, (b) faculty distaste for considerations of cost savings in educational decision making, and (c) the importance of a strong central administration in negotiating decisions concerning online education institutional strategy, instructional content, and intellectual property rights.

Together the historical overview chapters effectively distill and integrate important moments in the evolution of higher education governance, relying extensively on the analysis of highly regarded higher education historians such as John R. Thelin, Laurence R. Veysey, Frederick Rudolph, Jurgen Herbst, and Roger L. Geiger. The organization and content of Chapters Two and Three mirror the chronological historical frameworks adopted in most higher education history texts and illuminate key faculty governance issues (e.g., academic freedom). Occasionally the historical narrative loses focus or gives limited attention to key historical moments—for example, the governance implications embedded in the Affirmative Action and Title IX efforts of the 1960s and 1970s. While Bowen and Tobin’s historical analysis is not highly original, they effectively synthesize historical scholarship on the evolution of faculty decision-making authority into one volume, a project of value to higher education governance scholars and institutional actors (e.g., trustees, academic senate members, etc.) interested in understanding the history behind contemporary governance practices. Case study vignettes interwoven throughout Chapters Two and Three add depth to the sweeping historical narrative and underscore the importance of local context in shaping governance processes and structures.

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