Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is This What Shared Governance Looks Like?

For decades, the price of higher education has been rising at colleges and universities nationwide, and relatively few students and families have done so much as sniff.  While occasional concerns about affordability have been expressed, that message has been quite soft when compared to the loud statement uttered by the millions who walk onto college campuses every year, despite rising tuition and fees.  In other words, actions speak louder than words.  Colleges and universities are able to say: if we are truly charging more than you want to pay, why do you keep buying it?

Times are changing, as some students are informing themselves about why college costs so much-- and where the money is actually spent.  Some are aware that part of the costs are offloaded onto students in the form of student fees, fees which in many places students have no choice but to pay, and have no control over.

UW-Madison is a bit unusual-- it has segregated fees, but it also has a renowned shared governance structure which gives students strong input into how those fees are spent.  This is a model that has helped shape the character of the institution and is among its finest attributes.

Unfortunately, a challenge to shared governance may be upon us.  Recently, the Student Services Finances Committee of the Associated Students of Madison voted to reject a request to increase spending of the Wisconsin Union and Recreational Sports.  Before approving the request, the SSFC wanted more information about how those funds would be spent.  In other words, students demanded transparency and accountability, beyond the high-level look at spending they are typically provided.  Absent that information, they declined the request.

On Tuesday, Interim Chancellor David Ward, a chancellor who has been demonstrably sensitive to issues of affordability and the cost-effective use of resources, overruled that veto.  I admit, I have not spoken to Ward to ascertain his reasons. But whether I would agree or disagree with his reasons are beside the point, which is fundamentally about process.  Shared governance leans heavily on adherence to process -- it is time-consuming but is essentially what the concept is all about. And according to the written process, Ward was to consult with SSFC before overruling their decision -- according to both Sarah Neibart (head of SSFC) and Allie Gardner (head of ASM) he did not.

Given a climate in which faculty, staff, and students have good reason to be concerned about allocation of scarce resources (since every day many of us observe it being allocated in inequitable and ineffective ways), and given the generally low morale due to stagnant and declining compensation, it is more important than ever to preserve the aspects of this university which make it special to its constituents. Shared governance is exactly that. Strong protection of shared governance is an inexpensive way to keeping the University's laborers integrated, involved, and effective. It is essential.

A positive result of this action would be a renewed discussion about the types of reporting that students, faculty, and staff can expect to receive from the administration regarding the allocation of monies generated from tuition and fees. Rigorous assessment of the impacts (the delta) resulting from spending (not the outcomes), can help move this institution through hard times-- and we should all be supportive of that.