Academic Freedom, Shared Governance, and HR Policies

January 28, 2016

A core feature of effective academic freedom is devolution: The most academic control should be at the most local level. Thus, individual instructors and researchers are free to chart their own teaching and research. Evaluation is primarily done by those most expert and experienced in an area (i.e., peers), thus promotion or censure should be managed at a very local level. Similarly, organisational decision (e.g., who chairs the department/is head of school) should be a bottom up decision in the normal order. Similarly for hires. Similarly for program structure.

This isn’t to say that there are no reasonable external constraints or default constraints. It’s perfectly reasonable for the university to set the academic calendar, general exam requirements, etc. There should be substantial input from lower levels, but there is value in uniformity in some areas. These areas of uniformity should be very carefully delineated and managed. They are a regrettable necessity, not something to be sought after.

In particularly, we must be very careful about seeking “efficiency”. Efficiency is laudable in a lot of cases. But efficiency from a central perspective can impose costs on and inefficiencies at a local level and the local level is key.

For example, Manchester Computer Science used to have its own Research Office funded and staffed by us. It was relatively large as we generally have a lot of research funding. Everyone liked it because 1) it was very good with great people and 2) it in our building in a central place so you could just pop in if you had a question or issue.

Several years back the next unit up (“Faculty”) decided to reorganise all research offices and share them between Schools. So roughly every two schools gets one research office. We share ours with Math (which is not a horrible fit intellectually) but they got the office in their building. Which isn’t far, but I’ve never been to their office.

So, are there efficiencies? Maybe? I don’t see the bottom line so I don’t know. They added funding so they weren’t trying to save money, but they claimed they wanted better coverage, etc. But I don’t feel that things at that level have gotten better. We got a wonderful local research support officer, but she’s the only one I have any contact with. Things that used to be handled in a minute now can take days and I won’t know why. I’m more alienated from the process in general. Most people I talk with miss the old arrangement (though we’d like to keep the support officer).

This was a decision that was thrust upon us, against our expressed wishes. That alone is a cost. The distancing and alienation is another cost. The efficiencies of propinquity are also lost.

Autonomy and independence are things that require nurturing and a suitable environment to thrive in. Stripping people of decision making power tends to blunt that. People get less used to making decisions or withdraw from various collective activities or both. This degrades a university.

Of course, control, autonomy, and freedom can be abused in all sorts of ways major and minor. I don’t think a school should be free to discriminate on the bases of sex, race, etc. Students need rights that are enforceable against local units. Cronyism is the flip side of collegiality. The tyranny of PhD supervisors and research lab leaders should not be unchecked.

But a university functions best as a confederation not a corporation. Just as we local units should recognise the dangers of unchecked local control, so too the centre should be careful not to degrade and destroy local autonomy unnecessarily. The head of a school should be primarily answerable to the school. To do that, they must be selected by the school. The centre can ratify, but that ratification should be very light touch.

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