Widgets Magazine


The GAO Report: Shared Governance Sham at Stanford

At the Faculty Senate’s Feb. 4 meeting last Thursday, Provost John Etchemendy announced the appointment of an 18-member task force to pursue a comprehensive review of Stanford’s undergraduate education. The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) has the potential to fundamentally transform the intellectual experience at the Farm.

SUES seeks to re-examine and possibly redefine Stanford’s educational mission, and provide recommendations regarding core academic components like IHUM, PWR, Introductory Seminars, and GERs. Underlying the charge for the commission announced by co-authors Etchemendy and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education John Bravman is the need to best prepare students for active citizenship in a world of “growing social, political, economic and ecological interconnectedness.”

The task force is composed of twelve faculty members from various disciplines, four administrators and two students. Wait. Was there a public and widely advertised application inviting undergraduates to serve on this taskforce?

So, who selected them? Why were they selected? What are their qualifications? These questions do not center on the effectiveness of the student representatives, but rather concerns the undemocratic and opaque process involved in their appointment. Normally, the student-run ASSU Nominations Commission is called upon to select students for committees through an application and interview process.  It would appear that such a democratic method was bypassed here.

Requiring student representation on university committees is founded upon the concept of shared governance at institutions of higher education. Shared governance provides different stakeholders a way to have their voice heard in the decision–making process yet achieves a balance between maximizing participation and ensuring accountability of the final outcome.

This concept of liberalizing governance emerged in the 1960s. It was affirmed in a document entitled, “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities,” issued by the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

It is understandable that not all constituencies should be given an equal say in every aspect of university policymaking. For example, professors with expertise in their fields are certainly more authoritative sources at determining major requirements. However, by paying $50,000 a year each in their university bill, students have earned a right in shaping issues related to academic and campus life on the Farm.  The student voice cannot be discounted. More importantly, transparency in selecting the student representation is crucial.

Passion for an issue does not singularly warrant a place on committees that address important matters in academic and campus life. A peer-to-peer selection process is critical to selecting students who are interested in the issues and are capable of offering dissenting opinions in an often-intimidating setting consisting of senior faculty and university staff. This quality is inevitably jeopardized in situations where administrators are responsible for selecting the student representatives.

Admittedly, the task force on Undergraduate Education is at an early stage. No doubt, it will be presented as a highly “inclusive” and “collaborative” process. Over the next year or so, a series of town halls, open forums, surveys and issue-driven “working groups” will manifest. These activities will imbue the findings legitimacy, justify their implementation, and provide the ammunition to crush potential discontent. This pattern of decision-making happens at almost every organization — small and large — in the world.

I guess I should not be so shocked. Two years ago as a freshman, a tenured faculty member and veteran of “university service” and academic politics responded to my wide-eyed enthusiasm about propelling change with an amused glance of pity. As an Undergraduate Senator, I read enlightening reflections by student representatives on university committees lamenting their powerlessness. In fact, some found the most useful part of their experience was studying the techniques used by Committee Chairs to control the agenda, and adroitly steer discussion towards predetermined outcomes.

Perhaps the root of the problem does not lie with the institution. Indeed, why change when you can get away with the status quo? The real cause may lie with a largely apathetic and disengaged student body. Exerting an influence in university policymaking does not appear high in the priority list for already over-committed students. However, it is imperative to recognize that we are important stakeholders at this University and we should demand more to shape our Stanford education and that of future generations of Stanford students.

Shelley Gao ’11 writes weekly on University policies and campus issues. Perhaps some things will never change. Disagree? Contact Shelley: sxgao@stanford.edu.