College News

At Madison, tradition of shared governance overshadows state changes

The Red Gym will house two new cultural student centers this fall. 

Image By: Morgan-Winston-Cardinal File Photo

In August of last year, the UW System Board of Regents approved the usage of UW-Madison’s Red Gym as an Amazon package pickup zone without consultation from student or faculty groups.

Representatives from the Associated Students of Madison felt blindsided.

“It’s unacceptable that administration disregarded student voice in making its decision,” said Sally Rohrer, chairwoman of the Legislative Affairs Committee, in a press release. “Students have the right to be included in the process of determining changes on campus that affect us.”

ASM emphasized in their proposed legislation to administrators that they should reject the deal because the pickup zone would intrude on space reserved for student organizations that already exist in the Red Gym. Additionally, some of those organizations, like the Black Student Union, work primarily to serve underrepresented students on campus. After more than a month of debate, the university announced in late September that it would look for a different pickup location.

However, the lack of consultation with students prior to the board’s approval raised concerns. Since two state university systems merged in 1971, students, faculty, staff and administrators have had, by state law, a say in certain decisions affecting the UW system's 26 campuses. That law saw its first major revision in May of 2015.

As a part of his 2015-’17 budget, Gov. Scott Walker edited the language in state statute outlining the responsibilities of the UW System. In essence, the role of students, faculty and staff shifted from that of policy developers to policy advisors, a move that left many in fear over the true weight of their voice.

In a June 2015 article by “Inside Higher Ed,”  state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, said the change would allow universities within the UW System to better deal with the budget cuts they received simultaneously.

More than a year later, it is still uncertain how that change will affect governance on campuses across the state, if at all. UW-Madison currently has dozens of committees used to evaluate and propose policy related to campus programs like WSUM student radio, End Violence on Campus and IT services. Steve Smith, secretary of the faculty at UW-Madison, says in practice, the role of the different bodies has always been truly advisory.

“The process when it works, which it does most of the time, is that administration consults with faculty and staff and students on a wide variety of issues and takes their advice and recommendations into account when making any sorts of decisions,” said Smith.

Noel Radomski, associate researcher and managing director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, says that education policies are changing all across the world, some more restrictive than others.

“As it relates to UW-Madison in particular, the question is how are the students, academic staff, faculty and the university staff, going to move forward because [on] this campus, shared governance is expressed through campus committees,” said Radomski.

Even with the changes in state law, Radomski feels that unless there is noticeable change at the committee level, student governance won’t be severely impacted.

Moreover, senior Omer Arain, shared governance chair of ASM emphasized that collaborative decision-making implements a similar checks and balances style of democracy seen in the federal government.

“I think it’s a proper vetting process,” said Arain.

However, when the process isn’t followed, the administration can hit roadblocks, as was seen with the controversy surrounding the Amazon pickup zone.

“The reason, I think most people agree, that that ran into problems was there was a lack of consulting,” said Smith. “There have been these instances where our tradition of shared governance hasn’t been followed.”

Even though strong shared governance has existed on campus for years, Smith believes the change in state law was a deliberate decision to make state universities operate more like businesses. In short, that means that state officials and regents are pushing to allow university executives to have more power to make decisions more quickly.

“You know, universities don’t really operate that way,” said Smith. “We really are about educating people and long-term research and development of the state and all those kinds of things that don’t really lend themselves to the same kind of model that a giant corporation would.”

Arain feels that while shared governance may impact the efficiency of decision-making, a more autocratic approach would have a worse impact.

“If you were to have a more top-down approach, then if you run into issues, it’s going to be a longer process to actually resolve [those] issues because there aren’t those infrastructures already in place,” said Arain.

Smith agreed, citing the Amazon pickup zone as an example.

“It can slow things down, but I think the trade off of better outcomes is well worth that.”

Radomski believes that decision-making with shared governance groups becomes less valuable when discussing macro budgetary decisions.

“How can individual faculty, or individual department chairs understand what the hell is going on as it relates to $900 million in federal research money,” said Radomski, citing other channels of funding as well. “That is an example where you try to have governance in that? No, but there’s consultation.”

Moving forward, Smith says because of Madison’s history of shared governance, the system as a whole remains stable.

Ruth Litovsky, a professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, attended a conference last September hosted by the Big 10 Academic Alliance in which shared governance was discussed and said UW-Madison still has one of the stronger shared governance processes out of the other Big Ten schools.

“Here, when the administration makes decisions, they often work with and consult and meet regularly with members of shared governance and that does not seem to happen at most of the other campuses,” said Litovsky.

As it pertains to students specifically, Arain thinks it’s important that students have representation on campus to help them create the best campus experience possible.

“There’s a culture here, there’s a community here, and I think it’s important that students are able to shape that in a way that’s comforting and preferable to them,” he said.

Litovsky also said that when students feel they have more of a voice, communication with the administration is likely improved, as is campus climate.

“I think here at Wisconsin, we think that we’re trying hard to engage our student leaders in a conversation about what’s important to students,” she said.

Radomski says that that is exactly why shared governance is valuable, because the administration needs the input of students, faculty and staff to tell them what needs improvement on campus.

“We have shared governance because the administrators, such as deans, such as provosts and such as chancellors, they’re pretty far removed from what takes place in the classroom ... you have to leave it to the experts.”

As campus leaders work to uphold shared governance as they’ve known it, there is optimism that their role in decision-making will stay firm.

“I think for many cases, UW-Madison, I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of change,” said Radomski. “Because you have engagement by students, academic staff, university staff and faculty. And I think that at least this current chancellor and this current provost understand this place has been successful because the inmates of the asylum are at the table.”

Arain hopes that students can begin to organize themselves on a larger state level in order to make more of an impact in state politics.

“I think statewide organizing is going to be pretty important particularly when it comes to the larger UW System issues. If students are more organized on that level, they could hopefully actually make a little more of an impact.”

Smith believes that in order to retain the current level of engagement, student, faculty and staff leaders will need to continue to document their work.

“What we have right now is we know we have a strong tradition of it and it’s worked really well and what we need to do is make sure we figure out a way to put it in writing.”

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