University democracy in democracies?



The Issue

Egypt recently moved toward the election of deans and presidents in its public universities. Wherever dictatorship falls and governments are suddenly elected by the citizens, as in the Middle East today or Eastern Europe in 1989, or more sporadically over time in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, a major higher education question arises: should there be a significant counterpart of internal, representational, electoral, university democracy (henceforth “university democracy”)?

Let’s put aside here the question of the balance of power between university autonomy and government control in a democracy. What I address is mostly different: how the university (within a democratic national political system) should be governed internally. Should faculty elect not just department chairs but deans? Presidents? Should students have a vote? Should they serve on decision-making committees? Should students and faculty serve on boards and, if so, should they elect their own representatives or should their representatives be appointed by others? Who should set curriculum and disciplinary policy?

Rather than tackling such questions individually, I identify two contrasting basic views of democracy that play out very differently in the general consideration of the appropriateness of internal, representational, electoral, university democracy. Of course advocacy (and reality) often falls between the extremes of either full democracy or no democracy but common differences are major.

The View Favoring University Democracy

One basic view sees the proper approach to such questions as obvious: There should be direct democratic parallels between the national political system and the university. Democracy for the country should mean considerable corresponding democracy for the university. Like citizens of a country, members of a university community should be able to participate actively, have an important voice in policymaking, and elect many of their leaders, who, in turn, should be largely accountable to their constituencies. Democracy is good, more democracy is better.

The case for university democracy may be particularly important for new national democracies. It is often the new democracies that starkly face the question of whether to have university democracy. Many (such as Putin’s Russia) are “formal democracies,” not consolidated, robust democracies. They are fragile or they have many undemocratic features. Society remains largely undemocratic. There’s only limited democracy outside or in between national elections, and there are major limitations on freedom of expression, information, and free association.

Those who favor university democracy believe that it can help, however modestly, in these cases of weak national democracy. On the one hand, it can provide at least some truly democratic space. On the other hand, it can be a model and a force for national level democracy. Along with other democratic societal institutions, the university should breed positive political socialization for democratic norms, participation, trust, tolerance, the practice of negotiation and compromise– in short a democratic political culture.

Perhaps the best known historical tradition of university democracy is the Latin American “co-government” (begun with the Cordoba, Argentina reforms of 1918). Proportional representation on decision-making bodies and direct election of administrators remain hallmark features in many of the region’s public universities. The Western European student revolt of the 1960s and 1970s made parallel demands for widespread student and faculty roles in governance. Though such internal democracy has been buffeted in recent decades by state sector managerialism and pressures for increased accountability, market forces, the growth of private institutions, and neo-liberal favoring of “consumer choice” over collective decision-making through representational processes, Latin America itself in recent years has had a revival of movements for widespread democracy inside public universities.

The View Opposing University Democracy

In stark contrast is the view that national democracy (whether strong or limited) should not include university democracy. Vibrant national democracy does not, in this vision, require that societal institutions be internally democratic. Some of the rationales for this position are generically relevant for societal institutions and associations that form part of a pluralist democracy. Pluralist democracy famously allows for hierarchy within churches, advocacy organizations, businesses, unions—and educational institutions. The reasoning is especially powerful for private institutions where membership or participation is voluntary; institutions of choice need not internally provide unrestricted voice that determines policy. But the reasoning applies also to many public organizations. Of course there are debates over the shape and volume of voice, participation, and representation within institutions, but the vision I identify here is antithetical to overall university democracy.

Some take the view further: not only are internally democratic institutions not required within national democracies, they are detrimental to it. A national democracy needs strong autonomous societal institutions that can chart and pursue clear courses of action. Institutional autonomy can be undermined by the internal conflict and uncertainty associated with widespread and shifting representation and electoral politics.

For the particular case of the universities, one might relax the case against university democracy a bit: we’re dealing with a highly educated community and socializing youth for the broader democratic stage. On the other hand, the case against electoral and representational democracy might be strengthened when it comes to universities: academic and policy decisions should be made by highly trained and capable experts, not the community at large.

In this view Latin American co-government, in those instances in which it appears in extreme form, epitomizes the ills of university democracy with its pursuit of votes over sound academic policy, chronic conflict and confusion, rampant inefficiency, shoddy teaching, poor research, and lack of accountability to society and democratic government. South Asia’s public universities are often similarly depicted by those opposed to university democracy. In contrast, the most prominent and most prominently invoked example of a national democracy that basically denies university democracy is of course the United States.

Such are two very contrasting visions of whether to have ample university democracy inside democratic political systems. Almost everyone professes to be for national democracy but democracy is a complex concept with different legitimate views of what it is—and with different legitimate views of what it must include and what is appropriate to nourish it. Should a democratic national political system have democratic universities? There’s not just one common answer.