Wednesday, February 20, 2013

To Control or To Share?

A Chronicle article from July 23, 2009 attempts an answer to the question, “Exactly what is ‘shared governance?’”  Here at the Heithaus Haven, I'd like to ask a more specific question:  What does our Jesuit mission require of us vis-à-vis shared governance?

I'm an economist.  The unit of analysis in my discipline is the individual.  Economists (real ones, anyway) don't actually care about what’s “good for the country,” or what’s “good for the economy,” or what’s “good for business.”  From an economic perspective, only individuals matter, and all individuals matter equally.  This is the economic perspective.  Is it also an Ignatian perspective?  I’m going to suppose that it is. (Please feel free to affirm, refute, and otherwise debate in the comments.) I’d like to further suggest that at our Catholic, Jesuit institution, when we consider “shared governance,” we should take care not to forget that individuals matter.

In general, what is a commitment to “shared governance?”  A commitment to shared governance is arguably a recognition that one cannot control others.  Others are free to act as they see fit, and to pursue their own interests.  And they will.  A commitment to shared governance is simply a recognition of this basic fact of life.  In the interest of prudence, we must give in, and give up our desire to control.  We have no choice but to share, since ultimately, we cannot control effectively.

At our Catholic, Jesuit university, because individuals matter, a commitment to shared governance is not simply a recognition that control is ineffectual.  A commitment to shared governance is also an obligation.  Respect for persons requires that we not endeavor to control others.  For us, shared governance is therefore a requirement, in addition to a recognition.

When we consider our system of shared governance here at SLU, we often focus attention on various collective decision-making bodies - the Student Government Association, the Staff Advisory Council, the Faculty Senate, the assemblies of the various colleges and schools and the library, the Board of Trustees.  These are the bodies through which business gets done and “laws” get made.  The discipline of constitutional economics teaches us that each of these bodies “shares,” by agreeing to constraints on its choices in exchange for reciprocal constraints on the choices of the other bodies.  Each of these bodies, in other words, cedes control.

What the leadership and membership of each of these bodies should remember, is that governance must be shared not only with other collective decision-making bodies, but also with the individuals that comprise the university.  Control must not only be ceded to other collective bodies, but also to individuals.  Individuals lack the decision-making authority of collective bodies.  Individuals can't pass motions that bind others or otherwise make “laws.”  In an important sense then, individuals are voiceless, and tempting to ignore.  Voiceless individuals, however, hold information that may be vital to sound collective decision-making.  Collective decision-making bodies are therefore wise to both listen and respond to individuals, whether or not those bodies have an obligation to do so by virtue of their constitutions and bylaws.  A vocation of our Jesuit university is to give voice to individuals who lack position and authority and are therefore voiceless – because voices and individuals matter.

More often than not, in a sound and functional governance system, individuals will have little incentive to speak out.  They will sit on the sidelines, in some cases rationally ignorant of the details of the work being done by the collective decision-making bodies.  Consequently, when one observes individuals speaking out, one must conclude that matters are very serious and stakes are very high.  Because they do not wield decision-making authority, individuals only have sufficient incentive to speak out in extraordinary situations.

We should all be wary of calls to restrict any voice.  Such calls are efforts to control.  And while the temptation to control is powerful, efforts to control others do not serve our Jesuit mission, nor do they serve sound decision-making, nor are they likely to be effective.  We would be well-served if collective decision-making bodies would accept that governance must be shared with individuals on the rare occasions that individuals have sufficient incentive to assert themselves, and if all would embrace the opportunities to learn that such occasions offer.

Individuals matter.  Representative bodies facilitate business.  They do not supplant or supersede individuals.  Even when opportunities for representation exist, individuals matter. 

What does our Jesuit mission requires of us vis-à-vis shared governance?  It requires that we give up our desire to control, and that we find ways to share governance with all.

What else does our Jesuit mission require of us vis-à-vis shared governance?  

Bonnie Wilson


  1. Bonnie, your eloquent essay speaks to the gospel imperative embedded in our mission statement, and our commitment to be present to, and respond to, those who are at the margins of our society (in this case our university community). Reflection on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 makes us keenly aware that it is not those who wield power, have possessions, or live securely, who are at the center of God's concern; rather it is those who are marginal to all these aspects of life who matter most to God. It is another way of speaking of the individual ... and why, when individuals speak of injustice and abuse of power, those who represent them should listen. Their power and authority is not a possession, but a privilege granted them by the many, so they may serve the needs of all.

    1. Thanks, Bonnie, for challenging us all to ask, what does the Jesuit mission REQUIRE?

      I'm struck right now at the irony of posting about shared governance in light of the shocking news of the resignation of our friend and colleague Jay Hammond as chair of theological studies; and that in light of the bullying of Jane Turner at the meeting of the Board of Trustees recently. Ironic, due to the obvious inconsistencies between our rhetorical stance and our everyday realities; ironic in light of the fact that hardworking and dedicated young professionals feel abandoned by empire, so much so that they feel in good conscience that they must quit.

      Faculty have been called "malcontents" by the head of the Board. Well, yes and no. Because the number of such malcontents is not nearly so small as this board member has imagined. Initially I was bothered by this dismissive reply; but perhaps he has struck on something important (though haphazardly): yes, I am a malcontent, if by that he means I am provoked by a godly hope to call for justice. I am reminded of Martin Luther King's defining hope as the work of the "creatively maladjusted." Yes, that's it precisely. I'm not content with the status quo; I think we can and should do much, much better. Sharing governance seems to me a very good place to start; but it isn't the end. Let justice roll down, like a mighty river (Amos 5).

  2. Thank you for these thoughtful comments, Bonnie. I cannot help feeling that something has else needs attention. The larger picture seems rather more complex. Yes, individuals matter. Mission and identity matter also, because the people being served by the mission and identity matter as well. Some of the individuals that still matter are those that have spoken and created structures in the first place. Shared governance seems to *follow upon* authentic shared discipleship. No matter what your place in the power-structure, if you are not harmonious with the core idea of the project, if you are not affiliated to the enterprise at a radical level, then it would be counterproductive to insist that your own particular vision be given equal weight. Suppose what you are suggesting is antithetical to the core idea? A secular, pluralistic society may have institutions that take other approaches, but an authentic Jesuit school has some definite character, direction, structure, and meaning. It is not merely a replica of secular pluralistic society. The Jesuit tradition respects the individual, but there is still a certain framework and corporate self-understanding. Representation can always be made, but in the end we agree to follow authentic leadership. And indeed that leadership must be embedded in a larger context of accountability. Perhaps that is the other side of the question. I say yes to shared, yet differentiated, leadership; yes also to shared and differentiated accountability to higher authorities. We should not overdo "diversity" to the detriment of the proper "affiliation" and the "union of minds and hearts." People are rather vague on the lines of affiliation we want to draw these days. I would hope the current crisis is a time for the faculty and administration to work out the ones that are most appropriate to our own particular type of institution, particularly in light of the service that we most need to provide to the students who give us some of the prime-time years of their lives. Some of my basic ideas about what we essentially need are expressed in the latest Conversations magazine. See .


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