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?