Thursday, September 15, 2005

Lawmaker explores curtailing democracy in the information workplace

Here in Wisconsin, our flagship state research university is a public relations mess. Various "scandals" involving a handful of academic professionals who are being investigated for behavior which might lead to their demotion or dismissal have apparently been used as a way to legitimize cutting university funding, increasing student tuition, and refusing to deal with organized teaching assistants fairly at the bargaining table, from my point of view. Nevermind that any organization as large as the University of Wisconsin university system is bound to have some regular personnel problems, and nevermind that as a publicly-accountable and (somewhat) publicly-funded organization, the University's systems for dealing with these problems tend to be more just and transparent than you would ever find at a private, for-profit, capitalist corporation. Somehow at least one state legislator is questioning whether the University's deliberative, democratic decision-making structure might be the core problem here, according to a Capital Times article:

The state might want to consider stripping the University of Wisconsin faculty's statutory right to share in the governance of the university, a top lawmaker said.

Faculty and academic staff have long had the right to participate in the policymaking process at the university. That right is more than just an administrative rule; it is enshrined in state law.

But Rep. Suzanne Jeskewitz, R-Menomonee Falls, said the faculty's right to shape university policy could be an obstacle to making important changes to the university's employment practices. Lawmakers and university officials are conducting a wide-ranging discussion about such controversial practices as offering backup positions and keeping felons on the payroll. Faculty will need to be consulted if changes to such practices are to be made.

Shared governance rules also allow faculty the right to be represented on search committees for deans and top administrators, and committees examining important university issues, like the production of UW logo clothing with sweatshop labor.

I'm constantly amazed at how those very people charged -- and entrusted -- by the public to uphold democracy are so quick to try to squelch democratic representation and decision-making processess in any institution besides their own -- whether that's the neighborhood councils of Baghdad or the union halls of Milwaukee. Those who favor "running government like a business" seem to forget that business is inherently non-democratic: decisions are made by a select few, based either on hierarchical bureaucratic position or on ownership rights, not on proportional representation or on contribution to the value and profit produced by the firm. I certainly hope our university administration stands up against accusations that faculty participation in policymaking is somehow an "obstacle" to improving the university. Faculty -- along with academic and support staff and graduate students -- ARE the university. The fact that we produce knowledge and knowledge-workers, and not retail commodities, puts us in the rare and privileged position of having some measure of control over the conditions of that production. We need to stand up for that control and advocate that more institutions, not fewer, follow the model we set.


Brian said...

Are undergraduates also part of "the university?"

Greg D. said...

You're right, they are. And I am glad that the university gives students a democratic voice in the decision-making process as well. But in terms of legislative control over employment practices, they aren't paid producers and disseminators of knowledge within the university, which is the real group I was speaking of. No disrespect to students intended. OK?

Brian said...

I see your point.