Do academic strikes undermine collegial governance? Three ways of saying ‘no’

Academic freedom comes hand in hand with collegial governance. Take one away and you lose the other. Here, as shown in recent blogging by Shannon Dea, collegial governance presumes the condition of scholarly autonomy — as an institutional fact, it is the scholars who get to decide how to manage job postings, candidate searches, hiring, tenure review, and so on. In contrast, when collegial governance dries up, you end up with institutions that are governed adversarially, where as an institutional fact, scholars have to fight and negotiate to maintain their legitimate institutional powers.

These ideals make sense in the abstract. But when we think about how collegial governance relates to academic unions, the reality can be complicated. To probe the question, I will imagine three ways that someone might claim that academic strikes are threats to collegial governance. I will then provide some replies. Each time, the upshot is that the act of striking can be consistent with collegial governance (for this post, “collegiality” for short).


Some people – call them Strike-Skeptics — believe that the threat of an academic strike inherently undermines collegial governance. On this view, the ‘fight-and-negotiate’ stance of the academic union is necessarily non-scholarly. To threaten to strike just is to transform the whole institution into an adversarial contest, because it involves a political and economic act, which means taking a stand in a place that isn’t fitting for an academic union concerned with scholarly and pedagogical affairs. Hence, the Strike-skeptics may conclude: if you are turning adversariality into an institutional fact, then you can’t be contributing to a system of collegial governance.

Let’s accept that all strikes are political and economic acts. Does that support the conclusion that strikes are necessarily non-collegial (or that academic labor-relations are inherently adversarial)?

Certainly not. To see why, all you need to see that is a bit of charity. So, for the sake of argument, assume the best of everyone in a strike position. That is, assume that everyone is just trying to fulfill their institutional role. If that is so, and you look at the intentions of the strikers, then you will find that academic unions represent scholars that ostensibly hope to continue to manage affairs that are properly under their remit: hiring, tenure, and teaching. Insofar as they make financial demands on management, it is for the sake of maintaining what is required for academic self-governance. The same, presumably, can be said of the intentions of administrators – but, again, only on the assumption that they play their appropriate role as managers of finances of the institution in conformity to its mandate. So, it is false to say that the act of going out on an academic strike is necessarily anti-collegial.

On the other hand, there is a sense that the governance structure considered as a whole cannot be antecedently ‘collegial’ in such cases. If it were, there’d be no need to strike to perform those functions. Even on the charitable interpretation, if an academic union needs to strike, it is acting like the canary in the coal-mine. So even if both managers and strikers intend to govern collegially, the institutional fact is that it is not being governed collegially. And that’s a bit of a puzzle. It says that, even in a best-case scenario, two parties can each intend to govern together — yet, in fact, jointly end up governing adversarially (at least for the duration of a work stoppage). But that is not the fault of the strike. It is something you have to say about the whole package.

Upshot: you can’t infer the worst from individual parties just from the fact that they don’t succeed in coordinated governance. Your pessimism – or optimism — has to be established through argument.


A Strike-skeptic might insist that the ideal of collegial governance antecedently assumes that a scholarly body only manages scholarly affairs, not fiduciary ones. Nobody ever said that the academics had the right to manage the University’s pocketbooks. The Strike-Skeptic could then say that to extend your ambitions, in this way, would be to fly in the face of collegial governance. For, by parity of reasoning, just nobody ever said that management has the right to manage scholarly affairs. So, if you turn the tables on that argument, it looks as though the strikers must be adversarial, because they are making claims about finances. Right?

Well, I’ll grant the premise. For, it sure does seem to me that insofar as the Board of Governors’ decisions over financial matters undermine and underwrite the academic decisions of the Senate (and affiliated bodies, committees, etc.), we should have the critical resources at hand to be able to say that collegial governance has been compromised. So, e.g., if funding for a faculty position were to disappear when it turned out the leading candidate chosen by the search committee is politically controversial, or if Senate-side offices were strong-armed into accepting departmental restructuring which resulted in layoff of tenured positions, then we should say that institutional fact of the matter is that the governance structure is non-collegial. And the adversariality owes to the fact of obvious intentional overreach on the side of the Governors.

I won’t grant the Strike-skeptic’s conclusion, though. Because there is an important difference, which is that we are talking about institutions with an academic mandate. The task of the Board is to act as steward over the finances of the institution insofar as it is a place of learning, research, and teaching – that is, to protect academic freedom in its many stripes and guises. That means they have a definite positive obligation to respect the sovereignty of the academics. So, through these cases of overreach, the Governors neglect their own duties as stewards. In contrast, the task of an academic union is to function as a steward over their academic functions, first and foremost. That does not imply anything at all about what they are able to demand on the financial side. It only implies that their fiduciary concerns must be a function of their academic ones.


But what about cases of bad intentions during a strike? Surely they do occur — and they matter when they occur, don’t they? Yes, fine. But at this point, I want to stress that I am talking about collegial governance full stop, and that I have a certain idea about what that amounts to.

To get at that idea, we have to observe a difference between two ways of undermining collegial governance. In one sense of collegiality has got to do with following procedures, e.g., the rule of deferring to committees in hiring; the other, to do with substantial cooperation, e.g., making all and only those demands that are consistent in spirit with the reasons that grant these powers to committees. This is worth noting because, during times of crisis, when confronted with the question, “is this contributing to collegial governance?”, I default to asking whether the parties are being substantially collegial, while in times of normalcy, I default to asking whether they are procedurally collegial. Let me explain.

Procedural collegiality. You can undermine academic sovereignty by brute force, by interfering with the ordinary processes of governance. So, e.g., if the Board at Miskatonic University were to ignore the recommendations of the Tenure & Promotions committee in the Department of Cthulhu Studies and instead convinced the Dean to choose their drinking buddy, they would be violating the procedural sovereignty of the academics. This may be commonplace at Miskatonic, but thankfully in the real world this is less common. Presumably, violations of this kind are rare because they are so egregious that you’d never be able to get away with it, normally.

Substantial collegiality. As we have seen, it is possible to undermine academic sovereignty by respecting the process but not the substance, i.e., by making strategic reallocations of funding to avoid substantial outcomes: say, the hiring of a controversial professor, or the firing of tenured professors through departmental collapse. In such cases, there is a thin procedural sense in which collegial governance has been maintained, because when questioned everyone can apparently say that they are fulfilling their institutional roles. But in substance, that cannot be said, as their claims to fulfill their institutional roles seem like cloak-and-dagger tactics, better fit for a Cold War novel. And this sense of adversarial governance certainly can occur when an academic union is on a legal strike, due to the wrong intentions of one or both parties.

We can use the words however we like. But when our task is to make sense of the idea of ‘collegiality’, full stop, in contentious cases like strike situations, my view is that we should care quite a bit about the substantial requirements of collegial governance. So, it is perverse to refer to bad faith participation in a process as ‘collegial’ as such; if either employer or union were to negotiate in bad faith during a bargaining year, we wouldn’t want to call that collegial governance full stop, even if it turned out to be procedurally collegial in some sense. Then the task is to figure out what counts as ‘bad faith’, as an intellectual community. But in this case, there is no excuse for ignoring the burden of argument. If an informed observer cannot make a competent appeal to some objective standards of fair cooperation during legitimate bargaining, then they have no business referring to the relations as inherently adversarial.

(As an aside, in less contentious cases – during the ordinary day-to-day business of governance — I think the procedural aspect is the more important default issue. But I have to insist that the procedural aspect can’t be a necessary and sufficient condition in the discussion. If it were the whole story, it would pre-empt an important kind of conversation that is required in order to protect the institutional promise of the colleges.)

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