Shared Governance and Mandatory Training: The New Incoherence


Ingham County, MI

At many institutions of what passes for higher education you can hear a lot of yammering about “shared governance.” Those of us with any professional or institutional memory find this talk curious, because in the age of shared governance one thing is certain: we faculty members govern far less than we used to.

This came to the fore recently at one liberal-arts college when a handful of faculty members succeeded in convincing their president that they should be allowed to train the rest of the faculty in—you’ll never guess—diversity!

(I speak generally here in order to avoid impugning anyone in particular, but this scenario has played out over and over in so many colleges and universities that no one need worry about particulars. “Diversity training” is one of those “distinctives” by which every college, in an attempt to stand out, manages to make itself look like every other college—and in so doing exemplifies the kind of conformity you see only in sororities and other precision-parts factories.)

So, because a few people decided that concerns dear to them should also be dear to everyone else, and because they believe themselves more knowledgeable than everyone else in such matters, and because those matters are so fashionable as to be unassailable, the entire faculty at the afore(un)mentioned liberal-arts college was directed by its president to attend mandatory diversity training sessions.

Those disinclined to respond favorably to the words “mandatory” and “training,” whatever their attitudes toward the unimpeachable desideratum of “diversity,” were identified by the attendance-takers and forthwith told—not at the beginning but late in the game—that the president of the college might deny them access to their professional meeting allowance if they failed to comply.

This episode provided a lesson in what “shared governance” means: a few people sharing with everyone else how they, the few, intend to govern. What the rest actually experience is sheared governance.

This particular case featured an interesting twist: a president, who has actually written and published on shared governance, willing to shut down professional development in all directions of scholarly pursuit for the sake of one toe-dip into an ideological one.

There is a lesson here for those who wish to descend the career ladder into administration: anything that doesn’t begin in faculty consensus is going to be divisive, plain and simple, and that especially includes “mandatory training.” Royal edicts don’t go over well in bodies accustomed to democratic process. They especially don’t go over well with a faculty whose morale is already low, as the morale of many faculties is and has been for many years now. To be plain, such edicts are a bad idea, and faculty members not amicably disposed to being instructed by their peers will resent both the instruction and their peers.

I don’t mean to say faculty members have nothing to learn from one another. They do. I mean that these top-down directives admit of a fundamental—and henceforth permanent—alteration to the very nature of a faculty, which should be free to do its work rather than coerced to think other people’s thoughts. Faculty members can do their jobs properly only in that blessed state known as “academic freedom,” now widely agreed to be an oxymoron, it is true, but nevertheless a sine qua non. Without it academics are something other than academics.

For they are not bank tellers. They are not nurses. They are not assembly-line workers. I hasten to add that they are also not better than these people. It is my experience that they are often much worse and probably less useful. As C.S. Lewis once said, “we show as high a percentage as any group whatever of bullies, paranoiacs, and poltroons, of backbiters, exhibitionists, mopes, milksops, and world-without-end bores.”

But the work of an academic is fundamentally different from the work of other people. Autonomy is essential to the integrity of academic pursuits, and this autonomy is threatened whenever anyone decides for the many what the many will be required to think, know, and pay attention to.

Charity demands that we give these deciders their due: some are well-meaning rather than self-righteous. But it appears that all of them would rather have a nursery than a college in the old sense of that good word. Is it any wonder that students are being infantilized? What else in this nanny state could infantilized professors offer them?

Much else could be said of this disheartening situation. I have been a college teacher for thirty years. How I managed to do this without proper training in diversity is a marvel, especially the training now on offer from—or rather demanded by—junior colleagues who were in grammar school (and apparently not learning much grammar) when I marked my first examination.

For these “initiatives” come more often than not from the junior ranks, whose members tend to carry an immense sense of entitlement and whose talent / attitude ratio is often, at least in my judgment, way out of whack.

I might also note that, in the interest of diversity, there ought to be faculty members who do not undergo the training, otherwise the faculty they’re a part of obviously forfeits some of its diversity.

I might note that “diversity” doesn’t really mean “diversity”; it’s a shibboleth that means “lots of people who look and dress differently and who come from different places but who think the same acceptable thoughts and vote for the same candidates.” Diversity doesn’t include those who don’t wave the diversity pom-poms in the institutionally acceptable manner. There’s a right way to yell “go team!”, and those who don’t follow the routine exactly can plan on being sent to the Re-Education Camps until they’ve learned that four legs are good and two legs are bad.

I hope, for my part, that I am as invested in diversity as I should be. But if I were in the business of being as coercive as this president and the few colleagues with whom he shares governance are, I would have everyone trained in one aspect of diversity that never gets talked about: biodiversity, especially the biodiversity of the topsoil—that is, in agricultural diversity—upon which depends all the cultural diversity that the certified diversitarians of the world so jealously guard.

Take away biodiversity, and cultural diversity becomes something we don’t have the luxury of talking about. “First things first” is the lesson when starvation sets in.

But, important though I believe that observation to be, I’m not in the business of being coercive, so I don’t lobby for mandatory training in biodiversity or anything else I am deeply invested in. If I did, I’m fairly certain I would be regarded—rightly, in my view—as a bully. The strong-arming colleagues and their courageous presidents who set up these training sessions avoid this charge, but they do so only because of their siege-proof sense of security, everywhere affirmed, that they are on what we now call, without sufficient irony or trepidation, the right side of history.

I will be accused of being intolerant, of course, mostly by people whose tolerance falls short of including me and who want their presidents to express tolerance by withholding compensation from the dissenters. I welcome this accusation because I hold, as Coleridge did, that tolerance is a “species of pretentiousness”:

I dare avow . . . that as far as opinions, and not motives; principals [sic] and not men, are concerned; I am neither tolerant nor wish to be regarded as such. According to my judgment, it is a mere ostentation, or a poor trick that hypocrisy plays with the cards of nonsense, when a man makes protestation of being perfectly tolerant in respect of all principals, opinions and persuasions, those alone excepted which render the holders intolerant.

Coleridge was only pointing out that the doctrine of tolerance is going to end in intolerance—unless in your tolerance you can manage to tolerate people who (perhaps for the sake of diversity) don’t regard tolerance as a transcendent value. But I have never met anyone zealous for tolerance or inclusiveness who can. Inclusiveness does not include people who aren’t into inclusiveness. We all know that. We all know that not being into tolerance won’t be tolerated.

And herein lies the obvious problem with the new morality that mandatory training would set up and establish as the state religion. When your doctrine of tolerance ends in such rigid policies as “we do not tolerate discrimination on the basis of . . . ”—and here you can finish the sentence with whatever terms you like—then you’ve clearly failed of your effect. This is what the Sage of Highgate meant by a poor trick that hypocrisy plays with the cards of nonsense.

If you are truly committed to diversity, you must make room for people who are not committed to diversity—who, in fact, oppose it. Otherwise your commitment to diversity is an obvious sham and you’ve become a practitioner of a new kind of incoherence. What you’re really committed to is conformity. You get away with this slovenly form of thinking because the times allow it, but the times don’t have the magical power to convert flawed logic into logical flawlessness.

This nonsense bears obvious similarities to the old self-defeating observation that everything is socially constructed.

Everything? Really? Even that observation?

You can walk around measuring every socially-constructed thing with the one measuring stick that is not socially constructed (even though you just said everything is socially constructed)—you can do that if that’s your thing—but I’m here to tell you that, so long as gravity obtains, sawing off the branch you’re sitting on is never a good idea.

In the same essay I quoted from above Lewis says he fears something that in his view is only slightly less abhorrent than a theocracy: the rule of what he calls the Charientocracy, an aristocratic hybrid, part managerial-types and part self-appointed cultural elites such as you see in the collusion of college presidents and faculty thugs. Power, said Lewis,

is least evil when its sanctions are most modest and commonplace, when it claims no more than to be useful or convenient and sets itself strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical, in its pretensions is dangerous and encourages it to meddle with our private lives.

You might say that the meddling emerges from that confidence that the cultured managers have secured for themselves: they’re in-the-know—and they know what’s best for the rest of us. But this superior and supremely necessary knowledge of theirs issues from a kind of piety rooted in an utter lack of circumspection. It resembles religious fervor but admits of no humility.

When you lack religion, as many in my racket do, you’ll come up with a substitute. This is what homo religiosus does. Politics is a favorite, especially among the “cultured.” But politics makes for really bad religion. It produces fundamentalists, zealots who would merely be insufferable were they not also dangerous.

How dangerous? What horrifies them most is freedom, especially the freedom of others to differ. It is a curious malady for those so religiously devoted to diversity.

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