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Governance Questions Emerging at Universities Could be Canary in a Coal Mine for Public Schools

April 4, 2020

The Hechinger Report featured an article by Lis Kenneth Regula, a lecturer in the Department of Biology at the University of Dayton in Ohio, who is concerned about the potential for the contracts with online education providers to devolve into a change in governance in colleges and universities. Her concern is that “...amid the rush to address public health concerns, many universities are functioning on a more top-down model of management than the shared governance that is standard in U.S. higher-education institutions” and that once the emergency is over, colleges and universities may find themselves beholden to contracts signed during an emergency that might change the way instruction is delivered in the future… or…even worse the decisive unilateral action taken by college leaders might undermine the longstanding shared governance approach valued by college professors.

Again, in times of emergencies, this model of strong, decisive leadership can be critical. It is not, however, the way that educational systems should ideally operate, and the coronavirus doesn’t change the need for shared governance.

Faculty and staff are co-equal partners with the administration in the running of a university, and their experience, expertise and relationships with students shouldn’t be discarded or downplayed. We all contribute to the mission of a university, and we all must continue to have seats at the table for the university to continue to thrive.

It isn’t too difficult to envision a scenario once this pandemic is history whereby governors declare a state of emergency due to depleted State resources. They could then use that “state of emergency” to eviscerate union contracts, empower school boards and administrators to make unilateral policy changes that abrogate the rights of employees, and use the “efficiency” of online learning as the basis for eliminating large numbers of teachers and limiting the scope of services offered by public schools. They could do so by direct fiat or they could do so by starving school districts of state resources and waiving guidelines so that online learning could be made more widely available.

In times of emergency the democratic decision making process is ineffective. The COVID 19 pandemic is such an emergency. The wholly predictable shortfall of state resources for schools and state funded universities and colleges is not an emergency. State financial offices should be developing algorithms to predict how state funding will be compromised as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic and legislators, governors, state agencies, and elected officials should be using those financial forecasts to plan for the future. The COVID 19 crisis should provide an opportunity for re-setting the way states fund public education and an opportunity to decide what kinds of services schools might offer in the future and, in so doing, have an impact on the entire economic set up. If we use the previous “normal” as the basis for the future, the economic divide will be perpetuated and expanded. If we re-think state economies, the national economy will change as well.

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