As a member of the SLU community since 2003, I have seen faculty, staff and students do extraordinary work in support of the university’s mission. At the same time, I have seen how a hierarchical governance structure creates a riven university community and causes SLU to act in ways deeply at odds with its mission. The problem lies with SLU’s governing body, its board of trustees, whose structure is inherently unfair and anti-democratic. Similar problems plague the governance structures of many of our institutions of higher education.
Business elites often dominate university governing boards. SLU’s 36-member board of trustees, which is largely comprised of business elites, is no exception. In sharp contrast to business elites, the vital stakeholders of a university—its faculty, staff and students—typically lack meaningful representation on governing boards. Indeed, no current faculty, staff or students are members of SLU’s governing board. Board meetings at SLU are also not open to the university community. In sum, despite their status as crucial stakeholders, faculty, staff and students have no substantive representation on SLU’s governing body, even though its decisions profoundly influence their lives. Such a governance structure is inherently unfair and anti-democratic.
The predominant university governance model is “rule by elites,” which aligns with the prevailing corporate governance model. Like universities, companies’ most vital stakeholders—their workers—have limited or no presence on the entity whose decisions have a direct impact on their livelihoods; again like the situation at universities, this is unjust and anti-democratic. We also have overwhelming evidence that, rather than promoting the public good, corporate boards in their current form largely serve to reinforce the power and influence of the ruling elites themselves.
Beyond being fundamentally unfair and anti-democratic, rule by the elite has harmed the academic and ethical integrity of our institutions of higher education. For example, recent donations from financial elites on SLU’s board flagrantly violated well-established academic norms that preclude a role for donors in hiring decisions and approval of research; such norms are designed to protect the independence of academic research. Specifically, in exchange for a financial “gift,” SLU granted Rex Sinquefield influence in hiring decisions and final approval for the disbursement of all funds from the donation, including the funding of individual research projects and hiring of faculty. Furthermore, as part of its donor agreement with the Chaifetz family, SLU granted Richard Chaifetz a seat on search committees for the business school dean. The granting of such inappropriate influence to financial elites, in blatant violation of well-established norms, compromises the independence of academic research at SLU.
As a financial elite on SLU’s board, Sinquefield has engaged in unethical behavior in local government, including providing funding for a racist, anti-immigrant mailer in support of the Amendment 2 ballot measure in August. The board also includes elites from Boeing, a company whose greed and lack of concern for public safety led to two fatal airplane crashes in 2018 and 2019, resulting in the deaths of 346 people. Furthermore, the board has demanded a recent series of myopic budget cuts, which harm SLU’s vital stakeholders and fundamentally compromise the educational experience offered by the university. Predictably under rule by elites—and perhaps ironically—a high-priced, elite consultancy was hired as part of these cost-cutting efforts.
It has become clear that we cannot rely on senior administrators to stand up to elites on university boards. Indeed, senior administrators at SLU were complicit in the violations of academic norms surrounding donations from wealthy board members. SLU’s administrators have also been silent in response to Sinquefield’s unethical behavior, thereby providing tacit support for such behavior. The continued failure of administrators to stand up to board members is perhaps not surprising, as the board itself chose to hire these senior administrators; ruling elites on the board have an incentive to hire administrators who will effectively do their bidding.
There is much talk of “shared governance” within higher-education circles, but it is largely empty rhetoric, including at SLU. For example, motions by faculty bodies, such as faculty senates, are not binding on the board or administration, so that faculty can only make suggestions. While the provisions of faculty manuals—which specify terms of employment and the role of faculty in governance—are typically binding, faculty manuals are relatively weak documents and open to interpretation. (SLU’s current administration is a serial violator of the university’s faculty manual.) At the end of the day, without substantive board representation and full voting rights for current faculty, staff and students, anything approaching meaningful shared governance simply cannot exist at SLU.
Under the current governance model at SLU, major initiatives (e.g., the ongoing—and controversial—academic portfolio review process) originate from the board’s ruling elites, in a top-down, paternalistic manner. In effect, the board’s elites and their senior administrators view themselves as the adults who know best; faculty, staff and students can offer feedback, but, as “children,” they cannot be trusted with actual governing power.
The problems with rule by elites at SLU (and throughout higher education) are deep-seated; as such, they require deep democratic reform. The solution is not to appoint a token number of faculty, staff and students to the board, since such tweaks are simply window dressing and fail to address the underlying power imbalance. The solution is also not to appoint “better” elites to the board, as rule by elites is inherently unjust and anti-democratic; it is the game itself, not simply the players, that needs changing.
At a minimum, SLU needs the following:
current faculty, staff and students should constitute the majority of board members;current faculty, staff and student board members should have full voting rights;current faculty, staff and student representatives should be directly elected by these groups (i.e., not appointed by the board or administration).
We are not “OneSLU.” With respect to governance, there are effectively two SLUs: (1) the ruling elites on the board and their senior administrators, who wield ultimate decision-making power and (2) the faculty, staff and students, who do not have any meaningful representation on SLU’s governing body and are forced to rely on being in the good graces of its ruling elites. This governance structure is profoundly unfair and anti-democratic. SLU can—indeed, it must—do much better. Faculty, staff and students do not need the paternalistic care of SLU’s ruling elites. Instead, as the university’s vital stakeholders, faculty, staff and students should be empowered to govern themselves. To truly become “OneSLU,” SLU must repudiate rule by elites and embrace an authentically democratic governance structure.