University Democracy?

TOWARDS A DEMOCRATIC UNIVERSITY

This article was first written for The Heckler, the magazine of Portsmouth University UCU branch. It therefore refers specifically to the situation in Portsmouth Uni but clearly its arguments are generalizable to other institutions. If anyone wants to take up those arguments or adapt this text to their situation please feel free to plagiarize shamelessly.

On May 6 we in Britain elected a new government. The process was rather messy and confused, which is not surprising given the nature of the British electoral system. Nevertheless the election took place and a new government emerged. The turnout was up, which took some returning officers by surprise but was generally regarded as a good thing, since it seems to be the prevailing attitude that it is our civic duty to exercise our vote. With the exception of a few very specific categories ( peers of the realm, criminals in prison etc) all adult citizens have the vote, a right which was very hard fought for over a long period in many campaigns (such those of the Chartists and the Suffragettes) but which is now taken for granted by more or less everyone. I know of NO political party or pressure group or even significant individual which says openly that it wishes to rescind this basic democratic right, or even curtail it. What would one think of someone today who proposed the government should be appointed by the Queen (without any election) or by the House of Lords, or wanted to remove the right to vote from, say, women or working class people?

Pretty much the same applies to the United States with difference that there the people directly elect an individual as President and that on November 4, 2008 this produced the historic victory, by a landslide, of Barack Obama; this being especially dramatic as the right to vote for black people was still being fought for in parts of America as late as the 1960s. Again what would one think of someone who suggested that the right to elect the President should be taken away, either from the US citizenry as a whole, or American women or people of colour?

WHY IS IT THEN THAT IN THIS UNIVERSITY WE DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO ELECT OUR VICE CHANCELLOR? [OR OUR BOARD OF GOVERNORS, OR OUR FACULTY DEANS, OR OUR HEADS OF SCHOOL OR DEPARTMENTS?]

My experience is that when I ask this question it is generally assumed that I am joking, certainly not being serious. EVERYONE knows that’s not possible – we just don’t do things like that. If I put the question to people in positions of authority in the University they generally do not even deem it worthy of a response. Which is convenient because it is very hard to formulate a response which is not at the same time an argument against democracy in general, an argument against, for example, the right to elect the government.

For instance, the most obvious argument against electing the Vice Chancellor is that it would be likely to lead to the wrong person getting elected. The absurdity of this proposition becomes manifest the moment you apply it to British parliamentary or US presidential elections. If you are a supporter of either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, the wrong party gets elected about half the time in Britain, likewise if you are a Republican or a Democrat in the US. If you are a Liberal Democrat or a radical Socialist, or a Green or a fascist, the wrong party or leader gets elected pretty much all the time. But unless you are a fascist this is not a reason for getting rid of elections.

Sometimes it is argued that the reason why the wrong people get elected is that the electors are not capable (too stupid, too uneducated, too immature, too fickle etc) of making the right judgement. This, of course, was the kind of argument advanced against giving the vote to working people in the 19th century, to women before the First World War, to women under 30 between 1918 and 1928, and to black people in South Africa under apartheid. It is, however, a rather difficult argument to defend in a university.

If, on the other hand, we actually had an election for Vice Chancellor the incompetence of the electors argument might come into play in determining the franchise in this election. Personally, I would favour voting rights only for male academics with PhDs. I joke; the important thing would be to restrict voting to academic staff and exclude the support staff who are mainly female, I mean less well educated. Or perhaps the white collar support staff could be included, so long as the really working class riff-raff like caretakers, canteen staff and cleaners were kept out. Actually, I suppose – if all that sounds a bit elitist, or sexist, or classist, or politically incorrect – ALL university employees could be allowed to vote, on one condition – no votes for students. Obviously students are too young, too inexperienced, too uneducated, and too volatile to be allowed to vote in parliamentary…I mean university elections.

In this context it is interesting to note that, just as the present parliamentary systems in Britain, the US, and France, all owe their existence to very unparliamentary wars and revolutions, so the present unelected Vice Chancellor actually owes his position, at least in part, to a vote: namely the vote of no confidence that unseated his predecessor, Neil Merritt, in which EVERY university employee had a vote. It is also worth noting that ONE section of the University community does govern itself relatively democratically, and does elect its leaders, locally and nationally, and that is the Students’ Union.

I really hope that someone who is opposed to the idea of democratically electing the University’s leading figures replies to this article – in fact I challenge them to do so – and in that reply I hope they explain why it would be wrong to elect VCs (and deans etc) but possible, nay mandatory, for the Students’ Union to elect its President. Or perhaps they would like to argue that the student president should be appointed (by the Directorate perhaps, or maybe by the Board of Governors). But, of course, one of the ironies of the situation is that because those who run the University are not subject to any real democratic accountability, they do not need to justify their position in democratic debate, but can simply ignore these arguments relying on their undemocratic power to preserve the status quo.

An argument that might be used by an astute opponent is that elections would ‘politicise’ the running of the University and that it would be much better for the University to remain ‘non- political’. This argument is superficially attractive because it appeals to popular (and entirely understandable) hostility to ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ but in reality it is completely specious. First it relies on the very narrow, and false, definition of ‘politics’ as limited only to what goes on in the Palace of Westminster and City Hall, and ‘politicians’ as only elected MPs and Councillors. Second it fails to recognise that the running of this and every other university is already deeply political and could not be otherwise – the ability to present decisions and institutional structures as non-political is really just testimony to their political hegemony, in the same way that the ability to present ideas as ‘just common sense’ as opposed to ‘political’ or ‘ideological’ is merely evidence of their deep political and ideological hold. For example the belief that the free market is the best way to run society is presented by its adherents as ‘common sense’ but its acceptance as such represents a very important victory for a definite political ideology, namely right wing neo- liberalism. A system of appointment, as we have at present, is every bit as ‘political’ as a system of election, it’s just a different undemocratic politics. Finally, and I keep coming back to this, if elections equal politics and its good for things to be run non-politically why shouldn’t the country ( or the Students Union or Trades Unions ) be run that way i.e. as dictatorships.

In the end there is only one serious argument in favour of the undemocratic way the University is run, and it is an argument that all the senior officials in the University know in their bones but that none can state openly, namely that the University has to be run in a way that is contrary to the interests and values of the vast majority of its staff and students. That is it has to be run first and foremost as an instrument of government and ruling class policy and as a business enterprise rather than meeting people’s educational, scholarly and human needs. That is why the powers that be don’t want democratic elections and precisely why I do want them.

In practice this stark contradiction is papered over with the device of ‘consultation’. The decision makers ‘consult’ with staff and students and then go ahead, regardless of what is said, with what they wanted to do in the first place. I have lost count of the number of times I have been through this experience – being ‘consulted’ only to be ignored. What we need is not just more consultation but some democratic power. I therefore propose for Portsmouth University as a democratic minimum:

1. The election by universal suffrage, i.e. by the whole university community, of the Vice- Chancellor on a five year fixed term basis.

2. The election by universal suffrage on a faculty by faculty basis of Deans for a four year term of office.

What’s good enough for the White House is good enough for University House!

By John Molyneux

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One response to “University Democracy?

  1. Really good article. Good to see it getting wider circulation.

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