Friday, February 18, 2011

How Much Control Should Students Have Over University Life? And Where Did All That "Town-Gown" Stuff Come From?

Here at Hampshire College, a presidential Governance Task Force (which I have somehow ended up co-chairing) has just completed work on its draft report. The task was to identify and evaluate all mechanisms for decision-making, and then to formulate recommendations. We are big believers in maximum democracy and deliberative process, but it can be hard to strike the right balance:  too quick a process, and one doesn't get enough buy-in; too slow and drawn-out a process, and people feel exhausted and demoralized.  (the similarity between the culture of the College and the Town of Amherst is often striking).  The challenge, then, was to come up with ideas that would retain our strongly participatory system of shared governance while clarifying procedures and increasing efficiency. This afternoon, we met with the President to discuss next steps and implementation.

A key issue is the role of students.  Our system is distinctive and nearly unique in that it not only requires students to take a strong hand in designing their own programs of study (in close consultation with faculty advisors), but also gives them a strong role in the governance of the College. I'm not talking about just the proverbial "student government." Instead, students (among other things) take part in the deliberations of the five divisions of the College (akin to department meetings) and even play a role in policy-making and the hiring and promotion of faculty.  We have a student representative on the Board of Trustees.

Outsiders often ask me how this works, and even some faculty occasionally raise questions about the nature or scope of student participation. I happen to regard this participation as one of the strengths and pleasures of our system, so I respond by saying more or less what I've just said. Sometimes, though, I go further and put on my historian's hat.

The notion that a university is a business (really, a big corporation), housed in a miniature city, with students as its customers, is in most senses a fairly recent one.  In another sense, though—at least as concerns the business and the customers—it's actually quite ancient: it's just that the roles may be different from what the average person expects.

I always recall these passages from a favorite old textbook.
In the Middle Ages the word "university" (universitas) meant any corporate society or corporation.  A gild of merchants or craftsmen, a cathedral chapter, or a community of monks might be called a universitas, an organized group.  During the twelfth century the students at Bologna organized themselves into two groups or "universities" consisting of the Italian students (the Cismontane university, students "this side" of the Alps) and the students from north of the Alps (the Transmontane university).  These two "universities" of students were actually what is called the University of Bologna.

     The purpose of the organization at Bologna was twofold: for protection against exploitation by the townspeople who charged what the market would bear for food and lodging, and for assurance that the course of legal instruction should be worth the tuition fees paid by students to their professors.  Against the townspeople the students relied upon the threat of simply moving away en masse, a threat that was easy to put into effect because the university itself was simply a group of people, not a campus with buildings and grounds permanently located.  The university of students thus slowly gained the right to fix prices and rents and to regulate not only student life but the relations between "town" and "gown" (i.e. the students collectively, so called because of the clerical garb worn by the great majority of students who were in minor orders).  Against the professors the students relied on the threat of boycott.  Since the professors' income derived from students' fees, the organized students could dictate the nature of the curriculum and could enforce minimum standards of instruction by the simple device of not attending the courses of unsatisfactory professors.  In the earliest surviving statues of the university the professors were subject to minute and stringent regulations.  They were required to begin lecturing with the bell and finish within a minute after the next bell; they could not be absent without permission, and had to post bond for their return if they left Bologna; they were required to proceed systematically through the subject matter of the Corpus Juris, and not to omit or postpone difficult sections.  If a professor were unable to attract at least five students to a scheduled morning lecture, he was subject to the same fine as if he were absent without leave.

  —Robert S. Hoyt, Europe in the Middle Ages, second ed. (NY:  Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1966), 324

They made a strong impression on me when I first read them, and it's worthwhile to return to them periodically, just in order to maintain a sense of perspective. 

Come to think of it, the residents of Amherst (1, 2, 3, 4) might find those words pretty interesting, too.

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