Collegiality – A global university governance model at risk

Active maintenance is required to defend collegiality, a distinctive feature of university governance that has a global dimension. International research is finding that collegiality is often taken for granted and sometimes even forgotten about, and that islands of collegiality are at risk of being perverted.

The modern version of the university emerged some 1,000 years ago. Since then, universities have become one of the most enduring and ubiquitous organisational forms. There are now some 17,000 universities globally, enrolling more than 150 million students.

And yet, for all their success, universities today face myriad challenges, such as creeping corporatism, questions of relevance, spiralling costs and critiques of ‘wokeness’, among others. Amid these pressures, questions have emerged about the impact on a much-valued dimension of academic life: collegiality.

In late January 2023, 24 scholars from around the globe met at STIAS – the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study – to present the latest results of their research projects on collegiality. In addition to sharing specific findings, the scholars sought to distil common themes surrounding the issue of collegiality in the contemporary university.

Included in the three-day proceedings was a seminar with South African colleagues – Wim de Villiers, Jonathan Jansen, Daya Reddy, Palesa Mothapo and Chrissie Boughey* – who, in one way or another, shared their concerns about the state of collegiality in South African universities.

A distinctive governance form

Although universities differ in several ways from other organisational forms such as corporations, government bureaucracies and non-profit organisations, perhaps their most distinctive feature is their reliance on collegial governance.

Namely, following the Humboldtian model, universities are constituted by autonomous, self-governed, interrelated academic communities, both within specific universities and across universities, through what is known as the invisible college.

In recent decades, however, universities have experienced numerous governance transformations, many of which have been driven by exogenous pressures.

Waves of organisational reforms in concert with societal and political change have, for instance, challenged the autonomy and self-governance of some universities. In other instances, collegiality has been threatened by increasing individualisation and new forms of competition in the academy. Prior research on such governance transformations has found that universities have been subject to rationalisation and the incorporation of bureaucratic and managerialist ideas.

Rather than following some grand plan, these reforms have been largely ad hoc and piecemeal. Whether intended or not, the reforms also have had the effect of prompting changes in the missions, roles and tasks of universities.

These developments raise important questions about the state of collegiality in modern universities, including what exactly counts as academic collegiality, how it can work in practice, and what conditions are necessary for it to survive and thrive?

These questions also underline the need for a more theoretically robust understanding of what academic collegiality is, how it is practised, how collegial governance is supported or challenged by other forms of governance and, finally, why collegial governance is important.

Some collegiality findings

Against this backdrop, three years ago Kerstin Sahlin from Uppsala University and Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden launched an international research collaboration aimed at investigating collegiality in universities around the world.

As a starting point, the research team was sensitised to the fact that collegiality is an essentially contested concept.

Through their individual research projects, the collaborators have aimed to capture the variations in collegial practices and to develop answers to the questions posed above by engaging in a comparative project. This includes studies of individual universities, national university systems and collegial processes across the academic community.

What has emerged is an understanding of collegiality as an institution that forms ways of governing and practising research and higher education across the world.

However, as with many institutions, collegiality is often taken for granted, sometimes even forgotten about. We still find islands of taken-for-granted collegiality (in peer-review processes, for instance) but they, too, are at risk of being perverted.

We also found that collegiality, as a form of self-governance, faces limits to the extent it can ‘defend’ against bureaucratic and managerialist governance ideals. In this regard, active maintenance is required.

The global dimension of collegiality

The research projects have also spotlighted the global dimension of collegiality.

This dimension foregrounds the importance of communication in developing and sustaining international collegial ties – what the researchers have acknowledged as an important horizontal dimension of collegiality, in tension with vertical organisational governance collegiality.

Collegiality is also a global issue in the sense that it confronts universities across the world and in the sense that there is a need to develop collegial ties between colleagues in the Global North and Global South.

Daya Reddy reminded the group that collegiality is about being responsible academic citizens and that this includes encouraging diversity in the university. Scholars have a duty to seek out collaborations in the broader global community to forge productive and equitable partnerships.

The development of concepts and theories to better understand collegiality in universities across the globe is not inconsequential. All the more so if collegial relations and governance in universities are critical to support the key functions of the university – research and teaching – and its contribution to the development of a sustainable future.

The project will culminate in the publication of a double-volume special issue in Research in the Sociology of Organizations, to be published at the end of this year.

Meeting attendees

Attending the meeting were: Anna Kosmützky (Leibniz University Hannover); Audrey Harroche and Christine Musselin (Sciences Po); Francisco Ramirez (Stanford University); François van Schalkwyk and Nico Cloete (Stellenbosch University); Georg Krücken (University of Kassel); Gili Drori and Ravit Mizrahi-Shtelman (Hebrew University); Hampus Östh Gustafsson and Kerstin Sahlin (Uppsala University); Jakov Jandric (University of Edinburgh); Jan Goldenstein, Peter Walgenbach and Lisa-Maria Gerhardt (Friedrich Schiller University of Jena); Joel Gehman (George Washington University); Logan Crace and Mike Lounsbury (University of Alberta); Nancy Côté (Laval University); Paolo Quattrone (Alliance Manchester Business School); Pedro Pineda Rodriguez (University of Bath); Rick Delbridge (University of Cardiff); Seungah Lee (New York University); and Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist (University of Gothenburg).

Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist is professor of management studies in the Gothenburg Research Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Joel Gehman is professor of strategic management and public policy and Lindner-Gambal professor of business ethics at George Washington University in the United States. Kerstin Sahlin is professor of organisation studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. François van Schalkwyk is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

* The South African higher education leaders who spoke at the seminar were: Professor Wim de Villiers, vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University; Professor Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor of education at Stellenbosch University and president of the South African Academy of Sciences; Professor Daya Reddy, professor emeritus at the University of Cape Town and South African Research Chair in Computational and Applied Mathematics; Dr Palesa Mothapo, head of postdoctoral research support at Stellenbosch University; and Professor Chrissie Boughey, dean of teaching and learning at Rhodes University.