The University as a Civic Community

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


Universities were founded as ‘civic corporations’ in the medieval sense (this sense of ‘incorporated bodies’ is most obviously exemplified by Guilds). This is why they have Royal Charters. This guild structure still persists in some professions such as architecture and medicine that are self-governing. Their rule is exercised over their membership (for example, both architects and doctors can be ‘struck off’) and over who can be a member (they control the qualification/certification process).

There are three crucial elements here for conceiving of the University:

  • It is to be conceived as a self-governing community;
  • It is a community oriented to the common good of its members;
  • Its standing as a corporation in the medieval sense is justified only to the extent to which acting for the common good of its members contributes to the public good.

In each of these respects, it is entirely distinct from a ‘private corporation’ in the modern sense. Why does this matter? And how should this inform how we see the University now?

It matters because universities today, struggling with the demands of marketized higher education and the increasing importance of commercial dimensions of their work, have too easily plumped for frameworks, vocabularies and values drawn from the realm of private business corporations – faute de mieux. Yet the ethos and grammar of the private corporation is both alien to, and at odds with, that of the public (or even private) university. So it is worthwhile to recall and explore a historical grounded alternative – what, then, does this alternative involve?

Consider, first, self-government. We need to distinguish two aspects of self-government here – the ‘legislative’ and ‘executive’ functions. The first point that arises from this is that Executive (the University Senior Management) are subordinate to the Legislature (the University Senate) in one crucial respect: although the ends or strategic goals of a university may be proposed by the Executive for the consideration of Senate, they are set by the membership of the university as civic participations in a self-governing community (via their representatives in Senate). The primary role of the university executive is to develop ways of realizing strategic goals compatible with maintaining the university as a self-governing community through policies, targets, etc. The second point is that the executive are accountable for their performance to the community which means that they report to the community and can be sanctioned by the community (via its representatives in Senate). In institutional terms, the legitimate authority of the Executive to issue commands, set targets, etc., derives from their role as agents of Senate who are accountable to Senate.

This picture is slightly complicated by the third feature, namely, that of ensuring the pursuit of the common good of the members of the University is also productive of the public good (the importance of this is illustrated by the history of guilds in which the common good of the membership could and sometimes did lead to practices that were definitely not directed at the public good). This is essentially the role of a body involving external members representing the Public (the Council of the University) – to make sure that the University is productive of the public good (for example by not being a liability for the public purse). The University as a civic corporation, represented for these purposes by the Vice-Chancellor, is thus accountable to Council as representatives of the Public. In this respect, the autonomy of the University, its capacity for self-government in the most general sense, can be limited by Council where this is deemed necessary or advisable for the public good or, put in modern parlance, for ensuring the University fulfills its mission.

(This double relation of the VC as, on the one hand, leading the Executive as servants of the civic community and as, on the other hand, representing the University in its accountability to Council can set up a tension that is liable to drive VC’s to seek greater power so that they can determine as executive that for which they are held responsible as representative.)

If we consider now the second element, namely, the common good of the membership, we need to address two dimensions. First, who is a member? Second, how is the common good to be worked out? The answer to the first is straightforward: every employee of the University from cleaner to professor, from first year student to communications director. It is, of course, the case that there are different kinds of membership in terms of the rights and duties that pertain to their different roles. It is also the case that their different functions have implications for the governance structures of the University, for example, one might adopt a consociational structure comprised of an Academic Senate that governs academic matters, a Professional Senate that governs professional matters and a Student Union that governs student matters encompassed within an overarching Senate in which all are represented. There can be significant debates on the best governance structures to adopt here but the really key point is that this is a civic community in which all are civic participants and should be able to conceive of, and experience themselves as, ‘citizens’ engaged in a cooperative venture directed at the common good and in the service of the public good.

This is, of course, just a sketch of an alternative way of conceiving of the University but it demonstrates that there is such an alternative and that it has significant implications for how we relate to one another as members of a corporate community. The problem that we currently face is that many academic and non-academic staff see themselves in this kind of way but that they are placed within management structures that act in ways drawn from the opposed conception of the modern private corporation and thus, advertently or not, exploit this fact in order to extract greater labour and thereby generate understandable cynicism and disillusionment with, and alienation from, the University. The ‘connected university’ needs to attend to the character of its internal connections.

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