Why Don’t We See Party Organizations In Faculty Senates?

What kinds of features would a legislative or pseudo-legislative situation need to have before would we expect the emergence of parties (or pseudo-parties)? The organization of political parties is usually argued to be a response to the collective action problem inside legislatures (Aldrich 1995) or outside legislatures (Cox and McCubbins 1997). But is the mere presence of one or both of these problems enough to trigger the development of organizations that look like parties? I’m thinking particularly of a setting that many of us are probably familiar with – faculty governance. Different colleges and universities have different institutions, but are there any that have given rise to faculty party organizations? Would such a development be possible, and would it improve efficiency?

Aldrich (1995) looks at parties as the solution (or at least a solution) to problems of regulating access to office, making collective choices, and waging election campaigns. Cox and McCubbins (1997) focus particularly on that last problem, connecting legislative activity to the all-important electoral brand name. Both theories cast these problems in the model of Olson’s (1965) collective action problem: without party organizations, actors will struggle to co-ordinate their office-seeking behaviour, to assemble coalitions to win the legislative votes they want to win, and to communicate their message effectively to those outside the legislature. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that at least some of these problems could reoccur in some faculty governance situations.

However, faculty are automatically members of their governance institutions. They aren’t elected. That’s a key factor for both the theories mentioned above. The problem of establishing voting discipline to create a consistent and appealing brand name of electoral value is simply not present for academics. Perhaps the more that faculty are accountable to a large outside group (be it students, alumni, or some other constituency), the more likely they are to organize. But they certainly do face the problems of assigning people to committees, and the problem of assembling coalitions to win votes.

There are probably two important points to make here. The first is that committee positions in faculty governance are probably not as powerful as committee positions in, for example, the US Congress. Perhaps the more powerful these committees are, the more likely we would be to see political parties. Second, the votes that faculty senates take are probably not as important as votes in the US Congress. There’s often little division on ‘grand principle’ (Aldrich 1995) and so there’s less need for long coalitions and reciprocal vote trading. Perhaps the more that faculty senates deal with thorny and significant issues on a consistent basis, the more likely parties are to emerge.

Thinking through this comparison in more detail might be useful in a couple of ways. First, collecting data on the dimensions of faculty governance institutions mentioned above might be provide analytical leverage to test theories of party formation. Second, it’s interesting to consider what effect parties would have on faculty governance if they were to emerge. What would those parties be called? Would splits emerge between the sciences and the humanities, or on departmental lines, or would intra-departmental discipline break down? Do we see similar patterns in student government settings, or in other pseudo-legislative settings? Would governance be improved if more significant issues were dealt with by these bodies?

About Ben Farrer

Ben is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Knox College. He received his PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2014. Ben was previously a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and previously held a research position in the Department of Political Science at Fordham University. His research and teaching interests are centered around parties and interest groups, particularly those from under-represented constituencies. A great deal of his work deals with the political organizations of the environmental movement. He studies both American and Comparative politics.

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