Reconceptualizing Sustainable Participation in Universities

The search for sustainable forms of participation in decision-making processes at universities is an ever pending issue in higher education research. Current literature mainly unfolds around questions like: How many members of different internal status groups (e.g. professors, students, academic and non-academic employees) or external stakeholders (e.g. politicians, managers, and cultural representatives) shall compose senates, boards, and councils? Which decision rights should be delegated to these collegiate bodies?

But does the focus on committee-based participation capture the phenomenon of participation in universities? Is consensus-oriented decision making, performed by elected members the only form of participation in universities?

By assuming so, we reduce the concept of participation to its fundamental meaning, as the act of sharing in decision making. Participation in this sense is transactional: formal decision rights are delegated to members of status groups and stakeholders. But if we consider participation as transformational phenomena, as the act of sharing in decision framing, we see multiple forms of participation unfolding in universities: The elaborated system of peer-reviews throughout the academic community that ensures quality of research by participating in its progress. Project-based external funding, tendered by external stakeholders to participate in the setting of research agendas. Comprehensive evaluation-programs that promote student participation in the development of teaching formats and lecture style. In all three examples, formal decision rights remain unshared but the outcome of decisions might get considerably influenced by other actors.

Following this inclusive view, participation is more profound than just face time in a meeting. Instead, each one of the various societal demands on higher education (e.g.  international visibility, regional embeddedness, commercialization of research, lifelong academic education) calls for a different form of participation. Each demand involves different stakeholders and features unique interdependencies. Thus, appropriate forms of sustainable participation co-evlove within these settings.

The transactional concept of participation provides meaningful insights for theory and practice. However, it excludes the illustrated organizational phenomena from analysis. Once we see participation as transformational process, we will be able to take a closer look on how participation really happens in universities.

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