Top-Down Governance Creates A Race to the Bottom


Last week, in casual interactions across campus, I learned of multiple instances of Adams State administrators making unilateral decisions on issues that properly fell within the defined scope of responsibilities of other employees. These decisions were made without bothering to consult employees beforehand or inform them afterwards. I would love to describe all five occurrences in detail as it would make for a more compelling commentary, but can’t for obvious reasons.

Five instances in one week cannot be chance. It is clear evidence of an administration that has fully embraced and is now openly flaunting an autocratic, corporatized, top-down approach to “managing” Adams State.  Has this also happened to you?


Even if the decisions they’d made had been sound, the fact that they did not trouble themselves to engage with those who actually work in the areas in question is highly problematic from a staff morale standpoint. Successful organizations understand the importance of leveraging the expertise and enthusiasm of their employees (see The Care and Feeding of ASU Employees), and successful leaders know there is no surer way to disengage and demoralize an organization than to exclude constituencies from decision-making processes. This is true particularly when employees are directly impacted by the decisions being made, but also holds true for larger decisions that directly and indirectly impact the entire institution.

But the decisions they made were not sound. In all five cases, the actions taken by ASU administrators were poor ones. They were bad decisions because they were uninformed decisions. They were bad decisions precisely because they did not consult those faculty and staff members who have expertise, experience, and a direct professional stake in the decision-making process.

What worries me the most is the possibility that ASU administration isn’t doing it consciously or purposefully – that they’re not even thinking about checking in first with the people in the organization charged with managing certain aspects of the institution. If they know they’re acting autocratically, they can possibly change. If they don’t know, they will need a whole lot of educating. Or they just need to go.

Some may attribute the top-down management phenomenon to the increasing corporatization of all higher education, not just at Adams State but nationally. And they’d be right in one sense – corporatization has taken a general hold of higher learning and its most commonly realized form is the “command and control” approach we see emanating from Richardson Hall.

But it’s a fallacy to suggest that corporatism is always top-down. And it’s definitely a fallacy to suggest that the best performing corporations are top-down. The most innovative and progressive companies are eliminating hierarchical structures, flattening their decision-making processes, and harnessing the power of their employees. These organizations also place high premium on ethics and principled performance, thereby avoiding the types of problems now bombarding Adams State from all directions (see any number of recent articles about the ACLU lawsuit, Moody’s Downgrading ASU Credit Rating, Declining Enrollment, and ASU Campus Listed as Threatening Free Speech).

For more information about these enlightened organizations, see the 2012 HOW Report. This comprehensive study of over 36,000 employees in 18 countries found that “self-governing” organizations far outperform other organizational models across all critical performance indicators.

The HOW study also found “a marked disconnect between the C-suite [corporate suite] and the employees they lead. On average, the C-suite is three times — and in some countries up to eight times — more likely to observe their organizations as self-governing, more inspiring, and less coercive as compared to the overall employee population.” Does this sound familiar? It should because it correlates directly to the findings of ASU’s recent shared governance study that revealed astonishing and growing differences in the relative perception of the health of shared governance at ASU by trustees, administration, faculty, and staff.

A third key finding of the report is that “Trust, shared values, and a deep understanding of and commitment to a purpose-inspired mission are the three fundamental enablers of the self-governing behaviors that produce competitive advantage and superior business performance.”

I don’t know about you, but I want to work for an organization that embraces and embodies these findings and principles. And these principles already have a name and an established body of best practices in higher education. These principles are known as shared governance. “Self-governance” is merely another term for shared governance.

How can you help promote shared governance and bring about an end to the ongoing top-down ruination of Adams State University? One great way to start is to join ASU’s newly formed chapter of American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP’s mission is to advance shared governance and to provide support for faculty and staff in building a culture of shared governance on their campus. Bottom-up change is up to us.

Recommended Reading: How to Climb Down from Top-Down Leadership (AAUP commentary)