Turning collegial governance on its head: Symbolic violence, hegemony and the academic board

Year: 2012

Author: Rowlands, Julie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



This presentation draws on Bourdieu's theory of field, capital, symbolic power and domination and Gramsci's notions of hegemony within the context of data from a larger study of university academic governance. It theorises the domination of university academic boards by vice-chancellors and senior executives and the continuing but radically altered nature of collegial governance practiced within contemporary Australian universities.


This research was conducted in 2010 and involved detailed case studies of three purposively different Australian university academic boards. Data gathering methods included interviews with senior executives and academic board members, document analysis and direct observation of academic board meetings. A web-based analysis of data in respect of the academic boards of 37 publicly funded Australian universities was also undertaken. Both data sets were compared with published historical data on UK and Australian academic boards.


A Bourdieuian theoretical analysis of the changes to Australian university academic board power bases within the past 30 years demonstrates domination by managerial forms of governance. However, although Bourdieu's notion of symbolic power can be used to explain the locus of power held by university vice-chancellors, it relies on the dominated being unaware of the unequal power relations or of misrecognising them as 'natural'. This does not explain the implied consent of staff for dominance by the vice-chancellor and senior executives that was highlighted by the research findings from this study. However, such consent can be usefully explored in the context of Gramsci's hegemony. Hegemony also explains observed changes in the nature of collegial governance within the case study universities, whereby managers rather than professors exercised hegemonic authority, operating as a self-governing community which sought to perpetuate its own power within the neoliberal 'steering from a distance' environment currently facilitated by government.


This research has suggested the continued but subordinate existence of a modified form of collegial governance in which hegemony is exercised by management rather than by the professor. However, collegial governance is also dependent upon a community of scholars, a role historically played by the academic board. In view of this possible transition in collegial governance and the resultant obfuscation of the distinction between academic work and management, questions must now be asked about whether university vice-chancellors would see that academic boards should continue to serve as communities of scholars in future.