American Association of University Professors


Higher Ground

Newsletter of the ISU-AAUP
Number 7, SPRING 2010

Patron-Client Systems in University Governance

by Richard Lotspeich

Careful observers of organizational behavior in colleges and universities have noticed the emergence of patron-client relationships among members of an institution's faculty and administration. A patron-client relationship is a special connection between two individuals that facilitates mutually beneficial exchanges between them. They often involve asymmetrical degrees of social power, with the more powerful of the pair in the patron position. But clients may exert a degree of influence over patrons, which often derives from clients' asymmetrical access to information or authority they hold in an area of interest to the patron. Unlike typical market exchanges, the give and take in patron-client relationships often occur at different points in time. A favor granted now will be repaid later, at which point full reciprocity has been completed. This temporal disconnect requires a degree of trust between the individuals, which is what makes their connection "special." On occasion betrayal occurs, and the relationship breaks down. This brief description is overly simplistic as the relationships may involve a multiplicity of ongoing and incipient exchanges, but it captures the essence.

When such relationships multiply into webs of interpersonal connections, we have the emergence of a patron-client system. The exercise of social power in such systems constitutes an approach to governing the community in which the system is embedded, which may be an organization such as university or college or a collection of individuals and organizations that constitute a community in a broader sense. As a tool of governance, patron-client systems serve useful functions in establishing and maintaining social order. Leaders of the Ottoman Empire were effective practitioners, as were the bosses of America's urban political machines. The nomenklatura system in Soviet Russia was another prominent example. They are quite common in human communities. Two characteristics that distinguish patron-client systems from other mechanisms of maintaining social order are their informal structure and clandestine nature. They are not codified in law or formal administrative structure, and their operations are usually not observable by the community that they serve (or exploit).

It is not surprising that such relationships and systems emerge within colleges and universities. Yet the higher education context stamps patron-client networks with unique features. Patrons are typically administrators who have control over some set of resources of interest to potential clients. These include assignment of office or laboratory space, discretionary budgets, awarding of summer teaching positions, expansion of personnel in a department or office, and favorable treatment in evaluations for tenure, promotion and pay increases. Conversely, the benefits that clients can offer to administrators might include information that administrators would otherwise find it difficult to acquire, discrete service in completing a special task, or even favorable decisions on a policy initiative or personnel matter made under formal authority held by the client (as on a curriculum committee or a committee considering promotion or tenure of a third party). Let us consider three examples of university patron-client relationships together with their likely impacts on shared governance.

The selection of an interim administrator--and we include interim chairpersons in this--normally does not involve a formal search process, but rather is made on the basis of personal relations. In this context, the higher-level administrator is a patron seeking a service the temporary filling of a subordinate position. To persuade the client to take this on, the administrator may allocate resources under their control to enhance the income, work conditions or professional status of the client. This is not necessarily malevolent or corrupt, but it might be. The client would be taking on additional or different work, and may thus reasonably expect some compensation. Nonetheless, insofar as the transaction between patron and client lies outside the purview of of formal governance procedures, the potential for opportunistic behavior at variance with institutional interests may be enhanced.

Grievances (including affirmative action complaints) are especially fraught with potential for corrupt patron-client exchanges, in part because high-level administrators have authority to determine outcomes in these judicial proceedings. Such adversarial processes are established as a way for conflicts between individuals typically between a faculty member and an administrator to be given a fair and balanced hearing followed by a deliberative decision by the grievance "court" recommending a particular resolution. Yet in many university handbooks decisions by grievance committees are only advisory in nature, with the advice being given to a high level administrator call them the Executive such as a college or university president. In some instances a provost may have this executive authority.

The potential for private communication allows the Executive to offer protection to one of the parties to the dispute (a traditional role for patrons) in the form of a favorable decision. While it is certainly possible for the Executive to recruit a faculty member involved in a grievance as a client, it is more likely that they will establish such a relationship with the administrator because the latter has much greater potential to reciprocate a service to the Executive.

A third illustration is found in the interaction between the top administrators of a university or college and the top leadership of faculty, in the form of a senate or a senate executive committee. In many colleges and universities, shared governance is codified in a handbook or bylaws. Unlike in private business or military organizations, such provisions tie the hands of top executives if they want to pursue some initiative that might be opposed by individuals who have authority under shared governance, usually the faculty as a collective. Indeed, this is a central point of shared governance.

One approach the executives could take is to persuade faculty by cogent argumentation to support their project because it promotes the interests of the institution. A second one is to co-opt through patronage a subset of faculty who are in top leadership positions within faculty governance to support the project. If patron-client relationships are sufficiently robust, the initiative will be adopted as policy and have an appearance of genuine faculty support through the shared governance process. Such coalitions between faculty leadership and administrative executives would be more likely to emerge in institutions with weak cultures of faculty solidarity and widespread disengagement of the professoriate from the managerial responsibilities inherent to shared governance.

These examples show that reliance on personal relationships and reciprocity may facilitate the management and development of an institution of higher education. Is there something wrong with this? Well, it depends. If the resource allocations and policy directions established through patron-client systems are well considered and in the interests of all stakeholders in the institution, they could result in positive outcomes based on decisions efficiently made.

Two problems may emerge from reliance on such a system, however. The first is that there is considerable scope for bad decisions and opportunistic behavior, by both clients and patrons. The operation of patron-client systems, relying on informal and personal connections, is not open to broad review by stakeholders. This lack of information, and ultimately of accountability to stakeholders, increases the likelihood that best choices for the overall institution will not be made. The second problem is more insidious. Reliance on a patron-client system may slowly corrode existing formal institutions of governance and replace or subvert their functioning. If formal governance bodies are presented with decisions already made the "done deals" or if decisions are continually overruled at higher levels (often a feature of grievance processes) participants will become cynical and withdraw from efforts to shape policy. There are good reasons that formal institutions have been established in the first place. Our position is that they should remain robust and active because they will, eventually, lead to better strategies and tactics for managing higher education than would result from reliance on informal patron-client systems.

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The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is the only national professional voice and advocate for faculty rights and interests in the areas of academic freedom, tenure, due process, and shared governance. By defending professional standards, the AAUP benefits all college and university faculty, AAUP members and non-members alike. The AAUP's ability to represent and defend faculty interests depends on the support and active participation of all faculty. Membership is open to both tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty, including teaching assistants, and administrators may join as associate members. For more information, contact Mark Hamm (ext. 2197, or Stan Buchanan (ext. 2437, The national AAUP website is at, and the website of the State of Indiana AAUP Conference is at