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Montesquieu in the University: The Governance of World-class Institutions of Higher Education and Research

  • Lars Engwall (a1)


The point of departure for this article is the principle of the separation of powers, formulated long ago by the Frenchman Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu. It is argued that this principle is important for the governance of universities, entailing a balance between university boards, university presidents and university senates. To this end, the article presents evidence about the governance structure of two highly-ranked US universities, UC Berkeley (UCB) and Stanford University. It reports on board compositions, the selection of presidents and the role of academic senates. The conclusion is that the principle of the balance of powers (‘shared governance’ as it is called at UCB) has served the two universities well. Therefore, despite differences in other conditions, such as their endowments, other universities might benefit from the evidence reported.



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2. See, for example, Wright, M., Siegel, D.S., , K. Keaseyand Filatotchev, I. (Eds) (2013) The Oxford Handbook of Corporate Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
3.I received invaluable help with my interviews in California from Professor Emeritus Arthur Bienenstock of Stanford, Swedish Consul General in San Francisco, Barbro Osher, and Professor Emeritus of UCB Sheldon Rothblatt. I am also very grateful to Sheldon Rothblatt for his most valuable comments, which contributed considerably to the improvement of an earlier version of this paper.
4.For information about the Board of Regents of the University of California, see
5.Information from Judson King.
6. Birgeneau, R., Breslauer, G., King, J., Wilton, J. and Yeary, F. (2012) Modernizing governance at the University of California: A proposal that the Regents create and delegate some responsibilities to campus boards (Research & Occasional Paper Series: CSHE.4.12, Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley. Available at
7.Interview with Burton J. McMurtry.
8.National representation is important for a private university that draws its students from the country as a whole, while a state university needs a governing board that ensures that the needs of the state are not overlooked. For a list of the Trustees, see
9.It should be noted that the second public system of higher education in California, confusingly denoted as the California State University system with multiple campuses, calls its main academic officer ‘chancellor’, and each campus has a ‘president’.
11.The Academic Council mentioned in the interview ‘acts as the executive arm of the Assembly of the Academic Senate, and meets monthly to carry forward Senate business and to consult with the President and other systemwide officials’ (see further,
12.The information provided on the Chancellors of UC Berkeley is based on an analysis of data at
13.Cf., for example, Engwall, L. (2014) The recruitment of university leaders: politics, communities and markets in interaction. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 30, pp. 332343.
14.As of October (2015) Ana Mari Cauce has changed her role by being elected the President of the University of Washington.
15. Casper, G. (2014) The Winds of Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. IX.
16.The information provided on the Presidents of Stanford University is based on analysis of data at On 1 September 2016 John Hennessy was succeeded by Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who came from the Presidency at Rockefeller University.
17.It should be noted that the UC system has an Academic Senate with 80 members drawn from the separate campuses of the system. In addition, there is an Academic Council which is the administrative arm of the Senate. See further
18.The Senate was created after a conflict between the professors and the then President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who was actually forced out of office as a consequence of the quarrel. (Information from Sheldon Rothblatt.)
19.This section is based on information from the Senate’s webpage ( and on interviews with the 2013–2014 Chair of the Senate, Elizabeth Deakin, Robert Birgeneau, and Judson King.
20.This paragraph is based on information from the former Chair of the Faculty Senate (2013–2014) David Plumbo-Liu and the website of the Academic Senate:
21.See The Academic Council consists in principle of teachers and researchers at the University.
23.Information from David Palumbo-Liu, Chair of the Faculty Senate 2013–2014.
24. Of the about 4300 institutions of higher education in the US only roughly 260 can be called research universities, and 87 (2% of the total) accounted for 60% of all doctoral degrees in 2006. See, Cole, J.R. (2010) The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected (New York: Perseus Books Group), p. 6.
25. In (2015) UC Berkeley had endowments of US$3.9 billion, while those at Stanford University were US$22.2 billion. The latter figure in turn was inferior to that for Harvard University, which was US$37.6 billion (US News Report, 6 October 2015).
26. Goodall, A.H. (2009) Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should be Led by Top Scholars (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
27. Tengblad, S. (2002) Time and space in managerial work. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 18, pp. 548549.
28. Engwall, L. (2014) Corporate governance and communication. In: J. Pallas, L. Strannegård and S. Jonsson (Eds), Organizations and the Media. Organizing in a Mediatized World (London: Routledge), pp. 220233.


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