Thursday, April 26, 2012

Remarks on Assuming Duties as Chair of the PSU University Faculty Senate

The following remarks were made by me at the time I assumed my duties as Chair of the Penn State University Faculty Senate:

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer, Catalan Parliament, Barcelona; closest I could come to a picture of a hall where a deliberative body meets!)

Transcript of Remarks
Delivered by Larry Catá Backer at the
Meeting of the Pennsylvania State University Faculty Senate
April 24, 2012
University Park, PA

It is late, and I stand between you and the exit. I want to delay you just a little while longer to give you a sense of some lessons I have learned in this past year, and some of my goals for this coming year.  

I take your trust very seriously, as seriously as I take the obligation to represent the entirety of the university faculty within a complementary and cooperative framework of shared governance in which the faculty plays an important, but also a perhaps unnecessarily subordinate, role.

I want to thank my predecessors, Jean Landa Pytel and Dan Hagan, who both served well and taught me much about the governance of large institutions. I especially want to thank Dennis S. Gouran for his many years of able service as our Parliamentarian.  He leaves this office today with my gratitude and deep appreciation for all that he had done on behalf of the Senate. I am also delighted to announce that Mohamad Ansari (Associate Professor of Mathematics at Penn State Berks Campus) will be serving this coming year as the Senate Parliamentarian.

My reflections, like most of the rest of ours, has been formed in the crucible of a crisis, far from over, that has also served as an opening, uninvited and in some quarters unwelcomed, to a necessary confrontation of a host of issues that have been lurking yet growing more insistent in the last several years.  Among these issues are university governance, power relationships among university stakeholders, monitoring within universities, the role of athletics, and the role of the University Faculty Senate.

I have had a chance to observe these events from a peculiar vantage point, as both an outsider and as a guest “inside” the Penn State administrative apparatus in my role as part of the Faculty Senate “leadership.” I will continue to have a chance to participate more as Chair of the University Faculty Senate. My perspective, then, is that of an institutionally committed faculty member, not an administrator with a position to secure or a master to serve, one who has been given the opportunity to observe, usually quietly and from the sidelines, and now to review and engage, in a loving and loyal, but necessarily and perhaps therapeutically critical way.

So in the few minutes I will take from the rest of your day, let me “reflect” very briefly on those lessons I have learned that have had the greatest impact on me and that will likely affect my interactions with the administrative apparatus in the time to come, and to suggest some of the areas I believe that the Senate can take a more active role in the coming year.

1. The administrative apparatus of a large university is not always prepared for crisis, and tends to handle crisis badly. A more robust exercise of shared governance, not merely with faculty, but with the other important institutional actors might have softened the blow of scandal.  There are a number of strands here:

a. At the time of the crisis there was little evidence of any pre planning for crisis management, the mis-steps during the critical first days after the arrests suggested a damaging lack of communication between administration and board leadership and a lack of preparation for responding to press and stakeholder questions.  These vacuums of process and reaction permitted a space where power could be effectively and publicly contested, moving attention from the perpetrators of criminal activity to the politics of the control of the university. Much of this was made possible by clinging to the view that things like that do not happen in a university like Penn State. The days when it was possible to run a large public assisted universities by jack-of-all-trades tightly knit groups of central office administrators are over. The Senate can contribute to changes to this model.

b. The problem is deeper—strong administrators of large institutions can easily become isolated. Surrounded by people who may not want to challenge the perceptions of people who can fire them, these administrators can become critically detached from events around them and assume incorrectly the way their actions will be received by others. They can come to understand the university and the world around them in terms that have little relation to what is actually going on or to the opinions of critical stakeholders. The view from Old Main was sometimes stubbornly unique and especially so in the days after the arrests. Self-centered myopia reinforced by refusing to rely on more than a closed inner circle of information providers, is a constant danger all decision makers must acknowledge and mitigate. This is a danger not merely for administrators but for members of a board of trustees, and especially, perhaps, for members of Faculty Senate leadership.

2. University governance structures that are based on a strong President model are especially susceptible to mismanaging crisis, especially where the crisis itself focuses on the office of the President. The cult of personality, whether encouraged or accidental, is as dangerous for a university administration as it is for political leaders. Stakeholder models built on more open textured governance principles are more likely to have systems in place to avoid crisis and to intervene effectively.

a. On the one hand this requires a greater willingness to re-vest boards of trustees with greater oversight capabilities, including the power to reach down directly into the operations of the university in meeting its monitoring and assessment responsibilities. On the other it serves as a caution when political figures with conflicting loyalties, or their designees, assume an active role in university governance.

b. It also requires boards to be both more pro active, vis a vis monitoring and information flows, and more willing to consult with and defer to knowledge centered groups, including faculty. The board of trustees appeared to follow neither of these rules in the months after the arrests. The process of correction has started under the Board’s new leaders, but it is neither yet entirely successful nor free from difficulties.

3. Large bureaucracies resist nimbleness—they prefer gesture to substantive changes if only because they are less drastic and because they hold the promise of substituting formal for functional changes.

a. There is nothing more disconcerting than to see responses to crisis devolve into little more than frenetic activity that has all the feel of hamsters at their exercise wheel, with the same normative effect. Lots of little activity at the margins of a problem is no substitute for consideration of the more difficult underlying questions that this activity tends to mask. This applies both to issues arising in crisis—for example issues of trust, transparency, engagement, accountability, retaliation—as well as to strategic issues that arise in ordinary course, everything from the future of undergraduate education to the changing role of students and faculty, to the sustainability of tenure on an emerging “made to market” educational program delivery culture.

b. Frenetic activity that appears to substitute for deep engagement may also serve to corroborate a cynical view by stakeholders that it is undertaken to exclude them and to protect administrative prerogatives threatened by crisis, leaving the core of conventional culture intact. Preservation of authority lines, the politics of personal advancement, and the cultivation of cultures of servility as a marker of advancement are always a distraction in a large administration.

4. Faculties, and faculty organizations, did not well serve the interests of the university in this crisis when they assume that servility is the highest form of service. Beyond the general and bland cultivation of cultures of servility within a highly decentralized administrative model marked by benign neglect of the actual governance of unit cultures, faculties themselves tended to be divided, timid, and swayed by sometimes unsupported fears of retaliation. The combination produces a tendency to both over and under reaction that little serves the university.

a. Part of the problem was defensive. There was a sense early on that some sought to manage faculty engagement, to keep it well mannered and innocuous; this raised suspicion within certain quarters of the Senate and it hurt morale; it also tended to drive some faculty from participation in governance. For much of the crisis the faculty was either an afterthought or a potential threat to spin management, it hardly participated. In crisis, a well behaved faculty was apparently only a docile one.

c. But that state of affairs was to a large extent something of our own making.  The role of the faculty Senate in the crisis was telling. The Senate was conspicuously absent at key moments from November on. It certainly was not involved in those governance roles that might have provided another source of monitoring and gatekeeping. The Senate was never really invited to the governance table except in a peripheral way and when it did appear to act, the reactions appeared to tend towards suspicion and fear of a crazy group of “outsider” faculty out of control. Its initial response came late, and to some appeared passive and obsequious; the holding of a special meeting, an extraordinary though not unique event in Senate history, was met in some quarters with substantial fear that the Senate would stick its nose where it did not belong; indeed, the greatest internal effect of the crisis was a move to greater control of Senate processes by curtailing or eliminating the power of members to call a special meeting.

For all that, Penn State has been moving in the right direction. Key actors are beginning to ask some of the right questions. There is a greater willingness by an institution, with a cultural affinity to the safety of the middle of the benchmark, to take greater risks. There is at least a conceptual commitment to structures of engagement and consultation, though not yet enough of one with respect to transparency, and an episodic willingness to engage in shared governance. Under the leadership of our new President, his leadership team, and the new Chair of the Board of Trustees, important changes are being undertaken. Both are making substantial efforts to be more accessible and greater efforts are being undertaken to avoid isolation and disengagement from critical stakeholders. The renewal of a commitment to shared governance is well appreciated. Yet there is much that still needs to be done.

What might the Senate accomplish in this changed and changing environment.  Let me briefly propose a few undertakings worth considering:

The first is a deep and thorough review of our own operations.    This organization can be more open, more transparent and more inclusive.  The Senate leadership, like our administration colleagues must be mindful of the tendency to become isolated and removed from the lived realities of our colleagues who work far from the centers of power and especially the protections they afford. It may also be time to open our consultation processes in everything from the production of Senate reports to the communication with our members. I will also be “putting my money where my mouth is.”  I am starting a blog that will be connected to the Senate website through which I hope to generate more comments and a deeper engagement by our faculty community.

Second, it is time to confront the possibility that the current system of diffused administration, where unit administrators are given a substantial margin of discretion, may require re-examination. Shared governance is difficult in a cultural context where many are cautious about speaking out and where there may be a sense that shared governance is best effectuated with the approval of those who can affect employment and working conditions. The perpetuation of this sort of thing can produce everything from an unwillingness to report misconduct, to a fear of active engagement in university affairs.  The result is not good for the functioning of the university.

Third, this Senate must consider its relevance to shared governance and the value of its operation in current form.  Many of our committees were established to deal with issues and respond to organizational needs that have been lost even to history.  If we are asking our administration colleagues and our Board of Trustees to examine their cultures and operations, we ought not do any less. It may be time for a core council review of the Senate and its internal functioning so that its organization may better coordinate with the realities of decision making in apparatus of other governance groups.

And this will all be accomplished on top of out routine obligations!  I expect we will be busy this coming year.  I have every confidence that working together with our colleagues, our administrative friends and the members of the board of trustees that we will be able to move closer to the realization of a better Penn State.

Thank you. 

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