Friday, May 4, 2012

On the Institutional Role of a Faculty Senate: Part 1

What does it mean for a faculty to have an institutional role in shared governance? Over the course of this year, I will consider the character and meaning of this role.  For that purpose it will be necessary to distinguish between the role of an individual member of a faculty, and that of an organization that represents all faculty within the institutional framework of a university. Every faculty member may have a role in governance but the form in which that role is structures and expressed may make all the difference in the world where the object is an effective governance role.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer)

One usually starts any consideration of a faculty role in the university, an in particular in its governance, by thinking in the plural.  Faculty governance in its most basic form means that every faculty member has an equal role in governance--each representing and furthering her own interests in governance objectives.  Shared governance has a vertical aspect, but not a horizontal one. That is, each faculty member may individually participate in governance, understood as having a part in decisions, along with administrative officers and the board of trustees, affecting the operation of the university, principally in those matters central to their role in the university (courses, promotion and tenure, academic programs, research, and to a lesser extent other administrative matters).  It is in this sense that, at its most basic form, each faculty member is understood to share in governance. Each faculty member, then, is understood to be the object of governance (rules for the operation of the university and the management of faculty participation in the operation of the university), and also the bearers of governance responsibilities.  All faculty are different, but all are also fungible as representatives of faculty interests in governance.

In its simplest form, the consequences for this framework of a faculty role in shared governance is straightforward.  Individual faculty, to the extent they are inclined, may share their views on matters of governance interest to them.  These may be expressed to each other, within their departments or to the administrative official to whom such opinion may matter.  More importantly, when the governance role is shared, it means that faculty may be selected, as needed, by administrative personnel charged with decision making or the  Board of trustees, to serve on committees or similar groupings responsible for participation in decision making, or to provide the faculty input for review where faculty consultation is required or permitted. The relationship between faculty and administration is vertical.  Administrators usually control the character and extent of faculty participation under this simple model.   That control is founded on an administrative power to select the specific individual faculty members will participate (as representatives of the faculty "voice") in governance. So, for example, where faculty are needed for a representative committee to advise the university president on changes to an educational program, the president may select one or two faculty of her choice for that purpose uninhibited by any constraint on choice.

This form of governance can be efficient.  Administrators may be the most knowledgeable about the strengths of faculty talent for shared governance purposes in particular matters.  But the process can also corrupt corrupt share governance--providing the appearance of a faculty voice without substantive autonomous content. Administrators can choose particular faculty for their known views on a  subject, especially if those views are appealing to an administrator looking for a particular outcome.   They can, in this way, cultivate and manage a faculty voice that is entirely to their liking.  More importantly, administrators can silence unwanted opinions, marginalizing faculty whose views do not align with those of decision makers. The result gives a false impression of the views of faculty other than those whose voices have been heard, especially where those limited voices are put forward as representative of all or most faculty (of of the typical faculty opinion). Shared governance can then be reduced to a mere gesture, amplifying only approved voices and silencing the rest.  

The problem for administration, though, is that even if they do not mean to cultivate a group of faculty whose views are found useful, and to use those useful voices strategically in the service of their vision for the university, such a method of obtaining faculty participation can all too easily give the appearance of providing a rubber stamp of willing faculty.  For faculty who wish to advance careers, this form of participation may also suggest that a potentially successful way of coming to the attention of administrators (and thus of advancing career) might well be to be more aggressively agreeable.   Servility rather than governance may be the most likely product of this system and cultures of retribution, of fear of marginalization for failure to adopt the appropriate position may arise organically, even if unintended. The incentives of such systems may be too powerful to resist.

I will turn next to the effect of institutionalizing faculty voice.


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