Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Attendance by Faculty Senators at Senate Functions and Meetings

One of the problems of shared governance is that both the benefits and burdens of duty are shared. For some, sharing provides an opportunity to leverage the work of others, the free rider problem well known to students of economics, political science, collective bargaining and psychology.  For faculty Senates, a principal problem touches on attendance of its members.  It has become a standing joke, for example, that many Senators traditionally leave the meeting of the full Senate either after the President has stood for questions or after consideration of legislative matters of notoriety.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2012)
Recent scholarship suggests that an emphasis on the strengthening of social norms, rather than more efficient mechanics of command and punishment, tend to reduce the problems of free riding in larger organizations. Ostrom, Elinor (2000). "Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms,"Journal of Economic Perspectives 14 (3): 137-158. Retrieved 23 May 2012. Her central finding is that "the world contains multiple types of individuals, some more willing than others to initiate reciprocity to achieve the benefits of collective action.  Thus, a core question is how potential cooperators signal one another and design institutions that reinforce rather than destroy conditional cooperation."  (Ibid., 138). She suggested that rather than focusing on external changes in payoff structures, development of collective social norms--shared understandings about actions that are obligatory, permitted or forbidden--might better enhance cooperative behavior.    Ibid., 154.

This post describes the Penn State Faculty Senate's approach to attendance. 
Recently, the Senate has sought to combat absenteeism through a combination of exhortation and reporting.    For the last several years the Senate has published to its web site a record of attendance at meetings of the Senate and the respective committees to which individual senators are assigned.   The 2011-12 University Faculty Senate meeting attendance is posted on the Senate website at The attendance report for 2010-2011 is also posted at In addition, standing committee and plenary meeting attendance is displayed by unit, senator’s name, and meeting date. This past Senate year marks the first time that Senate attendance is displayed fully online and updated following each Senate meeting. A summary of attendance by college and campus is also available but not posted to the website. 
At Penn State, the Senate Committee on Committees and Rules has taken the position that local voting units (that is the units electing individual senators) should determine the most effective manner for handling absences. Concerned units are encouraged to speak to their Senate Council representatives. But units are in any case permitted to replace a unit senator who has three or more absences in an academic year.  There appears to be no record of the number do senators removed on account of excessive absences.  
So how does this effort contribute to Senate social norms? The attendance reports provide evidence that there is a large core of senators that share an understanding of the importance of attendance, but also a body of senators who whom the social norms of attendance have less pull. But, the attendance reports do not provide information about the number of Senators who attend meetings and leave early. So the attendance records provide very basic information about appearance at meetings, but little else.  Still, it provides a signal about a basic social norm of Senatorial responsibility--one ought to show up. Beyond that, more sophisticated techniques would likely have to be deployed.  Moreover, the attendance data does not provide a window on the reasons for failure to appear--beyond the usual suspects (disinterest and a bad attitude, for example), Senators may be impeded form attendance because of the hostility or indifference of unit administrators.  Thus, for example, a unit administrator might instruct her agents to schedule courses or meetings deliberately or recklessly to conflict with Senate meeting times, and then be indifferent or hostile to requests for rescheduling.  Fear of retaliation for complaints might silence senators who would rather risk shaming for failure to attend meeting than the wrath or malice of a unit administrator.
Beyond that, if the object of this attendance data is to compel appearance at meetings, then "Naming and shaming" is an effective technique where there is a requisite amount of shaming attached to the naming.  It is not clear that this is true.  Perhaps more work is needed to get a sense of the way in which naming produces effective shaming.  The same might apply to the sanctions provisions.  Hopefully data can be produced and published describing the number of senators who are removed for attendance failures. Troubling, though, is the extent to which this information is meant ot be used by administrators and not be senators.  It is one thing for senators to discipline their own.  It is quite another to have unit administrators--deans, chancellors or their agents--involved in the disciplining actions. That derogation of authority tends to weaken the institutional integrity of the Senate and suggest as well that  the Senate in incapable of generating, teaching and applying its own rules and the social norms underlying them. At the limit, administration oversight of attendance, and an authority to intervene, could create a risk of using this power as a cover for retaliation that is troubling.   
Ostrom reminds us that "recent developments in evolutionary theory and supporting empirical research provide strong support for the assumption that modern humans have inherited a propensity to learn social norms, similar to our inherited propensity to learn grammatical rules."  (Osrtrom, supra, 143). It is not quite clear that we have moved decisively, and correctly, in the direction of teaching social norms. I wonder if we could do better. That this is true at a university is irony indeed!

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