Saturday, June 23, 2012

Reflections on the Verdict in Commonwealth v. Sandusky

President Rodney Erickson has released a  Message from President Rodney Erickson on Sandusky trial verdict, Penn State Live, June 22, 2012, that I referenced in a prior post. The focus of the university has been, as it should, on the victims, the procedural fairness of the investigation and trial, the societal issue of child sexual abuse, and in the wake of the verdict, on making things right.  These are critically important areas of concern that ought to top the university's immediate agenda.  

But these events, and its lessons, also touch on broader themes that ought not to be lost. Speaking for myself, I briefly reflect on some of these broader institutional lessons and challenges that ought, as well, not be forgotten, as the university moves forward.

 An institution is constantly challenged to avoid the inertia that comes form self satisfaction, or more prosaically, from the attainment of goals.  An institution that stands still, dies. Constant attention to changes, internal and external, are required to ensure that an institution remains relevant and that it is structured and operated to best serve the needs ans interests of its stakeholders and does not contribute negatively to its constituencies, neighbors and others it may affect. For a university that requires different types of action from the university's three principal internal stakeholders, board, administration and faculty.  

1.  The Board.  For the board of trustees, these events serve to remind it that the traditional passive role of a board, something that reflected a social consensus developed in the last half of the 20th century, requires modification. Passive boards fail in their fiduciary obligation to the university, passive boards fail the Commonwealth by avoiding the work and risks of leadership.  Boards of trustees must do a better job of providing overall policy leadership and direction for the university, of monitoring the operations of the university, and of creating and enhancing the external relations necessary for the university to meet its goals. This requires a board to take a more active role in strategic planning, to invest in the creation and operation of robust monitoring and assessment systems, of working more intimately with the university president, and of serving as a nexus for enhancing relationships with outside constituencies. Communication must be enhanced and the board must be confident that it is involved in those major decisions and issues that touch on the core operations of the university.  But this may also require the cultivation of consultation and joint effort as the basis for decision making. There is much that remains to be done.  But such efforts also require sustained self control.  It is altogether too easy for a board of trustees to move from a passive to an abusive role in the university.  The day to day operations of a university are correctly delegated to its president. A board that begins to micro manage university operations--will repeat the mistakes of boards before the 1960s and that adversely affected the credibility of boards as effective governance units in universities. 

2.  The Administration.  There are strong incentives for bureaucracies to turn inward and to enhance efficiency, judged by its own internal operations. That can contribute to a remoteness of administration from those who are the objects of its activities.  This might occur with greatest impact at the highest levels of university administration.  Equally significant is the necessity, in large institutions, for segmentation of responsibilities, enlarging the risk both of "siloing" and of policy and operational incoherence.  Transparency and communication are essential; not just transparency and communication in a vacuum, but both constantly targeted and re targeted to essential issues and operations. Institutional culture must be prodded to avoid solo decision making, even at the highest level.  Consultation and transparency may slow decision making, but it also enhances cooperation and reduces the possibility of error, and sometimes error with disastrous effect.  Hierarchically oriented command structures are inimical to the sound operation of the university.  Efficiency at a university cannot be measured by the speed with with decisions are made; it must instead be measured by the depth of participation in reaching decisions.  Education and research, internal and external service cannot be compelled--excellence in teaching, research and service comes from engaging stakeholders and building consensus and "buy-in."  The university is making progress but the pull of hierarchy and the distractions of day-to-day activity makes the danger of losing touch with rank and file--students, faculty, staff--an ever present danger. 

3.  The faculty.  Like the board, faculties have become increasingly passive as the pull of teaching and research has increased and as the governance role of faculties in departments and colleges has been reduced by the hiring explosion of administrative personnel brought in to make it possible to devote more time to teaching and research.  Over the last half century, faculty governance obligations has increasingly been viewed as a "cost" center rather than a "revenue" producer, and faculty have been discouraged in the exercise of what had once been a more vital and rewarded role in the governance of the university.  Recent events here and at the University of Virginia and earlier at Harvard suggest that, like the board of trustees, the faculty, through its institutional organs, may be assuming  its more traditional and active role in governance.  That is to be lauded.  But it also requires a bit of self discipline.  Faculty are neither board members nor administrators, they ought not to pretend to be either. But neither are they mere employees who may be directed like line workers in early 20th century assembly line factories. But the institutional organs of the faculty have also, like board and administration, tended to be remote. At a university like Penn State, the institutional voice of the faculty must work harder to effectively enhance the engagement of faculty to better reflect faculty opinion.  It also has to do a better job of communicating, and of asserting leadership in developing agendas that contribute to faculty contribution to the university in ways that enhance faculty dignity.

As I reflect more broadly on the Sandusky scandal, trial, the sufferings of the victims and the university's efforts to do right, these are some of the lessons I am learning.  There are others, perhaps more important lessons.  Over the next several months I will be specifically describing the ways in which I will suggest that the university faculty senate might consider applying these lessons to  its own governance role at Penn State.

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