Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Statement of Senate Chair Made at the March 12, 2013 Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting: Restructuring the Way We Operate

The Penn State University Faculty Senate held its fourth meeting of this academic year on Tuesday January 29, 2013 (e.g. Faculty Senate March 12, 2013 Meeting Agenda).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

 I used the occasion to speak to the important reports of the Special Committee on University Governance, and those relating to faculty salaries, tenure flows, and informational reporting.  

I am pleased to report that at the meeting the University Faculty Senate endorsed the Report of the Special Committee for University Governance,   "Improving the Governance of Penn State, Revising the Structure of its Board of Trustees, and Furthering the Academic Mission of the University:  Report and Recommendations of the Special Committee on University Governance."  That endorsement will be conveyed to the Penn State University Board of Trustees.

Statement of Senate Chair Made at the March 12, 2013 Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting: Restructuring the Way We Operate

In September I charged the External Matters Subcommittee to map out campuses, branches, instructional sites, and other scholarly locations that are state-owned and state-related. The subcommittee was asked to determine the differences in the missions and to focus on the overlap between Penn State and non-Penn State state-owned or assisted campuses. The subcommittee has completed its work and their final report is posted on the Senate website. Many thanks to Dan and the other subcommittee members.

The link to the online committee preference form will be sent to 2013-14 senators later this week. Senators are encouraged to consult with their unit senators to determine the most appropriate Senate committee assignments. Be sure to indicate if you would be willing to undertake a leadership role.  
I would also like to welcome several guests who are participating in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program. Will you please stand? The program brings accomplished mid-career professionals from countries around the world to 14 universities in the United States for public service, advanced study, and work-related experiences. This year’s fellows are from Jordan, Pakistan, Namibia, Kenya, Ecuador, Georgia, Croatia, Indonesia, Moldova, and Vietnam. Penn State’s participation in the Humphrey Fellows program began in 1978. We are pleased to have the fellows Leila Bradaschia, program director, and Talat Azhar, program coordinator, with us today.

Privacy and privacy rights have emerged as an important interest for all of us here at Penn State. It is especially important for our students. Our privacy policies are, to some extent, derived from federal law and regulations. Among the most important is the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974. FERPA governs how educational institutions control and safeguard their student education records. All employees of educational institutions who have access to student records must abide by FERPA requirements. Because as Penn State faculty members we interact with students and have access to student records as part of our teaching and advising responsibilities, it is vital that we understand our obligations with respect to FERPA. That understanding requires a little bit of work on our part as faculty. However, in order to facilitate that learning, the Office of the University Registrar has developed an on-line FERPA tutorial and quiz available in ANGEL. The tutorial is intuitive and easy; working through it makes it easy to learn what is necessary to be respectful of student privacy concerns and to comply with our legal obligations. I have already worked through the tutorial and taken the exam.

But there is more: in order to ensure full compliance with our legal obligations, we thought it important to make sure that all of us take the time to master the simple rules necessary to comply with FERPA. Beginning fall 2013, all faculty members will be required to demonstrate an understanding of FERPA by successfully completing the quiz. Failure to do so will prevent access to eLion for purposes of obtaining class lists, posting grades, and carrying out advising responsibilities. We know we can do this and we really appreciate your time and attention to this simple but effective and important process. But please remember—if you do not work through the tutorial and pass the quiz you will not be able to access eLion after August 1, 2013. Please read the text of the message the Karen Schultz and I will be sending with details on compliance.

I am happy to report that ARSSA approved the following motion this morning:
To grant priority registration to honorably discharged veterans from the US military, as identified by Form DD-214, as certified by the Office of Veterans Programs to be implemented starting in the Spring 2014 registration period.
I am grateful to our ARSSA committee, to Karen Schultz and all others who have been working hard to make this happen. We encourage all units to facilitate this process so that we can move with all deliberate speed to a well-managed implementation. I hope our faculty will also use their discretion to make it easier for our veterans to enroll in classes while we work hard, and fast, to implement this program.

I wanted to commend Hank Foley for an excellent annual report of research activity for FY 2012. Research remains big business; and most institutions now tend to evaluate the quality of our research by the size of research expenditures, graduate student enrollment and graduate degrees conferred. As Hank notes in his report, “research informs our graduate education. . . and makes the quality of that learning experience second to none.” The research we have to sell has attracted buyers from prestige enhancing sources—principally the federal government and industry. In each of those categories Penn State has been doing quite well. It is especially gratifying to see that the university itself only provided research funding of about $125 million of the $807 million total funding. Bravo to Hank and our researchers whose hard work contributed to this great success. I hope that in the future we are able to expand the scope of our assessment of research beyond the simple correlation between research funding and research value. Some of our best research includes the work of faculty who may not be able to, nor necessarily need, substantial funds to serve as a marker of quality or influence. We ought to work harder to acknowledge and reward this vital research work as well. As we become more sophisticated in our assessment projects it may be possible to suggest the value of the contributions to their respective disciplines beyond its money magnet potential. I look forward to seeing that in future reports.

Additionally and with a great deal of appreciation, I wanted to thank our general counsel Steve Dunham for his great help for clarifying the way in which our excellent ombuds program functions, and in so doing, making that process more useful for all of us. Of particular interest to faculty is the memorandum from our university counsel on confidentiality. Our general counsel explained: “With respect to confidentiality issues, the ombudsperson process should be conducted in the most confidential manner possible. However, there may be limited circumstances in which information exchanged or documents and notes created during the process would need to be disclosed during an investigation or litigation. In addition, the ombudsperson may refer matters that are not resolved to appropriate university officials. All participants in the ombudsperson process are expected to communicate in a professional and respectful manner throughout the process.” This is excellent advice. Ombuds perform a valuable service where their intervention can serve to mediate disputes that are, by their nature, appropriately resolved informally. Faculty should take advantage of this valuable service; only that they should communicate in ways that are sensitive to the realities of confidentiality.

Today we will also be considering a number of informational reports. While our emerging tradition, one perhaps strengthened by our shared sense of shortening meeting times, has been to politely receive these reports without comment, I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the reports that might otherwise pass without comment. As I suggested in my blog essay, Form and Function in Faculty Governance: Aligning Governance Structures With Changing Realities of University Administration, Informational reports are both the bread and butter of the work of the Senate but also sometimes treated as a trifle. There are times when informational reports are thinly veiled administrative reports for Senatorial edification and sometimes involve more engagement with the information amassed. I have also suggested that informational reports can be made far more useful, especially when combined with the forensic function of the Senate. They can serve as the basis for a critical assessment of the work of the university, as the basis for engagement and for accountability, and the basis for a three way dialogue between faculty, administration and board of trustees. So to practice what I have been preaching, I wanted to suggest some of the questions that might be raised by the excellent informational reports to be presented today. I hope that you will do the same, and that these questions lead to a more fruitful discussion. These are discussions that need not be confined to the limited time and space afforded at our formal meetings.  Indeed, if this body approved the recommendations from our Speciali Self Study Committee, we will no longer need to shoe horn our consideration of these important reports within the small time space of our meetings.  Instead these  reports ought to serve as the start of lively and informative discussion among our members, and our administration and board.  I can only hope that we can begin to build a foundation for positive dialogue in this way.

First, I will speak to the Report of the Senate Special Committee on University Governance. I want to commend the committee for its hard work and diligence in producing an exceptionally well-drafted report. I hope the Board of Trustees finds its many insights valuable. In particular I note the quite creative and useful portions of that report dealing with the issue of the “representativeness” of the Board of Trustees. Fundamental to this inquiry is a basic issue that confronts many university boards of trustees—who does a board of trustees serve? Traditionally many boards of trustees were organized along one of two models—a representational model or a stakeholder model. Our board has been organized on a representational model. Its composition, then, can be understood as a nexus of outside, that is alumni and industry interest groups. Board membership is a space within which our institution can mediate among the interests and relative power among alumni representing different sectors of the university, laced with representation from administration and the political sector. The Special Committee has proposed a movement from this representational board model to a stakeholder board model, and to reduce the representation of administration insiders and political actors on the board. This model substantially increases the role of inside stakeholders, and of elements vital to the efficient and sound functioning of the university, on the board and is aligned with the principles on which our university is organized. 
I believe that this is a useful suggestion and worth considering. More important, though, is the need to move away from a model focused on representational or stakeholder allegiance to a model premised on the overarching duty of all board members to the institution, even where that duty requires taking a position against the interests of the group one represents. That is the essence of the fiduciary obligation of our trustees; one that I am glad to say the board takes seriously.

Perhaps more important than the specifics of structural reform are the Committee’s discussion of how the Board might best serve the university. Two further points here are worth underlining—the first is monitoring and the second is transparency. The Committee report emphasized, necessarily to a limited extent given its charge, the role of the board as a monitor of university activities. I can only hope that the board takes that to heart. As the board continues to institutionalize and deepen those structures to ensure that while our officers have the full authority to run the day to day operations of the institution, they do so under the general guidance of the board and remain accountable to them, they ought to devote an equal energy to the continued building of a strong and multi-linear system of monitoring structures. The easier it is for the board to know what is going on, the less likely that mistakes will be tolerated, especially those the product of the exercise of uncontrolled and unaccountable power by any individual within our great university community.

In the same vein, the Committee report focused on board transparency. That remains very much a work in progress, both in the Committee report and within the board’s operations culture. The Committee did a good job of stressing the importance of informational transparency by the board—and the board has begun to provide more information in a more timely manner. These are well considered in Recommendations 22 and 23, recommendations that I hope the board takes to heart and incorporates within its reform agenda. But there is little in the report on engagement transparency—that is on engaging critical stakeholders in board decision making. Indeed, there is still something of a reluctance by the board to trust and engage its most loyal and critically important internal stakeholders.  Though the ultimate authority for the management of the university rest with the board, the board has a duty to engage in those processes that will enhance its ability to make the best choices.  That requires a greater willingness to engage its stakeholders. One can only hope that as the board considers further reform it pays more attention to both informational and engagement transparency.

The Special Board Committee ought to be commended as well for its very useful discussion of the work of the Special Senate Self Study Committee, whose work is coming before you today. I will say little more than to commend the process by which the Self Study Committee undertook its work. It is a model for deep engagement and transparency.

You might also want to consider more carefully the Faculty Benefits Committee’s 2012-2013 Report on Faculty Salaries. While Penn State’s salaries are still close to the salaries among other AAUDE institutions, Penn State does seem to have fallen slightly over the last year. The Report explains that ”the decline in Penn State’s competitive position is also reflected in the University’s ranking among selected peer institutions (Table 4). Among a group of 22 other public AAUDE institutions, Penn State has fallen from 5th in 2008–2009 to 9th for professors and 8th for associate professors in 2011–2012. Among the more limited group of Big Ten public institutions, Penn State continues to be among the top. However, the ranking among the Big Ten also shows some decline over recent years.” The Committee, however, notes that the wealth of data provided may of limited use, especially when employed on a comparative basis. It explains that “[t]here are also factors such as market forces, non-monetary compensation and benefits, lifestyle choices, professional reputation, and individual personality that are not reflected in the data.” Yet despite these cautions it is possible to discern areas of potential concern—everything from what appears in some units to be disparities based on gender to the sparseness of data based on race and ethnicity. More important, perhaps, is the need to include more information about fixed term faculty from the study. Though there are some information about fixed term faculty in the supporting tables, fixed term faculty remain virtually invisible within the university, at least with respect to considerations of salaries. Librarians fare only a little better. At an institution where fixed term faculty comprises almost half of our faculty, the absence of those numbers substantially distorts any effort to understand the salary structures of faculty here. I look forward to learning more as our administration addresses these issues.

The Faculty Affairs Committee’s faculty tenure rates report “shows different male-to-female and minority-to-non-minority patterns at Penn State; these were also similar to the patterns reported by peer institutions in the AAU data exchange.” We are also told that “Comparative data on this topic are very limited, but apparent disparities in tenure rates by gender and race/ethnicity probably reflect substantive differences across academic fields as much as or more than differences by demographic groups, for two reasons.” I wonder, though, whether it is altogether best to seek comfort in our conformity to benchmark. The fact that our gender and minority tenure numbers are lower than majority and male faculty, but that these discrepancies are the same as at our peer group institutions, might as easily suggest that all of us are doing wrong rather than that our performance is excusable because we are not doing worse than other places. I also wonder, since so many of our colleagues are fixed term faculty, whether it would be useful to begin to track contract and contract renewals for fixed term faculty. In the absence fo such a report, our fixed term faculty colleagues continue to disappear into the background—an enormous presence on campus but one which is not acknowledged in the assessments we make about ourselves. I would welcome more discussion of these issues and perhaps the development of a plan to do better and for more of our colleagues.

Lastly, the digital measures report evidences the difficulties of regulatory incoherence at the operational level. Certainly among international organizations and multi-national enterprises engaged in the development and implementation of policy, this issue has been identified as one of the great impediments to successful administrative reform. Those difficulties might well be highlighted in the digital measures report itself. The report explains a number of difficulties as well some successes with the efforts to move information gathering on faculty activity digitally. But more significantly, it suggests the difficulties of maintaining coherence in operational policies at the unit levels. We appear to be moving to a system in which multiple and possibly incompatible systems of information harvesting are being developed. It may be hoped that some point that this will be corrected. But for the moment, it is likely that the movement is going to produce more points of conflict than of compatibility and that might be something worth considerably more work.

Allow me to close by emphasizing a point I have been making since I began to serve as Chair of this august body: Transparency and communication, talking to and not at each other is the ultimate challenge for all institutions in this century, including Penn State. But it is also the clearest path toward institutional success. It is unlikely that we can change much or quickly. It is also clear that some might be tempted to view change, and especially the proponents of change, with some substantial suspicion. Despite that, my hope is that by taking the time to explain the reasons for change and to show the way that change can be internalized in our operations, that I can in some small way move more of us toward behaviors that are institution enhancing and forward looking—open, engaged and transparent.

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