Thursday, August 29, 2013

Enablers, Servants or Stakeholders?: Thoughts on the Role of University Faculty Senators

I have started to consider the consequences of the University Faculty Senate's failures of response in the face of sustained faculty anger and frustration (however misdirected or wrong) including the fracture of faculty cohesion institutionally represented by its University Faculty Senate (e.g.,The Wellness Wars at Penn State--Is the Institutional Faculty Splintering?).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

But a University Faculty Senate's failures can run deeper.  Much of it might be a long time in the making--bad habits and the cultivation of cultures of servility against which I have spoken quite publicly in the past (e.g., Remarks on Assuming Duties as Chair of the PSU University Faculty Senate; and On the Institutional Role of a Faculty Senate: Part 1).  Some of it might be deeply structural--that is it is built into the way in which the Senate is organized and operates.

Starting with this post I will consider some of the fatal structural or cultural deficiencies that may hobble a university faculty senate. This post considers the nature of the role of a faculty senator.  My hope is to provide faculty at university senates with perspectives that may either trigger conversation or help in the analysis of their own situations, that is whether their own organizational structures are aligned with their institutional objectives.  I will try to suggest the ways in which that may not always be the case.

During the course of the Penn State Senate's Self Study (e.g., Recommendations on Structure and Organization of the University Faculty Senate), a group of its members considered the essence of the role of a senator.  In the course of their work they produced a study document "Role of Faculty Senators" may may provide an excellent gateway for considering the appropriate role of University Faculty Senators and impediments to serving this role.

There are a set of general expectations for all Senators:
1. Attendance at Senate and committee meetings is mandatory.
a. Absence at 3 or more meetings in a single year will result in action sent to the corresponding unit
2. Attend orientation for Senate and new committee assignments.

Every faculty senator serves 3 main roles:
1. Preparation: Participate as a Senator by preparing for and attending senate meetings, receiving information, and casting informed votes
2. Participation: Provide service to the Senate and University through participation on a standing committee
3. Communication: Serve as a pipeline between units, administration, and Senate by communicating Senate and administrative actions to units and representing unit concerns and positions to the Senate.

Fulfilling each of these roles requires a set of related actions and responsibilities, which are described below.

1. Participate as a Senator by preparing for and attending senate meetings, receiving information, and casting informed votes

a. Faculty Senate will hold between 6 and 9 meetings every year. Attendance at these meetings is mandatory. Any senator who is absent for 3 or more meetings in one academic year will have his or her name forwarded to their unit for action.

b. Senate agendas are made available before every meeting. The agendas contain the informational reports, proposed legislation, and advisory and consultative reports that will be covered in the corresponding meeting. The time allotted for discussion of these items is limited during Senate meetings. Thus, all Senators must read and prepare comments on these items prior to the Senate meeting. Such preparation will allow Senators to cast informed votes or raise issues of concern in a timely and responsible manner.
i. At times, items on the Senate agenda will be of particular concern to members of the Senator’s unit. In these cases, it is particularly important that the Senator prepare by consulting with appropriate members of the unit in order to represent these interests at the time of the Senate meeting.
2. Provide service to the Senate and University through participation on a standing committee
a. Each senator will be assigned to one of the standing committees. These committees meet on the same days as the full Senate meeting and attendance at each of these meetings is required according to the policy set for full Senate meetings.

b. Agendas for committee meetings are made available before every meeting. These agendas contain content that will be covered in the corresponding meeting. All committee members must prepare for the meeting by reviewing these documents and preparing comments prior to the committee meeting. Such preparation will allow committee members to cast informed votes or raise issues of concern in a timely and responsible manner.
i. At times, items on the committee agenda will be of particular concern to members of the Senator’s unit. In these cases, it is particularly important that the Senator prepare by consulting with appropriate members of the unit in order to represent these interests at the time of the committee meeting.
c. In some cases, committee assignments will require additional work be completed between committee meetings. All committee members are expected to fulfill these obligations by completing this work in a timely and faithful manner.

3. Serve as a pipeline between units, administration, and Senate by communicating Senate and administrative actions to units and representing unit concerns and positions to the Senate.
a. The Senate serves as the representative voice of faculty and thus, it is necessary for each Senator to engage in efforts to communicate Senate and administrative actions to members of the Senator’s unit. To fulfill this role, each Senator must
i. participate as an active and informed member of the corresponding unit caucus. This requires attendance at caucus meetings as scheduled by each unit. In these meetings, each member should be prepared to discuss the actions of his or her assigned committee, opinions and perspectives on upcoming Senate agenda items, and raise any concerns brought forward by faculty within the representational unit.
ii. communicate Senate and administrative actions to faculty members within the representational unit according to the structural plan of that unit.
b. The Senate serves as the representative voice of faculty and thus, it is necessary for each Senator to engage in efforts to communicate faculty concerns and views to the full Senate. To fulfill this role, each Senator must
i. engage with faculty members within the corresponding unit according to the structural plan for that unit. The Senator should listen for concerns and be prepared to bring those concerns forward to the corresponding unit caucus.
ii. communicate faculty concerns to the corresponding unit caucus. These issues should be discussed within the caucus and a decision made on further action. When it is determined that the issue should be forwarded to the full Senate or appropriate committee, the caucus representative will assume that responsibility.
These thoughts serve as a useful base line for considering the way in which faculty participation is structured and institutionalized in large universities.  The focus of these duties are on formal and structural obligations.  These ought to serve as a foundation for effective functioning of senators and compliance to the letter of their obligations. Preparation, participation and communication, as elaborated in this outline, are central to the core fiduciary duties of senators as representatives of their units and as members of a deliberative body with shared governance responsibilities.

Yet formal compliance should only be the very beginnings of the way in which a senator approaches her obligations to the institution of the Senate as well as to her unit.  The functional aspects of each will make all the difference between effective involvement and the mere appearance of involvement.  Senate's which cultivate solely the appearance of involvement will soon lose the respect of their constituents and become increasingly irrelevant except as a propaganda vehicle for shoring up the legitimacy of administrative management.

Let's look at each of these basic duties from a functional perspective.  Preparation, at first glance, suggests a set of activities that are centered on the individual senator. It is for each senator to actively seek out and internalize a broad range of information that will make her better able to participate and communicate.  Yet that set of premises hides as much as it reveals.  A senator, even an eager one, can prepare only to the extent that information is available to her.  Absent substantial commitments to transparency, this effort can produce only the merest surface and formal knowledge for the appearance of participation and the communication of the little of which the senator has been made aware. This transparency commitment is not required only from university administrators but also form the senate leadership itself.

Let me consider each of these sources of resistance to transparency in turn. Some senate structures, especially those organized on an executive director model create substantial incentives to use information as power.  It is not unheard of for executive directors or senate leadership to distribute information in ways that help shape policy by managing the mix of actors with access to information. Secrecy, from agendas to meeting times to minutes, tightly controlled from the center impede the free flow of information in ways that substantially affect power balances int e running of the senate operation.  The tendency of creating increasingly rigid decision making hierarchies also tend to impede participation, and of course they affect morale.

Transparency impediments from administration is well known.  It can be understood in one of two ways.  The first and usually the easiest to remedy is informational transparency--the sort of basic communication of actions and items necessary for other stakeholders to know to perform their own function better.  At many universities information is double tracked--a rich set of data available for administrators and a sometimes much small subset available for other stakeholders, especially senators. This dual tracking of data warehousing is compounded by the operationalization of systems that make it difficult for senators and other non-administrative officials to access information without going through a gatekeeper--usually something like an office of institutional planning or assessment. This monitoring and information gate-keeping function effectively permits administrators to manage information flows and control what sort of data is revealed to help move an analysis to some sort of conclusion. Senators can prepare only to the extent that administrators first permit access to information and then permit the use of the information for monitoring or assessment.  The effect is to limit engagement transparency and to turn stakeholders into creatures in the service of administrative data managers.  Engagement transparency is quite different from the sharing of information about university actions or policy.  It is information that is made available before university policy or approaches or decisions are formulated or operationalized.  It is the conveyance of information necessary for stakeholders to effectively participate in the shared part of shared governance.  And most university administrations tend to fail, and sometimes spectacularly, in their practice of engagement transparency. Without engagement transparency, preparation becomes little more than theater.

Participation, the second critical function of a senator, follows form preparation.  Only a prepared senator is one who can effectively participate.  Participation suggests another aspect of the active obligations of a senator.  It implies that a senator has an obligation not to sit back but to actively engage with the business of the senate and actively advance the views of her constituents in a way that remains true to the fundamental values of the Senate and shared governance ideals. Yet the structure and practices of the Senate itself may play a critical role in reshaping this obligation so that it is effectively irrelevant to the conduct of Senate business.  In some faculty Senates, for example,  it is not uncommon to substantially distance senators from the formulation of senate committee business. Moreover, many senates are composed to ensure that an administrative liaison at the committee level, who sometimes tends to manage the direction of committee business.  In any case that liaison will tend to serve as a gatekeeper for any information gathering and assessment work. As a consequence, in some senate committees, the senator might be viewed as serving solely in the role of enabler.  She considers information about administrative decisions that requires "feedback" under circumstances that are clear that the decision to move forward has already been made and that senator participation is essentially pro forma.  Even where the committee's comments might provide some useful feedback, there is sometimes a sense that the information transmitted is not used to modify the matter put forward for consultation; instead it is used as data harvested to get a sense of faculty reaction and thus provides a window on the best means of managing implementation. The senator might feel that this essentially "focus group" work does not merit either substantial participation nor preparation.  She will vote with her feet--rarely attending meetings and even more rarely volunteering to do committee work.  The effect is even more pronounced with respect to monitoring and assessment work of the committee.  Here the functionally managerial interventions of administrative personnel also play a role. Where the work is undertaken by or through administrative personnel, especially where these "resource" personnel begin to control the shape and scope of data management and assessment, the Senator may come to the conclusion that her work may not be worth the effort.  She is being used not merely as an enabler but as a faculty cover for action that is intended to support whatever administration policy may be the subject of study.  Criticism at the margins may be permitted, substantial and deeply critical assessment is unlikely to emerge.  That sort of work is structurally impossible within the organizational framework of some Senates.

The stresses on the last of the Senator's duties--communication--now becomes more evident. The extent of formal obligations to communicate are straightforward and self evident.  But the functional effectiveness of communication becomes more complicated where the underlying structural constraints of the organization of some Senate's produce a situation where communication can produce more distortion than transparency. Let me suggest two points of communication distortion.  The first touches on transparency again.  Where Senate operations are structured so that Senate decision making becomes hermetically sealed--that is where the entire process from identification of Senate activity to its analysis, construction, and completion are undertaken solely among senators, communication suffers from the same problems of transparency that I discussed with respect to Senate preparation.  First creating a senate structure in which communication with faculty is limited to reports of Senate activity, a very common form of organization in many Senates, exacerbates the alienating effects of regimes of informational transparency.  The fact that faculty know what the Senate is doing does not produce any sense of engagement, indeed it increases the remoteness of a Senate.  That sense of remoteness then makes it easier for Senate members, and especially its leadership, to identify much more closely with the administrators with whom they deal rather than the faculty they represent.  That alignment of interest and perspective further alienates senate leadership, and senators as a class, from faculty.  The result tends toward a servile organization that covers administrator action rather than one that actively engages in shared governance.  Alienation may sometimes lead to distrust ad faculty themselves begin to identify their leadership with administration.  Second, efforts to restructure senate operations to be more attuned to the requirements of engagement transparency are sometimes resisted.  Engagement transparency is hard work. For a Senate leadership increasingly tending to identify with the administrators with whom they work it is also dangerous--such engagement would require some management of faculty engagement to ensure production of what is usually euphemistically called "useful" or "civil" exchanges. Yet where it is attempted it yields substantial dividends--strong faculty buy in, greater faculty participation and increased morale and willingness to lend productive capacity to the university enterprise.

Third, the formal structures of communication sometimes provide the appearance of robust dialogue and engagement when the reality is merely surface deep.  Senate communications is sometimes tightly managed as theatre.  That is, the timing, pace and content of communication in the form of presentations, debates, forensics and the like are structured to provide the appearance of engagement but like a 30 minute serial on television, with twelve minutes of commercials, the reality of the possibility of deep and effective engagement tends to be quite slim. That is especially the case with respect to debates when the full senate convenes.  Yet that problem is merely the end result of a process that is structured to inevitably produce the appearance of engagement at every level, when the reality might be one of management and effective control by others. In this respect, communication  might be understood as a form of complicity in a process designed to be at its most effective when it is the product of regulatory reverse engineering--the outcome is understood before the process is invoked to ensure the production of that outcome.  To the extent that this is suspected or real, faith in the legitimacy of the Senate is reduced and the willingness of Senators to communicate in meetings, or of faculty to engage with senators in the conduct of their business is substantially reduced. Most university faculty senates never reach this extreme a level of perverse operation.  Yet the structures of senate organization may create incentive to move in that direction form time to time.  That is most regretable and ought to be identified and corrected.

Taken together, preparation, participation and communication are, indeed, among the most important obligations and the most powerful powers of a university faculty senator.  But the best of intentions of individuals senators may sometimes, and always to some extent, be dissipated by faulty organizational structures.  Sometimes senatorial duties may also be eroded by administrative practices that make preparation, participation or communication more illusory than it ought to be.  A clear eyed analysis of senate structures and administrative practices may be a useful means of reducing these threats to effective shared governance,

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