Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Next Round in the Wellness Wars-- A Response From Faculty Representatives

I continue to cover the wellness wars at Penn State.  What started as the fallout of a distressingly unfortunate roll out of a comprehensive set of changes to Penn State's benefits programs int he middle of the 2013 Summer has been transforming into a more interesting conversation about shared governance, and the social norms that can the ultimately unsatisfactory and dry formalism of administrative power into a functionally effective  relationship between administration and the institutional representatives of the faculty.  

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

In my last post I laid out the current state of the conversation over the review of the Penn State benefits reforms packages at the heart of the dialogue between administration and faculty.  I noted the determination of the parties to exercise unrestrained but authorized power in place of a more prudential use of soft power had produced the possibility of contradiction in the obligations of the faculty chair, one which appeared to have been resolved in favor of what might appear to some to be a fundamental breach of duty to the institution represented. (e.g., The Wellness Wars, Presidential Authority, Faculty Chair Responsibility, and the Integrity of the Senate at Penn State, October 28, 2013).

This post includes the response of members of the Senate which I have given permission to include below.  What had started as little more than eminently manageable administrative missteps has appeared to have escalated, because of the strategic choices of the parties, into a more interesting and important conversation about transparency, engagement, the relationship between administration and faculty and the shape of shared governance going forward.  Much may be at stake in a battle lamentable because it could have been prevented or mitigated but for what in retrospect may be viewed as unfortunate strategic choices by key Senate and administrative actors. I suspect the story is not yet ended.

Dear Colleagues,

As you know the University Senate has been closely monitoring the administration’s actions following the aborted rollout of the “Take Care of Your Health” initiative. Under intense pressure from employees and the media, the administration agreed to suspend the penalty for employees who refused to take part in the forced wellness plan, and to form a task force to recommend changes in the future.

In response, in an emergency meeting of the Senate, more than three quarters of the faculty representatives voted in favor of a resolution calling on the administration to revisit the wellness plan in a fair, thoughtful and transparent manner. To this end, section 5 of the resolution proposed that faculty should constitute at least 1/3rd of the task force. To ensure that the administration could not stack the task force with sympathetic appointees, or at least exercise veto power of its members, the resolution proposed a direct election of representatives drawn from the members of the University Senate.

Despite repeated inquiries, the administration took nearly a month to respond to the resolution. On October 22nd, President Erickson, who did not attend the meeting, asked Chair Yarnal to announce his decision, reading from a prepared statement before the full Senate. In the letter, President Erickson announced that he would personally select half of the 12-member task force, leaving the chair of the Senate to “identify” the remaining members of the commission. Together, the President of the University and the chair of the Senate would agree on a member of the faculty to chair the committee.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, there was a great deal of confusion from members of the faculty senate as to whether President Erickson’s decision foreclosed the elections called for in section 5 of the September 24th resolution. Indeed our initial inquiries to Provost Jones confirmed that President Erickson’s announcement did not foreclose elections, but left the decision to the Senate, out of respect for the faculty’s autonomy.

“On the matter of the formation of the task force, President Erickson’s response to the resolution I believe was designed, absolutely, to respect the role of the senate in naming members, and give the senate full latitude in determining how to appoint its representatives as it sees fit. In fact it would probably be inappropriate for the president to tell the senate how it should conduct its business e.g., if in his response he stated that that members would be elected. Instead, I believe there has been a genuine attempt to have the senate “appoint” (which does not specify mechanism) its representatives (and six of them, or half the task force.)” – Provost Jones, October 25, 2013

However, in our inquiries to Chair Yarnal (enclosed) about his process for identifying the faculty’s slate of representatives, he indicated that he would not poll the Senate, but would select faculty representatives on his own authority, in close consultation with President Erickson (enclosed).

Concerned that he was preparing to disregard the elections provision of the September 24th resolution, on Monday we sent an email to Chair Yarnal (enclosed), arguing that under Senate rules he had no right to block a plebiscite. To the extent that he exercised discretion over the task force membership, he was bound to comply with the directives of the University Senate.

The ongoing confusion over President Erickson’s initial letter to the Senate was cleared-up when, in an email to Professor Bérubé (enclosed), he came out against the Senate’s call for elections.

“I found the point related to seeking faculty and staff with particular expertise in healthcare from across the University to be very persuasive, and rather inconsistent with having an election to select two-thirds of the faculty members for this joint task force.” – President Erickson email to Professor Bérubé, September 24, 2013

Far from respecting the Senate’s autonomy in selecting its representatives to the task force, President Erickson has foreclosed Chair Yarnal from consulting with the membership and holding a plebiscite to resolve the question.

We recognize that President Erickson is placing Dr. Yarnal in a difficult position. In his own words, President Erickson has no faith in the Senate to select qualified applicants to the task force. The Senate, suspicious of a task force whose members were chosen outside of public view, asked that 4 of the 12 members be selected by polling its members.

Whatever Chair Yarnal’s personal feelings on this matter, we believe he has an obligation to fight for our Senate resolution, and resist President Erickson’s efforts to staff the task force exclusively on his terms. If President Erickson is intransigent on this point, and is completely unwilling to consider a task force staffed in part by an electoral process, then Chair Yarnal has an obligation to consult with the Senate before simply submitting to the administration’s demands. In failing to put up a fight on behalf of his colleagues, Chair Yarnal unfortunately undermines the authority of the Senate.

Finally, while the work of the healthcare task force is surely important, we should not lose sight of the fact that this joint faculty-administrative exercise was designed to demonstrate the administration’s renewed commitment to shared governance. In refusing to respond to the September 24th resolution in a timely manner, dismissing the Senate’s competence to select representatives from it’s own ranks and dismissing its call for elections, President Erickson is seriously undermining the spirit of cooperation that pervaded the special Senate meeting. In doing so, it risks a further escalation of the tensions created when the administration decided to bypass proper Senate consultation and launch its ill conceived “Take Care of Your Health” initiative.


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