(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)
I continue to follow the wellness wars at Penn State. It has provided a great example of the way in which administrative mismanagement of a policy role out, substantive issues that were neither anticipated nor addressed when raised, defensive and then uncoordinated reaction by administrators, and an aggressive Senate response ultimately undermined by Senate leadership, have turned a debate about the form and effect of changes in benefits policies at Penn State into what may appear to be a more fundamentally important evisceration of effective engaged shared governance. The wellness wars suggest the increasingly potent limits of shared governance, and the crucial role of faculty leadership complicity in the undermining of an autonomous and respectful institutional role for faculty at state universities.
In my last post on the wellness wars, "The Next Round in the Wellness Wars-- A Response From Faculty Representatives," I posted a response by faculty senators to the decision by the faculty chair to share responsibility with the university president for the appointment of members to a so-called joint task force to consider aspects of the wellness program that has caused the university such difficulty and exposed it to media attention, most of which was negative. Such a decision, of course, disregarded the resolution adopted by the Senate, a resolution that, while irrelevant as a constraint on the university president, bound the senate chair, though in this case apparently not strongly enough to cause the chair to conform to its requirements. That such a rejection of the resolution produced no movement toward accountability or sanction suggests the functional weakness of the Senate and the alignment of president and senate chair suggest no space for autonomy in the actions of thew institutional faculty in a shared governance context.
This has not been lost on the faculty. Beyond the "usual suspects", ringleaders of the criticisms of the wellness programs who likely have no credibility with administrators (as likely faculty "troublemakers"), other faculty have understood the repercussions of these choices for the integrity of shared governance. Some faculties have begun to speak out. This post includes the efforts of the Arts and Architecture faculty. That they, rather than the Senate leadership, have taken this position is quite telling about the role of the institutional vice of university faculty in contemporary governance. More telling, however, in this respect, was the refusal of the Faculty leadership to permit the Arts and Architecture faculty from distributing the letter to the university faculty senators. The excuse was "policy", "tradition" and a fear that communications ot Senators with respect to issues central to their engagement might annoy them as "spam." But this guardianship of information to which Senators are exposed, controlled through the unelected Executive Director, sometimes in concert with the Senate leadership, essentially eviscerates dynamic engagement, substituting a well managed appearance of governance.
In the meantime, the university has announced the formation of the task force and has described its charge. That is also reproduced below. What is clear here is that, like the roll out of the initial changes to the benefits programs, the university's administration and senior faculty leaders appear to continue to forge their own path. But this time, that path will be taken through a joint task force rather than by a broader engagement with faculty and others affected by these changes. This, then, is the face of the new governance at the university--in pace of a senate whose members are elected by their unit faculty, a series of joint task forces, whose members are appointed with the approval of and ultimately managed by senior administrators, will now become the face of shared governance. This model, of which I will elaborate in future posts, produces efficiency, but also rewards conformity and compliance with the desires of senior administrators. It will reinforce the vertical relationships that increasingly mark university culture and reduce the functional role of the institutional faculty organization even as it appears to respect its forms.