(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)
One of the most interesting issues facing universities, as institutional actors, is the future of shared governance, especially in the effectiveness of shared governance with the institutional voice of the faculty. Universities have sometimes succumbed to the temptation of invoking formal institutional structures to mask efforts (deliberate or unconscious) to undercut the role of faculty in university governance. (Backer, Larry Catá, Between Faculty, Administration, Board, State, and Students: On the Relevance of a Faculty Senate in the Modern U.S. University (February 10, 2013)).
The increasing resort to university task forces, in lieu of engagement with shared governance partners provides a case in point. These task forces, usually composed of administrative functionaries or their representatives, reporting directly to the highest levels of university administration, and including specially designated faculty, chosen for their expertise or from a stable of "usual suspects", have tended to produce recommendations and action plans that avoid the need to engage faculty representatives in those key areas of policy formulation and implementation at the core of shared governance. Though task forces serve a useful purpose, the composition and deployment of this specific form fo task force ought to cause concern.
This post considers the way this may occur by positing a hypothetical decision by a university administration in a "conventional" public university to establish two task forces--a sexual assault and harassment task force and a health care and benefits advisory task force--and their potential consequences for faculty shared governance at the institutional level. These task forces can be used to co-opt internal discussions of institutional responses to internal governance matters as well as to short circuit internal engagement with external pressures for institutional change. The former is exemplified by "benefits" task forces; the latter by sexual assault task forces.
The bottom line is simple enough to grasp--the more an administration "engages" its stakeholders through task forces, the less likely there will be an appropriate engagement by the institutional voice of the faculty in those areas now pre-empted by task force mandates. Where administrations seek to govern through task forces, they maintain the appearance of shared governance but eliminate its effect precisely because they control access to membership, the scope of their mandates, and the framework of debate. Though task forces serve useful purposes, they ought not to be substituted for engagement with the representatives of the faculty and faculty voices that administrations (and boards) may not think to hear.
Assume, for example, that a high university administrator establishes two task forces. One, a sexual assault and harassment task force, is formed in response to sustained media coverage of sexual assault statistics and stories of what appears to be miscarriages of justice and common mores in the prosecution of several high profile cases, and under the shadow of potential government scrutiny and rule reform. The second is created in the midst of substantial internal debate over the scope and methods of health care administration within the university--one that has produced high level backtracking by administration because of well organized (and well publicized) push back by stakeholders and its attendant media attention, producing a climate of limited trust between administration and internal stakeholders.
Assume further that the sexual assault task force is charged as follows: (1) on a comprehensive basis to collect, review and provide an evaluation of the activities relating to sexual assault and other forms of sexual or gender-based harassment undertaken by the university; (2) on that basis the Task Force should should make any and all recommendations it believes are appropriate to ensure that our programs, policies and practices for addressing the problem of sexual violence in our community are as effective and strong as possible; these recommendations should be developed with a view to new federal guidance and regulations, a review of best practices that may be developed at other institutions, and should draw on the expertise of professionals who work in this area, including those who work at our institution; (3) the Task Force should also pay special attention to programmatic efforts to educate our community about sexual assault and sexual violence more broadly (including its causes and the great individual harm that results); (4) the Task Force ought to consider improvements in our investigation and hearing practices and procedures, and efforts to strengthen the coordination and oversight of all of our efforts on a University-wide basis; and (5) in that connection, please consider whether you would advise that the University establish a permanent oversight committee to review and help implement on an ongoing basis University policies and best practices related to sexual harassment and assault across all units and campuses of Penn State. The task force will be composed of substantially all administrators and chaired by a high administration official. Of its less than 20 members, two will be faculty members and an equal number of students. The faculty members will be chosen in consultation with the leadership of the University Faculty Senate, but no discussion of this task force, its formation or charge will be made to the Faculty Senate, nor will the Senate be represented in an institutional sense on the task force.
Lastly, assume that the health care and benefits advisory committee is charged with (1) assessing and providing advice on the health care operational decisions faced by the University; (2) assessing current and future trends, emerging opportunities and provide thought leadership in the areas of insurance, health care delivery, health care spending, academic research, health and wellness initiatives, and communication; and (3) providing advice, guidance and support to ensure that university employees and their families have access to affordable, high quality health care and other resources to help them manage their health. It is to be set up as a "committee of experts" and include members from a prior task force that served the university as a first stage response to internal dissension generated by its previous efforts at health care and benefits reform, the latter to ensure continuity and perhaps some measure of legitimacy to this effort. A majority of its members will be high level members from many of the key administrative units within the university's central administrative structures. It will be chaired by a high level administrator and of its 20 members, one will be a student and 2 will be faculty members (though one of those two also holds an administrative position). The leadership of the university faculty Senate is consulted on the faculty representatives, but not on the charge of the committee, nor is this committee discussed by or presented ot the Senate for its institutional opinion, nor will the Senate be represented in an institutional sense on the task force, though virtually all sub units of central university administration will have a high level representative member.
The announcement is made on the eve of a long holiday weekend during the heart of the summer break when many faculty are away or attending to other matters. The University administration, though, in announcing this decision, invites comments from faculty, though not from the University Faculty Senate as the institutional representative of the Faculty. No Senate meetings are called to discuss this turn or the charge, membership or work of either committee. It is expected that these committees will produce recommendations and informational reports that will be the basis for future administrative action that will substantially affect faculty, students and other stakeholders.
What does all of this have to do with shared governance and the mutual respect among university stakeholders on which it is founded? Let me elaborate briefly a few of the perhaps more significant connections between these administrative impulses and shared governance, and the ways in which these actions preserve something of the form of shared governance even as it substantially weakens its functioning.
1. Timing. One is always suspicious of major administrative announcements that occur immediately before long holidays or during the summer. Indeed, that sort of timing con be interpreted as disrespectful of shared governance at best, and snaky at worst. It is hardly a confidence building gesture.
2. Consultation versus engagement. One of the key features here worth considering is the way in which the administration reached out to the faculty senate. It suggests at least a rudimentary understanding of the institutional role of the faculty senate. But it completely misses the functional role of that governance within shared governance systems, like universities. Here, in this example, the university administration sought suggestions for a limited number of faculty members to substantially administration dominated committees that will reflect and focus on administration driven concerns. To understand the role of the Faculty Senate and its leadership as little more than a referral service for a few faculty representatives to provide a "rainbow coalition" look to administration committees misses the essential substantive premise of an institutional faculty senate and of its role in shared governance. Worse when that referral role is not binding on the administration. Worse still when the Senate has no role in the construction and operation of the task force. I have considered the institutional role of the faculty in shared governance, focusing on the constitution of a faculty government as a means of effectively organizing the aggregation of individual faculty (each holders of fundamental shared governance power) in the furtherance of an aggregate faculty governance role--On the Institutional Role of a Faculty Senate: Part 1; On the Institutional Role of a Faculty Senate--Part 2.
3. Tokenism; Unbalanced Committees. The organization of both task forces are notable for their imbalance. They are constructed as essentially administration committees, with a small representational element. It's tasks are constructed as administrative and ministerial--though underlying that is their role in fashioning substantial policy choices that faculty, students and sometimes staff traditionally have had a voice in helping to fashion. These task forces undercut that engagement. It offers only the fig leaf of a small number of technically legitimating faculty and students. One can appreciate the importance of filling out the committee with representatives from virtually all affected administrative sectors. That will certainly augment the interests and perspectives of administrators as they seek to coordinate their efforts in this important project. Yet that emphasis on administrative produces a fairly obvious tokenism that itself may reduce the legitimacy of the work of these committees--especially if that work is asserted at all to be representative of an inclusive process of engagement. There is little doubt that administrations do not deliberately, or at least cynically, deploy the practices of tokenism to lend an air of engagement where none is intended. That that perception of tokenism may be unavoidable in this context given the constitution of the committee. Cf. Statement of Senate Chair Made at the January 29, 2013 Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting--Attendance, Alienation and Cronyism
4. Technicity and Policy Choices. It has become more common in institutional cultures, to invert the traditional approach to decision-making and administration. Institutions find it easier to avoid debates about policy choices which lead to discussion of implementation of those choices, and to cultivate discussion of data mining and assessment and to deduce policy choices that seem to be the mandatory consequence of these factual realities, realities that, of course, are managed through the processes of data harvesting, issue definition and presumptions. In this context, all policy choices can be reduced to issues of technology and specific expertise and implementation reduced to ministerial operationalization of the inevitable realities produced through data. Especially in the context of benefits, a witches brew of technically difficult legal and administrative governance frameworks and a desire to avoid the negative effects on morale of negotiating future benefits for current demands on workers, has produced a context in which discussion of policy choices (and especially the identification of those choices) is downplayed in favor of discussion of operationalization of a reality beyond the control of any administrative actor. This is made especially powerful when the conditions within which such policy choices may be made has been managed through strategic purchases of "product" from third party vendors.
Thus, the composition of the task forces adversely affects its substantive operation. It augments a trend, already in evidence in past years, of veiling policy choices and political elements of decision making behind technical rules in a way that appeared to avoid discussion of rationales for policy choices, making them appear “inevitable” or “mandated” by this or that rule. Moreover the strategic use of numbers as an explanation for action (e.g., “This year, University health care costs exceeded $xxx million dollars, with an increase this year alone of more than $yy million dollars.”) may create the appearance that the university is unwilling to discuss issues of benefits because somehow the numbers dictate the results. Yet even the numbers produced may be subject to different interpretation in context (e.g., the $yy million increase is meaningless in the absence of comparative data). It is in this context—the effort to reduce the issue of benefits to an exercise in technocratic and ministerial decision making with little or no policy implications or choices—that one can appreciate the effort to constitute a committee that continues the work of the prior benefits task force, but also find its constitution quite troublesome. The committee is undoubtedly composed of experts, all suitably qualified to deal with administrative and technical concerns. Yet there is no effort to include those elements that represent the communities, whose buy-in to the policy choices made by technically proficient experts is necessary to translate technocratic proposals into acceptable university policy. To that end, the engagement of the institutional voice of the faculty, as a political organ is especially useful, as is the oversight of the board of trustees--not as a sort of absent minded rentier class, or as dependent pets or cronies, but as engaged with the policies and consequences of administrative policy choices.
5. Consultation. The sins of omission and commission described above might be mitigated in the face of a commitment to extensive consultation int he process of developing and fleshing out policy choices and the implementation choices to be proposed by these committees. But that is nowhere in evidence in this example. Indeed, the reverse appears to be the case,. All proposals coming form these committees--proposals that will affect student rights, faculty prerogatives and their relationship to the university in fundamental ways, appear to be targeted for development within these "technical" committees, refined by other administrative organs and then, to the extent necessary, presented --complete-- to "shared governance" partners for "comment" and approval (though approval is only a courtesy and a lack of approval would not hinder adoption, just affect morale. But this is hardly the stuff of shred governance. It is an ode to formal compliance with engagement but one gutted of any functional effect. If what the administration means to do, by presenting the situation described above, is to gut shared governance by preserving its form, it could not have chosen a more elegant means.
6. Substance Matters. The choice of particular subjects for task force resolution, and the determination that a super majority of administrators are best suited to deal with the task force charge are decisions that must be judged in context. Both sexual harassment and health care appear to be subjects best NOT left to the discretion (and internal politics) of senior administrators and their interests. In both cases neither issues of substance nor issues of implementation are the sort of technical and highly specific fields that are beyond the understanding of affected stakeholders, nor are either far removed form discussion of basic values that are at the heart of policy determinations. Both are technical in the sense that policy choices may be constrained by ever more complex legal and regulatory regimes. But these regimes are not beyond the understanding of people who have worked for many years in an academic setting. Nor are these subject areas that are purely within the province of administrative expertise. Indeed, the opposite is true. Administrators tend to have a fairly narrow, and interest driven, view of both--minimize risk and cost to the university and reduce the per unit costs of administration. Both areas lend themselves to extended discussions about university values in the construction of substantive premises and policy choices and in the means ultimately adopted to implement those choices. And both of those ought to favor administrative convenience and risk management less than the substantive values and institutional self conception at the heart of both sexual assault (harassment policies and the structures of benefits.
7. Can this be done better? The question of alternative is inevitable, and rightly so. Criticism is easy, producing alternatives that satisfy the quite legitimate needs of all university stakeholders, including administration, is not an easy task. But there are small fixes that might have ameliorated the no doubt unconsciously detrimental effects of the choices made in constituting and empowering these task forces. First, membership on these committees ought to have included a representative of the institutional Senate whose role is to represent the Senate (rather than to provide technical expertise). Administrative imbalance sends the message, quite loudly, that stakeholders area necessary evil to be managed rather than members of a community whose input might be useful. Second, mechanisms for engagement consultation ought to be built into the work of these committees. It is not enough for university stakeholders to wait patently for the completed work of the task forces with little room to contribute to their work. The appropriate standing committees of the Senate ought to be involved during the time that the task forces are formulating their approaches, analyzing data or determining the shape and scope of policy choices to be made. Third, these task forces ought to engage in transparent and open consultation, with the production of informal progress reports during the course of their work. Yes it is less elegant and it may change the way in which these committees operate--but that is ultimately to the better. The task forces might do well to hold a number of open meetings. Fourth, communications ought to be better timed to avoid the impression of administration sneakiness and engagement avoidance. Fifth, task forces need not be avoided, nor do they necessarily by their nature, undermine shared governance undertaken by a university with its stakeholders. Sometimes bottom up task force proposals may best serve the university, for example (Proposing a Set of Social Media Policy Guidelines For Penn State University). But an insufficient attention to the operation, charging, and composition of such task forces can work to further undermine the partnerships, partnerships that have worked quite well, between administration and faculty, that produce constant advances in the quality of the university as a place to advance knowledge, produce well educated students and reaffirm through conduct, the American ideals of dignified working environments grounded on mutual trust and respect.