Friday, May 1, 2015

Power and Control Through the Prism of Benefits -- Between Administration and Faculty Senates Shared Governance When Convenient

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)

The relationship between the institutional voice of a faculty, usually organized, as it is at Pennsylvania State University, through a University Faculty Senate, and an increasingly professionalized cadre of administrators, organized within a substantially autonomous and self-referencing organizational structure from out of which it manages and controls sub-system to sub-system structural coupling (see eg here and here (at pp. 15-25)), and usually in the form data harvesting and command communications,  has been quite dynamic over the course of the last several years.  That dynamism evidences both changes in practices and shifts in power among the various sub-systems (administrative organizations, faculty senate, board of trustees, legislature, etc.) that together formally constitute the governance apparatus of the university. 

The currency of power is usually expressed as control over (1) factors in the production of university wealth and prestige, (2) the results of that production (usually measured in money). The exercise of that power is usually effectuated through mechanisms, the objectives of which are to (1) socialize subordinate factors of production within power regimes (eg to get labor to do what is commanded or to accept what is done), and (2) to mask the realities of control through elaborate systems of transparency that feigns engagement but offers only the provision of information.

This post considers these trends in the context of the rejection, by Penn State's administrative apparatus, of the recommendations of the University Faculty Senate, and the larger institutional context, relevant to universities nationally, that these represent. I welcome a conversation and continue to look forward to rewarding interactions with all university stakeholders.


The socialization of subordinate (human) factors in the production of university wealth and the masking of control relationships beneath a formal structure of shared governance was much in evidence at the meeting of the Penn State University Faculty Senate on April 28, 2015. Two items in particular served to nicely illustrate the realities of power and the precariousness of a faculty role in shared governance--one the scope of which is quite clearly dependent on the whims of the administrative apparatus of the university--both related to the now multi-year disagreement between faculty and administrative apparatus about the nature, character and quality of benefits at Penn State (see here, here, here and here).

At issue at the April meeting was the response of the administrative apparatus to the advisory and consultative recommendations of the University Faculty Senate respecting its disapproval of efforts to deny education benefits to older dependents (which was viewed as discriminatory in character, even if not legally actionable (see eg here)), and the other concerning a series of recommendations about the administration and instrumental use of benefits to manage individuals into administratively preferred decisions (see here and here).

In a dramatic turn, the representatives of the highest levels of the administrative apparatus choose to announce their response to the Faculty Senate's recommendations through the reading of a carefully scripted address delivered, without any advance indication to any of the members of the Faculty Senate, at the plenary meeting. The address of the University Provost makes for some drama.  But more importantly, it illustrates an interesting turn in the nature of the relations with faculty--one that is reflected in a hierarchical view of governance that has become something of a consensus view among the administrative class (see eg here, but see here, here, and here).  

Those interested should take the time to view the Mediasite video of the Faculty Senate meeting address by the Penn State University Provost, whose rejection of the Faculty's recommendations  along with the removal of the tuition discount for children of employees beyond the age of 26, will likely have repercussions well beyond the substantive decisions announced at the meeting.  There was a reason for the carefully crafted optics of the delivery of this "bad news" in person and orally before the body of the Senate--one that was meant to reinforce and emphasize the power relations between administration and faculty and to drive home the point of both dependence and contingency of authority. It was a public rebuke by power offended that its subordinate mistook the courtesy of advance information for permission to engage with its substance. The speech may be viewed here about 35 minutes in.

Some very preliminary observations:

1. Transparency and effective engagement continue to be defined by the administrative apparatus and for its convenience.  Most telling in this respect--though the administration had taken the decisions it announced at the meeting well beforehand, and had taken the time to craft a carefully constructed explanation, neither the decision nor a copy of the remarks were made available to Senate leadership before thew actual presentation.  Beyond the shabby treatment of Senate leadership, it suggests and reinforces the subordinate status of the faculty especially with respect to matters that the administrative apparatus is unwilling to speak to anyone but themselves and their paid outside advisers.

2. The rationale for the rejections of the Senate position indicates a turn, common to other university administrative organizations, to herd mentality governance, one that places more authority in the consensus among administrators across universities, than in the particular contexts of the institutions that oversee. That, perhaps, is both the strength and folly of mania for benchmarking--which substitutes the consensus of the herd for sound context based decision making, but also protects administrative decisions precisely because the only decision made was to follow the herd.  But the habits of wildebeests in the veld is hardly a sound administrative model for large complex universities.

3.  Administrations continue to seek the comfort of formal compliance and formal systems to veil functional shifts in administrative priorities.

4.  Engagement appears to have become less important as a marker of relations between administration and Senate.  The role of the Senate appears increasingly to receive information rather than engage with it in the context of policy making (discussed here).  The sole constraint of the apparatus is hierarchical and superior to the administrative aspparatus.

5.  University administrations appear to be embracing more and more a technical role for well chosen faculty (individuals) and reject a robust institutional role for faculty (faculty as a body) in the development and implementation of policy (discussed here). Shared governance increasingly appears to mean the forms through which selected faculty chosen for their technical proficiency or other attributes, are appointed to committees directed by and for the attainment of administrative objectives. Short comment opportunities may be afforded the institutional voice of the faculty, but the understanding is that the policy has been chosen and only technical corrections will be entertained. Policy is beyond the reach of the faculty (Discussed here).

6. The phrase "this is a large and complex institution" is not meant as a description of an institution, it is meant as a barrier to effective engagement.  Administration is now the domain of specialists who, through their intense and superior knowledge, have become the high priests of the cult religion of university operation. And it might then follow that discussion is also only authentic within this class of administrator-priests (the model is ancient and well known in other contexts).  The echo chamber that is produced by this system of self-referencing operation is only broken through the managed intervention of paid outsiders--consultants and the like--who are hired to provide products and services for the consumption of the apparatus. 

7.  One of the most interesting aspects of the rationales for rejection of the Senate position was that the rejection (in this case of the imposition of age limits on tuition discounts for dependents) was part of a comprehensive program of reform and that, for that reason, it would be impossible to extract this reform out without endangering the others.  The idea of "package deal" policy is not novel, nor is it unique to academic institutions.  Yet its deployment also suggests a strong message, that policy itself is not for discussion and that, therefore, the invitation to discuss the proposals are not an invitation to engage in discussions of policy.  If that is th case then the hierarchical character of shared governance becomes clearer (discussed here in the context of structuring the faculty role in governance)  Policy is for the administrative apparatus--for the faculty there is only an opportunity to engage in technical review.  The mechanics of power nicely masks its objective--to produce an optics of complicity in policy formation stripped of any authority to actually contribute to policy.

8.  That optics of complicity may be a consequence of the herd mentality to policy that universities tend to embrace.  If all universities within a "peer group" have a Senate that operates within certain parameters, then it is necessary in order to retain the characteristics of herdship for the university to retain such structures but only within such parameters.  Those parameters are structured along formalist lines.  Only appearances count.  And thus the Senate, and shared governance is reduced to a set of calculated and managed optics--all to the maximization of the desires of the administrative apparatus.  It is not for nothing then, that the Provost chose to deliver his remarks orally, that is that the Provost performed the administrative response to the Senate's acts of benefits lèse majestés. That represented not merely a break with past practice, that was based on the delivery of written notice, and thus an opportunity to study and seek to engage the decision, but also a public means of driving home the point that the Senate was no partner in this enterprise (see point 5 above).

9.   Lèse majestés premises then provide the structures within which the Senate operates in the newly announced environment, the operating frameworks of which might be summarized like this (a) administrations speak, faculty listen, at least in matters of policy and policy formulation; (b) in lieu of an institutional role for the faculty in such policy projects, individual and selected members of faculty may be used to lend technical expertise but only for moving forward administrative policy determinations; (c) the administrative apparatus may hear but are not obliged to listen; (d) engagement, institutionally arranged is personalized--the system makes it more likely that it will be operated under a "leader" model and cults of personality among leading elements of the apparatus may emerge, so that policy and politics might be transformed from institutional to personal.   

10.  Penn State, of course, is neither exceptional nor notable for these changes.  It represents merely one illustration of a much more profound development in the organization and operation of academic institutions.  These are merely the markers of societal changes that have been long in coming and are common to the industry as it reorders power in the face of what its leaders perceive as threats from the state (through regulation), the dangers of demographic shifts (in the form of student enrollment and retention) and the possibility of power and financial reallocation made possible by the great shifts in societal beliefs about the nature character and role of faculty within institutions increasingly seen as principally engaged in the production of labor commodities to fuel productive markets. These are the consequences of foundational movements in culture that represent large numbers of decisions and changes in perception that have been gestating fr at least a generation.  It is unlikely that, except at the margins, the process is either reversible or likely to change course. For faculty, of course, that might require a more conscious effort to seek to better control public perception and to redefine the nature and character of their utility in a social, economic, and political context increasingly remote from that which produced, several generations ago, what may increasingly be seen nostalgically as a golden age of the university and of faculty governance.

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