Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On the Practice of Town Hall Meetings in Shared Governance--Populist Technocracy and Engagement at Penn State

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

 So-called "town hall meetings" have their origins in efforts to practice direct democracy (but not its binding forms) reflecting the style that echos the informal New England town meetings, generally open to all townspeople (now stakeholders) and held at the town hall (now virtually any venue) and in which the attendees were given an opportunity to present ideas, voice opinions, and ask questions of local public officials. This form of engagement has become an increasingly important feature of governance in both public and private sectors, including universities (see, e.g., here).  Indeed, many organizations now offer "tips" for managing these events (see, e.g., here, here, here, here, and here).

But town hall meetings are now deployed as much to manage stakeholders to to serve as a means of listening to stakeholder ideas, opinions, criticisms and the like. 
For most large-enterprise organizations, the company all-hands or town hall meeting is one of the most important events in a corporate communications strategy. The company town hall is typically an annual or quarterly meeting, attended by every employee, that allows the CEO and/or management to present company goals, awards and recognition; engage in planning sessions; and provide inspiration for the work ahead. (ON24, Town Hall Meetings)
No longer a means of engagement, they appear to have become a technique of control and socialization of productive sectors of institutional communities, as a means of harvesting data to better achieve those ends, and as a form, of socializing productive forces through interaction with high officials who use the opportunity of a town meeting more to speak than to listen.   

I have suggested how university administrations have sought to weaken traditional structures of faculty representation by embracing a populist-technocratic model of governance. And in that context examined a recent example in the form of the announcement of a town hall meeting at Penn State (Practicing Mass Democracy at Penn State: The New Populist-Technocratic Model of University Governance, Socialization, Stakeholder Management and Benefits). 

The Penn State administrative Town Hall Meeting was held as scheduled.  This post considers the way that such town hall meetings effectively convey a very precise set of optics--messages about the ordering of universities, the hierarchies of authority and the socialization of inferior classes within the new governance orders so that shared governance, in its new more deferential form, may be practiced better among appropriately socialized faculty and staff. This analysis is hardly peculiar to Penn State; it reflects instead a trend that is likely to affect the way in which shared governance is coming to be performed in modern U.S. universities.  And it suggests the way that the current principles of tenure and shared governance are increasingly less relevant to the practice of university governance in this century (e.g., here).  

We start by considering the images attached to the official summary of the fist town hall meeting.

 Faculty and staff met in Kern Building, University Park, for the first in a series of planned University Town Hall meetings. Image: Patrick Mansell

Faculty, staff learn about University initiatives, ask questions at Town HallMeeting the first in a series planned to share information with Penn State community
June 4, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Child care, employee recruitment, health care and information technology security were some of the topics covered during a Penn State Town Hall meeting on June 2 that gave faculty and staff the opportunity to ask University administrators questions and share concerns.

Provost Nick Jones and Senior Vice President David Gray took questions from those in the audience as well as those who submitted comments online. It was the first in a series of planned University Town Hall meetings. Jones said the University administration wants to be “sensitive to the fact that a lot of change coming in a relatively short period of time can cause a lot of stress in our community.”

“This is an opportunity to talk openly about change, the changes that you are experiencing, the changes that are coming your way, the changes that you’re concerned about,” Jones said.

Penn State Today and the University Staff Advisory Council sponsored the meeting, which was held in Kern Building on the University Park campus and was streamed live online, allowing members of the University community from across the state to participate.



Child care and a changing work force were among the topics that came up several times, and Jones noted that the University is committed to making investments in the areas the community values. He said there are many areas across the University where greater efficiencies would allow for greater investment in people.

“The challenge we have is when a lot of our investment is tied up in things that it doesn’t need to be tied up in like cumbersome processes, legacy systems, antiquated processes — all of which are costly — our ability to increase revenue, to do more things is more limited than it used to be in the past,” Jones said. “What we’re looking to do is to pull resources out of those places where we don’t need to be spending so that we can invest in the things that we value as a community. There’s a whole host of areas where, I think, we’d like to be making greater investment if we had the resources to do so. Our goal is to pull from the inanimate, if you will, so that we can invest in those things.”

In addition to answering questions, Jones and Gray used the meeting to provide the community with updates on issues including a multi-year initiative to make human resources more streamlined and cost effective; Project LionPath to update the student information system; a structural review of Finance and Business support services; and heightened IT security.

“What we’re asking you all to do is really to join us as we tackle the change that we must,” Gray said. “And it isn’t about taking on change just for its own sake. It’s really about tackling change that’s inevitable and necessary to drive the University forward, to ensure that we’re competitive and financially sustainable for the years to come.”

Gray and Jones provided an update on the state of the University, including its positive financial and academic outlook. Moody’s Investor Services recently affirmed Penn State’s Aa2 rating, as a strong, healthy University with a positive outlook. The University just completed the academic accreditation process with Middle States Commission on Higher Education, with a draft report commending the University in 14 areas of institutional strength.

In response to a question about what the University community can do to be engaged in the process, Gray said the Town Hall was the first in a series of conversations to share thoughts on Penn State’s strengths, challenges, concerns and areas of opportunity. Through that process, he said, the administration will be able to make sounder decisions.

“I think that’s the key thing for us is to have this dialogue so you understand we have a finite resource pool. There’s not any great number of buckets the University can draw upon … We’re going to have to make some difficult calls about priorities and choices and necessary investments that we need to make, whether it’s in child care, whether it’s in health care, or other activity areas,” Gray said. “Engaging each other in that conversation and becoming well-informed about the choices and the challenges the University faces is one of the most important things faculty and staff can do in support of and in alignment with the administration.”

Gray and Jones noted that some of the changes that are expected do not fall under the University’s control. A new state law, for example, has added fingerprinting requirements for those who work directly with minors. Gray said that is something all institutions of higher education in Pennsylvania are working to come to grips with.

“This is not something prescribed by the University, it’s something prescribed by this new state law that we’re all struggling with,” he said.

Gray and Jones also fielded questions and listened to suggestions on a range of topics including making sure all cups and containers used on campus are compostable, expanding mentoring programs and offering free or reduced-cost fitness classes for employees.

“We hope that this will represent the first of many opportunities that we’ll be able to provide for you to share your thoughts, concerns, issues, ask questions, make suggestions, have input, find out things that you didn’t know about, what was going on around the University with us directly,” Jones said, adding that “this is really an opportunity to engage a little bit more deeply.”

Faculty and staff who attended the meeting in person or online are invited to provide feedback about the event by taking an online survey.

The meeting can be viewed online. A second Town Hall will be held in the fall, with details to be announced.
A University Town Hall Meeting, sponsored by Penn State Today and the University Staff Advisory Council (USAC), was held on June 2 in Penn State's Kern Building. Image: Patrick Mansell

But was this the view shared by faculty?  Not all. Here posted to the Facebook site of the Penn State AAUP:

Here is my promised "report" of the Town Hall, based on the raw notes I took during the meeting. I make no claim that this is definitive:

Entering the hall-what's with the armchairs? I made a crack about where are the lamps? We struggled down the ramp and found an accessible seat on the extreme left of the stage. I couldn't see very well.

We began with the Introduction of Messrs Jones and Gray by the secretary of the staff Council. Jones is the first to speak. He states that this will be the first in a series of meetings, the next one in September, which they had to reschedule because the announced date had some sort of conflict. Reason for these events is that "we heard" that people wanted them. Also there was a need to explain that "a lot of change" was coming, and " a lot of change can cause a lot of stress" (there was a mention of "Washington" as one of the major sources of these "stressful changes" (was this a reference to the ACA?). We heard (once again) that this is a "truly great, world class university," as is shown by  the accomplishments of faculty and students, and all that funded research. We are also financially sound, compared to other institutions, with a good "debt rating," lower debt, strong admissions, and the "highest rating for online bachelor's degrees." (We were also reminded yet again of the Wall St. Journal ranking of Penn State as the best for Wall street hires). The "challenges" portion came mainly from VP Gray, who mentioned the age demographics of the state and the affordability issue--our tuition is the second highest among all public universities in the US.

By the time Jones turned to the topic of "strategic planning," I was beginning to squirm impatiently in my chair. The next section is a total blank--my only notes are cries of boredom, except for this line "our vision is a Penn State that embraces change."

The changes were described as follows-: The creation of a "streamlined," more centralized H. R., which project had already begun in two colleges, including mine (Arts and Architecture). Other initiatives are a new Payroll system, "Project Work-Lion", apparently a new H.R. computer system, Project Lionpath, and Ibis, a new financial system. The purpose of these systems was described as "eliminating redundancies and reducing costs," which I took as code for lay-offs and increased centralization, moving away from a college-based system, at least at U. P.

Health Benefits were briefly addressed, and the Health Advisory Committee was described as "working religiously for the past year" to come up with plans for a "sustainable" and "quality" Health plan going forward. No changes for the coming year, which means that the extreme indexing of the more comprehensive PPO Blue plan,as well as the spousal and smoking surcharges, will presumably be carried over to next year (unfortunately).

Question time was introduced by Jill Shockey of Penn State News. First up was Joe Cusumano of the AAUP, who asked some probing questions about Penn State's sustainability and environmental policies, especially in relation to the (still pending?) sale of Penn State land to Ferguson township, and from there to the Toll Brothers for a massive and water-quality threatening student housing development. The basic response was that "we stand to make money from the purchase of this land," to use to purchase other land. I personally found this both revealing and evasive.

From there, the first of several questions about the present and future character of employee child care, which seemed to elicit a promise to consult with the Faculty Senate and other community groups--including the parents of children enrolled in these programs. Among the other issues raised regarding this topic were the impact of child care policy on retention and recruitment of faculty, and a call for Penn State to be a "leader" in this field, rather than a follower of recent trends toward privatization.

Another questioner asked Penn State to take a stand on the issue of climate change, and to start by considering divestment of its endowment funds in fossil fuel companies. The response seemed to indicate that no such change was being contemplated at this time, for what were described as finical reasons.

The issue of State-mandated background checks and fingerprinting was raised, and Jones/Gray responded that while thy had their own objections to the policy, there seemed to be no way around it.

I asked for clarification of the new policy, announced in April, that set an age limit of 26 on the tuition discount for employee children. Provost Jones appeared to indicate that the limit was for the commencement of four-year study at the university, meaning that the real limit was more like 26-30. Since this policy has still yet to be posted anywhere that I can find, I can't check on it.

Other issues like subsidies of fitness programs and paid maternity leave for both parents were introduced as well.

But for me, the most telling questions as the meeting came to an end were 1. A colleague in the African Studies program, who described the status of foreign scholars and faculty as "second class citizens," and 2. A powerful question, from a staff member, about the enduring "fear of retaliation" in cases of reporting wrongdoing. The presence of so many "carry-overs" from the former Spanier administration was described as a significant cause of this fear. In a surprising candid response, David Gray described his own investigation of this troubling statistic from the recent "Penn State Values" survey, which revealed that some of the worst problems in this connection were rooted in his own Business and Finance division.

On this deeply disturbing and sobering note, the meeting came to an end. PS: This is only my report, of what stood out to me during and after the meeting. Please feel free to add your own impressions below.

Why the distance between the official record of the event and the recollection of that same event by its audience and spectators?  Perhaps one can get a glimpse by the messages embedded in the form and conduct of the meeting itself:

1. Consider the staging of the event.  As "performed"--staged and managed (the production values of the event)--the Town Hall meeting emphasized quite strongly the distance between speaker and audience, and the hierarchy that emphasized the status of administrators and those of faculty. Indeed the entire setting was a study in binaries and opposites:

a.  The room. The meeting was held in a classroom auditorium designed to emphasize the hierarchy of instruction with a privileged place for the instructor now occupied by the senior administrators, and the  student seats occupied by faculty.  Ironically this is the room in which University Faculty Senate Meetings are held, which are also highly scripted and formal affairs that rely not merely on rules for its conduct but also on the status differences between Senate leaders and rank and file.  But this was not supposed to be a Senate meeting; yet the physical space created incentives to conduct the meeting that way. 

b. The seats.  One of the most curious design elements of the meeting space was the decision to use large comfortable overstuffed sofa like chairs at the from of the meeting room on which the senior administrators sat.  Faculty sat in the auditorium on much more humble and standardized seats. From a distance the chairs looked like seats reserved for special or higher ranking individuals, the auditorium seats were available for undifferentiated faculty.  The seats appeared at the from of the classroom space, the auditorium seats were spread out from that centering location.  No "round table" symbolism here; a dais was constructed, seats of honor, redolent with the symbolism of hierarchy and control.  Just the opposite--these were the optics of status and of hierarchy; these were the manifestation of a use of space for symbolic purposes--to emphasize control.  The imagery was quite specific and it helped set the tone for the "conversation" that followed. 

c.  The background Image.  It is interesting that the image "curtain" behind the seat dais.  It is deliberately architectural in an official style--complete with a column crowned with a Greek capital reminiscent of the audience halls of leaders, now transposed into the town meeting format.  Indeed, none of these architectural and spatial features are unique to Penn State, nor do they signify a transformation.  The opposite is true--Penn State's administrators' are merely adapting a culturally strong set of images that have been deployed by their status cohort--senior executives in large corporations, political figures, and others in positions of authority that seek to reach down to stakeholders for purposes of appearing receptive to contact with inferiors but with the purpose of managing those relations and softening the brutal realities of vertical power relations (e.g., here, here, here, and here).  That it is now embraced by the university--and in the face of the ideology of shared governance--suggests a quite disturbing public affirmation of the rejection in fact of traditional models in favor of a radically re imagined version in which what is shared is not governance but merely its appearance.

2. Consider then the way that the Town Hall was conducted.  This was a highly staged event.  There was no discussion.  There was no give and take, and there was no exchange of views.  But none of these were expected (despite the name of the event).  The senior administrators at the front of the room were in control of the agenda, in control of the rhythm of question and answer, and ultimately in control of the progression of the meeting.  Questions could be submitted or asked in person; the senior administrators would respond as they liked. Yet the tone and the agenda remained firmly in control of the two people sitting in the chairs at the front of the room. That reality might well have shaped both the questions and the comments from the faculty in attendance.  The senior administrators were there to speak, to inform, to prepare staff (faculty) for sacrifices which they (faculty) might have to be prepared to suffer because of 8As is usually the case in these matters) events beyond the control of individuals or institutions.  And indeed, as we have come to understand, the "magic" of the market is that it may be blamed for virtually all things that must be done--human agency disappears and is ground up in its logic.  One wonders, though, if that is indeed the case, then it appears that administrators, and administrative salaries, can hardly be justified, since as is often the case when decisions must be taken, they are caused or shaped by the "market" or other events beyond the control of these higher waged employees exercising a discretion that appears quite passive indeed. Yet that cannot be true.  One then ought to be cautious when "markets" or other events are offered up as fetishes or magical explanations for the state of things in ways that tend to absolve administrators of either responsibility for events and their consequences or accountability for their actions that might contribute to or might have been useful to ameliorate conditions.

3. Consider then who was identified and spotlighted in the official summary of the event.  The de-centering of faculty and the focus on the "hosts" reaffirms the one sided and authoritarian character of these events.   The official summary provides a fairly innocuous and unconscious affirmation of the critical importance of the thoughts of senior administrator participants in the "dialogue" and minimizes the actual participation of faculty who were ostensibly the object of this exercise. The official summary, indeed, strips off the existence of faculty except perhaps as a foundation on which the pronouncements of the attending senior executives could be highlighted.  These senior executives are quoted for the important points they made and for their answers to questions, the answers to which serve the purpose of managing the official summary of the event.  Contrast that official summary to that unofficial summary made from the faculty ranks.  Anyone reading both understands that, irrespective of the substance of the discussion, it is clear that the only important voice is that of the administrators.  And thus hierarchy is again reinforced, the character of shared governance re-shaped and the relationship between "leader" and "staff" more sharply drawn.  And, of course, the elephant in the room--nowhere visible in these careful casting of imagery and the textual summary of the events is the official and institutional voice of the faculty--the University Faculty Senate.  They have disappeared in favor of the populist direct relationship between university leaders and the faculty.

4. Consider the way that the photo captions emphasized governance hierarchies. The picture of the senior administrators at the first town hall meeting was used twice.  First to describe the first town hall and second to announce the holding of a second town hall  meeting. The caption of the first use of the picture was ironic.  It described the picture of the senior administrators sitting on their chairs  as "Faculty and staff met in Kern Building, University Park, for the first in a series of planned University Town Hall meetings."  No faculty are in evidence.  The picture emphasizes both that the administrators present were central to the event, and that they were in control.  Faculty, serving in a "cast of thousands" capacity were neither necessary for an image of a meeting with faculty nor were any of them necessary as part of an image capturing the event.  More telling, perhaps, though the picture was of two senior administrators, neither were identified, suggesting perhaps that they themselves embodied the true spirit and will of the body of the faculty, and charged with the communication of that will to individuals. The second use of the same picture (below) was more self conscious of the power dynamics of these events.  It identified the senior administrators pictured, and referenced their role in "hosting" the event and then reinforced the administratively directed collaborative nature of the event ("The event was an opportunity for faculty and staff to talk about the direction of the University, and to discuss its strengths, challenges and future opportunities").  

The second picture was used in variation. The first, also emphasized the senior administrators, but this time from a distance, cast against the backdrop of a nicely designed graphic.  It shows the room, with a faculty member in the distance standing and speaking to the senior administrators.  The second, announcing the second Town Hall Meeting, was taken from a slightly closer perspective.  This time, it included a closer view of the back of a lone faculty member standing, speaking to the senior administrators, sitting in the far distance. Both images suggest the direction of conversation--from faculty, standing, to administrators, sitting across a wide expanse.  And both images suggest the way in which the conversation is mediated through a third party, one that stands between the faculty "contributor" to dialog and the administrators to which all statements and questions are directed.  Both pictures make clear that the conversation is hierarchical, ritualized and proceeds to a central authority which absorbs information, and speaks.

5. Consider last what was emphasized in the reference to the first Town Hall Meeting within the announcement of the second event.  In light of the analysis of the symbols and signals within which the first town hall meeting was performed, the description of the event in the announcement of a second town hall meeting sounds odd indeed--the textual creation of a fantasy history that remakes the actual character of the event as performed.  Or perhaps better put, the irony of the construction of the Populist Technocratic governance modalities that these town hall meetings represent.  One senior official is quoted as stating, “We want to continue the discussions that began at the first Town Hall meeting.” And so it will likely be--but the words must be understood within the structures of populist technocracy--discussion means the exercise of hierarchically managed exchanges in which senior officials make statement, gauge reaction (through questions and comments), identify sources of trouble that might have to be met to ensure the smooth implementation of a policy already likely in its early stages of implementation, and sensitive to the maintenance of the appearance of democratic engagement.

But the greatest evidence of the effect of the new model of shared governance.  Throughout the description of the Town Hall Meeting, senior administrators have a name, have an identity and a connection to the institution.  Faculty have no names, they are the undifferentiated mass, components of a singular abstraction--the faculty--which acquires a body of its own.  And that is the great tragedy of the populist technocratic model--it obliterates individual faculty as persons and reconstitutes them an an amalgam--profit center, cost of production, etc.--and only senior administrators retain their individuality.  Within this context shared governance will wither.

That withering shows its earliest sign in the cavalier way in which the institutional voice of the faculty--its official mass identity--is ignored in favor of a construction that appear made more to the liking of the senior administrators. And again, in an event to which faculty are encouraged to participate--the sponsors include a group of university governance organs other than the University Faculty Senate that appears to have disappeared entirely now from the space set apart for shared governance.  The framework of shared governance is certainly changing, and the nature of expectations for faculty participation within structures of governance in which faculty roles are diminishing,


And this, of course, serves as the foundation for the second of this series of "Town Hall" meetings.  Indeed, the announcement publicized by Penn State University of a second Town Hall Meeting included photos of the first.  It appears that the format, as well as the presentation, was viewed as productive--the organizers appear happy to follow the same format. . . and to send out the same messages about power, hierarchy and the growing distance between an administration that speaks, and a faculty that listens, organized in a format that is sponsored by administration and staff, and executed by the media sector of the university. As sociology this is an important lesson for those of us who study the evolution of governance structures at universities. 

The announcement of the second Town Hall meeting reinforces the managerial characteristics of these events, and as well, the cementing of the distance--the great "authority space" that now separates rank and file knowledge providers (faculty) from their superiors (managers).  

 Penn State Provost Nick Jones, left, and Senior Vice President David Gray, hosted a University town hall meeting on June 2 at Kern Building. The event was an opportunity for faculty and staff to talk about the direction of the University, and to discuss its strengths, challenges and future opportunities. Image: Patrick Mansell

Second Town Hall meeting scheduled for September
Mark your calendars for next talk with University leaders

June 15, 2015
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The second in a series of University Town Hall meetings will take place 3:30-5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30, with the location yet to be determined. This information reflects a change in date from when the meeting was first announced.

Penn State Today and the University Staff Advisory Council (USAC) are sponsoring the meetings to provide an avenue for faculty and staff to learn about changes and new initiatives, ask questions and share concerns and ideas. Topics at the first meeting, held June 2, included child care, employee benefits and University investments. A video of the first Town Hall meeting is available for viewing.

In addition to fielding questions, Provost Nick Jones and Senior Vice President David Gray provided updates on a number of topics, including the University’s sound financial and academic standing, information technology security and an initiative to streamline human resources.

“We want to continue the discussions that began at the first Town Hall meeting,” Jones said. “It was encouraging to see such broad participation, and we’re enthusiastic about continuing to use these sessions to listen to concerns and share information about where the University is now, our strategic goals for the future and how we can work together to make optimal use of our resources.”

As with the first Town Hall, members of the University community will be able to submit questions in person or via email and Twitter. The meeting will be streamed live online, with the Web address announced prior to the meeting. More information will be available closer to the start of the fall semester.

 Image: Patrick Mansell


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