Sunday, July 26, 2015

"We Abhor Retaliation But Expect Loyalty to Our Decisions" -- Techniques that Undermine University Shared Governance, the Honorable Mentions and the Deeper Issues they Reveal

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have posted thought on my list of the top ten techniques that administrations currently have deployed to undermine shared governance ("You Don't Have the Authority": Counting Down the Top Ten Techniques that Undermine University Shared Governance).  I should add that these techniques were not necessarily developed nor are now utilized solely to undermine shared governance.  My sense is that these techniques are useful in a variety of situations, including when faculties and traditional forms of shared governance seem to get in the way of an evolving sense of administrative prerogative within the "business" of running a university. 

That the techniques are not necessarily developed to subvert shared governance for its own sake hardly absolves an administration that on the one hand heralds its embrace of shared governance and on the other engages in radical industry transforming actions that  enhance structures in which faculty become "knowledge workers" on an assembly line the principal purpose of which seems to be the "production" of units (students) ready fr insertion in labor markets at a level commensurate with the reputation of the university itself.

This post is dedicated to listing the honorable mentions, those techniques that undermine shared governance but that did not make the original top ten list.  If there are others you find useful to share, please send them in (and in the spirit of honorable Mention No. 1 below) via personal email from a non-university computer using non-university provided internet service.  

1. "We abhor cultures of retaliation but we expect fidelity to decision taken by administrators".

Soft retaliation has become quite fashionable.  It has the benefit of sounding grand--the institution cultivates full and frank discussion in the determination of decisions, which are reserved to administrators in their discretion. But decisions taken may not be questioned--punishment for criticism of decisions made is nor retaliation, it is disciplining subordinate workers and enforcing loyalty throughout the institution. Perhaps the University of Maryland system has been most frank in the pursuit of frank discussion and uncritical loyalty:
Faculty and staff who do not hold administrative appointments, and all students, may express their opinions freely on all shared governance matters without retaliation. Administrators, including faculty holding administrative appointments, may also express their opinions freely during policy discussions, without retaliation, but once a decision is reached they are expected to support and implement policy as determined by the institutional leadership. (University of Maryland, I - 6.00 POLICY ON SHARED GOVERNANCE IN THE UNIVERSITY SYSTEM OF MARYLAND, Policy III-K (July 26, 2015).
The policy is not unusual by any stretch.  It is certainly common in industry and other institutions dedicated to productive work, especially those organized in vertical hierarchies. But within a political institution, and especially a state institution ultimately grounded in democratic principles ("the final responsibility for decision-making rests with institutional Presidents, the Chancellor, or the Board of Regents, who are ultimately held accountable by the public and its elected leaders" University of Maryland I-600 Policy on Shared Governance, supra., III-M)  the policy creates cognitive dissonance. It effectively appears to impose a system of democratic centralism that has its roots in the organization of internal democracy in Marxist Leninist vanguard organizations (see, e.g., V.I. Lenin, Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P., A Letter to the St. Petersburg Workers (1906) ("Freedom of discussion, unity of action—this is what we must strive to achieve.") Wang Chuanzhi, Democratic Centralism: The Core Mechanism in China’s Political System, Qiushi Vol. 5(4) (Oct. 2013)). It is in this sense that retaliation can be understood as a species of the "you don't have authority" technique discussed in my top ten list ("You Don't Have the Authority" , supra) precisely in part because faculty may be understood as having no authority to question established policy.

Beyond the perverse irony, this more than typical approach produces a large area of discretion I call soft retaliation. Soft retaliation is fostered by an increasing gulf between university faculty and administrators about what retaliation means (see, e.g., here). Soft retaliation gives rise to a number of techniques that may not arise to formal breaches of faculty rights, but which effectively penalize faculty who do not conform. These include, most effectively, transferring the power to decide what issues are up for discussion, when discussion musty end, and what sort of discussion constitutes insubordination to the administrators. The application of the techniques may be subtle, but incorporate everything from the move toward civility (see here, and here versus here) to the management of social media  discussion by faculty (see, e.g., here and here). Interestingly, this is an area where it is easiest to foster faculty complicity (see here, and here. The techniques do not undermine shared governance directly, but they do serve to chill faculty in the exercise of shared governance.  For that reason, while an important area of discussion in its own right, it deserved an honorable mention.

2. "Neutral assessment is the touchstone of our  academic cultures" 
Assessment is another techniques that might fall within the category of soft retaliation, but might well deserve its own  space.  Like soft retaliation it is a technique that is useful not for undermining shared governance directly, but for chilling faculty in the exercise of shared governance activities.  It is as well, a very useful mechanism for disciplining faculty  along that very undefined territory that marks the boundary between the "available for discussion" and "fidelity to decisions taken" zones discussed in No. 1 above.  The topic of assessment, like retaliation, is much broader than shared governance, but there are a number of techniques that might be understood as assessment based but with an effect on shared governance. Some of these might be easier to use outside the United States than within the American academy.   These include procrastination, benefits penalties and control of course content.

A. Procrastination: "If I control  authorization I control you". This technique can be used by administrators who want to use their power indirectly to affect faculty productivity by affecting the timing and availability of unit support for faculty work. The rumor of its availability or use can be enough to make faculty cautious about "misbehaving"--especially since this sort of (mis)behavior is extremely hard to prove. Here is the university recast, not as a learning factory, but as a large family, and administrators are like fathers and mothers who treat their children equally, but who may punish by withholding attention. Everyone needs grants and funding but, approving research grants, external funding applications, hiring decisions, promotions to full professorship, conference leave, research leave, and cooperative projects provides a way of affecting performance and thus of affecting assessment.  It is not unheard for faculty to understand that administrators will stand in their way and drag their feet in approving many forms of such requests.  Even of the delay if too obvious, it ids also possible to delay through a process of comments made seriatim. Requests never get authorized in a timely way because there is always a question or a problem that requires time to formulate, send to the faculty making the request, and then answering and returning the modified requested. But rumor also plays a great role.  Rumors of an unwillingness to authorize may also chill faculty. 

B. Taking back privileges and benefits. This technique is related to procrastination but involves the taking back what was once given.  Art its limit, and especially where administrators may be disciplining contract faculty, the technique may have uses other than to chill shared governance, including to increase the rate of staff turnover, open new positions, boost the hiring rate, and make universities more dynamic, competitive and able to confront new challenges in a globalized world. It works best when benefits are removed with little notice and at times when faculty find it hard to respond.  In some cases, institutional leaders may make such decisions immediately before becoming unavailable. Most faculty are well aware of this technique--the shuffling of office space, the reduction in allowances, and the like.
C. “Let us send you the syllabus” and administrative review. In some systems, administrators may have greater authority over the content of courses and may discipline faculty to ensure compliance. While normally a matter of university cultures, the authority has shared governance undermining potential as well, especially when there is a connection between faculty involvement in governance and the occurrence of these actions: quality controls by administrators make sure the syllabus does not change over time; giving teachers the mandatory syllabus a very short time before the course starts; waiting outside the classroom, entering the classroom unannounced, or asking teachers to report on students' class performance and attitude.
D. Applying the Rules Evenly.  Every faculty member  has heard stories of the  administrator who manages his or her unit through adoption of a policy of favoritism in the application of discretionary decisions.  These apply not just to the provision of benefits but also in the application of the rules of the university.  Presence at the university is a good example of the potential for the (mis)use of discretionary authority to punish faculty who stand between an administrator and her desires in governance matters, and to do so effectively with impunity.  Consider the University of Wyoming's policy (here). 
Responsible and effective conduct of professional duties requires that faculty members be routinely present on campus throughout the academic year, in order to interact with students, faculty colleagues, administrators and staff. We expect faculty members exercise good judgment in performing their duties, and failure to do so in a department head’s or dean’s assessment can affect decisions about work assignments, performance evaluations, salary, retention, and promotion. (University of Wyoming, Pythian Papers on Academic Careers Expectations for FACULTY MEMBERS’ PRESENCE ON CAMPUS (Myron Allen, Provost, undated) p. 2).

The policy appears to be reasonable on its face; perhaps it is.  What stands out, however, is the authority given to administrators to make judgments about the application  of the rules to faculty, especially in areas where administrative discretion can have a substantial effect on careers: conference travel (Ibid., p. 6 ("Professional travel may have to be scaled back if it adversely interferes with student interactions, service responsibilities on campus, faculty governance, or other collaborative endeavors. A faculty member’s department head does have the right and, indeed, the responsibility to put limits on professional travel if the faculty member’s performance is affected or the mission of the department is impaired. ")).  The rule, innocuous enough on its face, opens the door to administrative use to chill the quality of faculty governance.  If one has the fear that an administrator's decisions with respect to professional travel is essentially unappealable (invoking formal faculty grievance procedures are costly and unpredictable) and does not have to be justified, then faculty may modify behaviors to please their administrative masters. We have all heard stories of colleagues subjected to these sorts of discretionary application of rules  after incurring an administrator's "unhappiness" for opposing some thing or other new to her heart. This goes beyond the usual (though unethical) pattern of administrators playing favorites. The mis(use) of administrative discretion instrumentally to manage f governance is certainly a technique that is no doubt in play somewhere. And because such discretionary decisions leave a tremendous space for applying discretion, administrators working within such rule systems tend to enjoy virtual impunity.
 3. "I benchmark my policy choices." 
The logic of the herd runs deep in academia.  While it is true enough that academic institutions are  prestige factories, it is also true that as institutions, academic enterprises are extraordinarily conservative organizations.  And they are also extremely risk averse.  So what one has, increasingly in this industry, is the adoption of the language of entrepreneurship and innovation within an organizational culture that fears  innovation except as a lock step project conceived in committee and dedicated to the proposition that all academic institutions resemble each other (within their prestige caste). Universities have formed quite active organizations for that purpose.  And universities have become better at disciplining their own for failures to act in lock step with the herd norms.  The Association of American Universities (AAU)  provides a recent example (see here).  The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) is another example.  None of this appears connected to shared governance.  Yet, these organizations might be considered at the forefront of shared governance's undermining.  Why?  Because they tend to serve, like trade associations, as an alternative basis for policy and engagement, for industry discipline, beyond the ability of any institution-bound stakeholder to influence.  And they tend to serve as a more important source of administrative discipline than any internal stakeholder. In effect, organizations like CIC and AAU have become, over the course of these last several generations, as the stakeholder community of administrators who, among their own kind and privileging their own shared values as administrative officials, have supplanted internal stakeholders as the most important sources of accountability and shared values among American universities. Shared governance, in effect, is now shared among similar classes of university administrators, than among the various internal stakeholders of any single university.  The campaign to de-center faculty from classroom education provides a case in point (see here). How does this re-direction of shared governance work?  Through benchmarking.  Benchmarking has progressed from a means of gauging policy choices against those made by peers (a good picture of positive benchmarking  may be painted here) to a self reinforcing system of disciplining choices within an industry (see, e.g., here, and consider the limiting case here). It has become a means of substituting the practices of the herd for engagement with internal stakeholders.  And it has become a touchstone through which benchmarking has become the foundation for assessment by third parties. The bench mark may well have replaced engagement with stakeholders as the principal basis through which universities now engage in policy deliberations.  There is protection in herd behavior. 

No comments:

Post a Comment