(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)
It is well understood by now that the societal context in which issues of shared governance are discussed, and its character shaped, have been changing dramatically. Much of this change is tied to changes in the way that faculty at universities are characterized--from professionals and knowledge leaders to employees in learning factories who require the discipline of administrators. Some "critics long have pointed to the skewed power tenured professors and other employees have in decision-making, at an ever-rising cost to taxpayers." Courtney Mullen, Lawmakers: We won’t be swayed by University of Wisconsin System president’s threats, WisconsonWatchdog,org.
Much of the attention has been on politically ambitious members of the political class who have sought to transform shared governance as a formal matter. Among the leaders of this movement is the current Governor of Wisconsin, an individual with presidential ambitions. Wisconsin has recently removed statutory protections for tenure in its university system and shared governance (the faculty's "primary responsibility" for academic and educational activities and personnel matters). See, e.g., here.
But university administrators have a host of techniques that can be deployed to undermine shared governance without the politically costly effort to mandate the transformation of the professorate into production line workers, whose job is to obey and not engage in the production and dissemination of knowledge (the sources and content of which are critically dependent on their habits, culture and autonomy).
This post includes my "top ten" administrative techniques that administrators may be using to effectively undermine shared governance:
1. "You don't have the authority."2. "We can't share that information."3. "Let's form a Task Force"4. "This is a technical issue that requires administrative expertise"5. "You have a conflict of interest"6. "Let us define the premises for you"7. "We consulted faculty; we reached out to specific faculty directly who we thought had expertise"8. "We consulted. . .we showed you the final draft shortly before roll out and asked your opinion"9. "You take too long. . we need to do this now."
10. "An outside agency is making us do this."
Each is briefly discussed below. If you have other ploys you have discovered, please share!
1. "You don't have the authority."
This is an old one but now reinvented for modern times. Originally it was a crude method of delineating lines of authority and most often used by university provosts or presidents who were of a mind to insist on things their way. Faculties had little choice in most cases, but morale would likely suffer, complaints would seep in around senior administrators. As a consequence the use of the technique, if used too crudely would backfire and ultimately undermine the administration of those altogether too eager to use it. Today this method has been transformed in line with the bureaucratization of university administration. It is deployed in two very interesting ways. The first is to undermine the internal operation of representative faculty organizations. I have heard of instances, from various places in the United States, where middle level senior administrators have sought to challenge senate officer decisions about the conduct of the internal operations of the faculty organization. This is usually done when faculty organizations have authority over some aspect of university operations--usually curricular or programmatic--that an administrator seeks to change. The second is to undermine the authority of such faculty organizations within the institution. This is the more traditional approach, but is now used in a new way: usually that involves disaggregating decision making and asserting that with respect to certain elements of a once unified decision or problem, the faculty organization has no authority. A good example involves curricular issues where administrators might take the position that assessment (including assessment of content and pedagogy) is an administrative prerogative and falls outside the preview of the faculty organization.
2. "We can't share that information."
What forms does this take? There are several examples. Some universities, especially those that advertise their transparency tend to keep two sets of data--those that they will share with stakeholders and those that they will not. The "no share" data includes much that one would expect, especially personal information and privacy tinged data. But it can include substantially more than that. The no share data can include whatever the university seeks to shield from prying eyes, including and perhaps especially that information that might give its administrators an advantage in negotiations with other stakeholders. This might include performance information of ts units, aggregate data relating to assessment and information used by senior administrators to formulate policy. Because there is no transparent policy respecting what may be deemed secret, administrations are free not merely include as secret anything they like, and to make secret and then release information in an arbitrary manner. Other university may forbid faculties and others from generating or harvesting data on their own. This permits senior administrators to control not merely the "ownership" of data but also control who mat generate what sort of data.
Information is power. No one appears to know that better than university administrations. Transparency has always been viewed as threatening to the "good order" and stability of institutions, especially as they have come to be reorganized more vertically in terms of the organization of administrative power. And not just senior administrators. Middle level managers--deans and campus leaders--are equally troubled by the notion that the information on which they base their decisions and policy choices might be available to those with a desire to assess their choices. With good reason; the ability to assess is deeply related to the power to hold accountable. Where such power might be asserted by "subordinate" stakeholders--faculty and staff--that would upend the "natural social order of hierarchy at the university, at least as far as administrators might be concerned. But that should be troubling as well. While those sorts of hierarchy might be endured in industrial settings, it is not clear that they are efficient and productive in academic settings. From a conservative perspective, the opposite might be true, if one reviews the core documents of academic freedom and tenure which were products of collaboration between faculty and administrations several generations ago now (but see here).
3. "Let's form a Task Force"
I have spoken often of this ploy, increasingly a favorite with senior administrators (see here, here, here and here). This ploy can be useful in two principal circumstances. In the first, it is an excellent tool for end running university faculty leadership that is annoying or which senior administrators wish to marginalize (and I assure you that the marginalization of individual faculty leaders is very much on the minds of administrators for whom such individuals may be deemed to "stand int he way" of their planning and control). In the second, it can shift control from the senate leadership to the administration. This can be accomplished either where the task force diverts consideration of an issue from a faculty governance organization standing committee to a committee either managed by or heavily populated with selected administrators and what I have called pet faculty (see here, here, here, and here). Alternatively, diversion occurs where an administrative task force, usually in the form of some sort of ad hoc aggregation of administrators and "others" take on for themselves a role otherwise traditionally shared because of some sort of articulated need.
4. "This is a technical issue that requires administrative expertise"
As university administration become more complex, its bureaucracies have become more specialized. With specialization arises not merely the usual silo effect and contests for "turf" among administrators (usually unseen by outsiders because these contests are veiled (see transparency No. 2 above) but also specialized knowledge centers that (1) tend to treat specialized knowledge as currency to be accumulated and "sold" for personal and unit advantage, and (2) not to be shared. As a consequence it is increasingly common to hear objections to faculty institutional involvement in policy determinations on the basis of the "fact" that faculty do not have "expertise". There is an exception--in those technical instances in which faculty do have expertise. But in that case, the institutional faculty organization is marginalized and administration reaches out directly to the technically useful faculty for direct input onto their administrative decision and policy-making processes. There is an additional advantage to this technique. Administration can boast of faculty "participation" and their embrace of shared governance--when they have done no such thing.
5. "You have a conflict of interest"
It has become fashionable in the early 21st century to worry about conflicts of interest. And indeed, corruption is a major issue for our political systems--from those of the United States, Western Europe and even China and other states. Our society, in its well intention ed efforts to ensure the implementation of systems that minimize the possibility of corruption or the appearance of corruption, has moved increasingly broadened what might be considered conflicts of interest. Most applicable to the university is the notion that individuals with an interest in a decision ought not to be able to participate in its determination. Taken to its limit, that suggests that faculty, with an interest in the terms and conditions of its employment ought to be considered to have an inescapable conflict of interest respecting practically every policy choice made by the university, including the choice and content of courses. But that logic runs up against another--the need for decisions to be made by those with the greatest expertise (see no. 4 above). While administrators tend to avoid any suspicion of conflict even when making policy decisions that directly and indirectly affect their own positions within the university (virtually every administrative decision would appear to be tinged with this conflict and this self interest) faculty do not. Increasingly one might hear this charge leveled against a faculty organization or group seeking to engage with some university policy-in-formation or other. At its most cynical, this "faculty are conflicted out" ploy can effectively shrink faculty participation in governance to a nullity.
6. "Let us define the premises for you"
This is one of the most useful methods for managing faculty and other stakeholder involvement in administrative decision making. When one controls the premises fo policy decisions or implementation strategies, one effectively controls all aspects of the problem to be confronted. Few people, however, are trained to engage with premises, and many times, premises presented tend to be accepted without much discussion. When Administrators are challenged, however, they tend to push back strongly--precisely because it is in the premises that the control of engagement lies. An excellent example touches on current engagement with benefits. Administration, with very little discussion, have managed, in many institutions, to frame the issue of benefits as one of cost containment. They have controlled the approaches to analysis and the scope of objectives of benefit policies. But that control necessarily produces the results that administration seeks--cost reduction and a pairing down of benefits.
7. "We consulted faculty; we reached out to specific faculty directly who we thought had expertise"
This takes one of the techniques of No. 4 above and raises it to an art form. It is now so common for administrations to ignore faculty governance organization that it no longer raises eyebrows anywhere. The institutional role fo the faculty appears more and more to be restricted to the lofty langiage of very well designed web pages extolling the apparent fidelity of the university to principles it appears to honor only in form, and only in its convenience. At one university where benefits issues have been quite contentious for a number fo years, university administrations have used a combination of specialized task forces and routine leveraging of pet faculty or faculty with technical expertise. These efforts are then routinely characterized as faculty consultation sufficient to meet more than the minimum requirements of shared governance, It does no such thing. But administrations do not get called on this, nor are there particularly damaging consequences to this behavior potentially unethical behavior (see, e.g. here).
8. "We consulted. . .we showed you the final draft shortly before roll out and asked your opinion"
Universities did not invent this ploy. It was well practiced within the European Communities int he 1970s and 1980s. There are stories around that suggest that when the European Parliament had only consultation authority, the European Council (the rule making unit) would wait to receive consultations from Parliament. When such consultation report was received, a secretary would informt he ministers who would, without reading the consultation report, then promulgate their action. isend Effectiveness the ploy is based on the willingness of administrators to act in what might be seen, in some quarters, as bad faith behaviors. It consists of this--university tradition ort rules may require faculty consultation. Administrators may keep a new policy completely in house through the completion of its final product. At that point, and immediately before finalization, the university may transmit the policy as a "draft" to the appropriate faculty governance unit for their opinion or for consultation. Usually the time for such review is very short. Immediately after receiving the consultation, the policy, rules or other object of the matter sent for consultation is promulgated. Slightly less ethically questionable is the use of consultation, not to seek input about the premises and approaches to policy or rule developed, but to seek any input that might expose error or administrative difficulties that might otherwise have been overlooked. In either case, the role of the faculty governance organization is reduced either to farce or technical assistance (see No. 4 above).
9. "You take too long. . we need to do this now."
It is always instructive to hear stories of administrators rolling their eyes (figuratively of course) during the course of a faculty organization meeting, especially one run on the basis of Roberts Rules of Order. Administrators tend to be used to efficient decision making, even within interlocking networks of decision participants. They tend to have little taste for, and less tolerance, for the tedium of democratic governance in a representative organization. But sometimes they might use this to their advantage. Consider, for example, the case where a senate organization leader is elected who is viewed as a threat to the plans of administrators. These administrators might be able to use the organization's procedures against it, extending the time necessary to consider items in the hope that the matter will not be resolved within the term of the targeted faculty leader. A related strategy is to with hold consideration of important matters--benefits, general education, program shutdowns, engaged scholarship and the like, until the term of the disliked leader is up. In this way, again, the forms of shared governance are respected, but the functions are distorted in the service of strategic objectives that are themselves destructive of robust shared governance.
10. "An outside agency is making us do this."
See No. 9 above. But that distaste can be put to good use, especially where outside organizations may be involved. It has been noted that at times decisions are taken from faculty representative organizations because "you take too long." This is made more effective when it is combined with "and our accrediting agency [or some equally plausible outside source of deadline] requires action from us in XX months [or years]." This is a more sophisticated version of the children's ploy--"my mother said I can [or can't] do XX."By sourcing fault outside the institution, administrators can adopt the role they appear m¡best suited for culturally--ministerial curators of someone else's discretionary decisions. That, too, distorts their actual role in the university might itself also be somewhat ethically questionable--especially where a university has gone to the trouble of imposing ethical standards on its employees (see, e.g. here).