Friday, September 30, 2016

On the Proper Role of University Administrators as Members of a Faculty Senate: Do Voting Rights Subvert the Institution of Faculty Governance?

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

University faculty organizations serve as the institutional voice of the faculty in the complex but important operation of shared governance. This role distinguishes universities from other corporate enterprises, and brings them closer to models of public organizations in which principles of democratic participation are essential for the legitimacy of the organization and its operations (e.g., On the Institutional Role of a Faculty Senate: Part 1(May 4, 2012)). 

The essence of the institutional character of faculty organizations is its role as a representative of the faculty and its perspectives.  That representative role can be preserved only to the extent that the faculty organization itself is controlled by and reflects the will of the faculty, especially in its relations with other stakeholders, principally the administration of the university. Under this model of shared governance, faculty, administration, and board of trustees are three distinct actors which together comprise the critical institutional elements of governance.

Yet in some public research universities, the representative role of the faculty organization has been challenged.  In some of these institutions, there has been efforts, sometimes successful, to include within the faculty organization a substantial number of voting members who represent the administration within the faculty organization itself.  This post considers the issue of administration membership within a faculty organization, its effects on shared governance, and advances a suggestion that recasts the role of the administration and its officials within a faculty organization. 


One of the greatest challenges for representative government is the issue of representation.  I have written about this issue elsewhere and with respect to the effects of globalization on the viability of nation state as a self contained vehicle for governance (see, e.g., here). The issue revolves around the character and functioning of institutions that are supposed to serve as a site for the exercise of delegated authority.  That is, where an institutional body--a legislature for example, is supposed to exercise the powers otherwise held by the people, who should its representatives serve and who who select these representatives. But the issue of representation also touches on the duty of loyalty.  Especially in the context of enterprises--businesses, states and universities, for example--representatives are supposed to act solely in the interests of those they serve, even if that requires them to act against their own personal interests.  But such exercise of loyalty is compromised where the actor also serves another.  No person can serve two masters--the paramount master will always have her way. The corporate law has long recognized that representatives who are not independent or who have an interest in a transaction cannot undertake their duties.

These complex and overlapping issues may be equally present in the context of shared governance in the university. In many public universities governance is shared between a board of trustees, with paramount authority, an administration, and the university faculty.  The the board acts as collegial bodies, no single member has the authority to commit the board of the faculty. But university administrations usually are composites of individuals with varying authority arranged hierarchically. University faculty as a mass of individuals cannot efficiently act as a stakeholder.  Thus it has become common in most large public research universities to constitute a representative body--a University Senate or University Faculty Organization--through which the faculty may speak institutionally with one voice (e.g.,On the Institutional Role of a Faculty Senate--Part 2).  This faculty organization substitutes itself for the entirety of the faculty in all matters in which faculty ought to have a voice in governance.  It serves as the incarnation of the faculty as a single body--a more efficient alternative to polling all faculty for all matters touching on shared governance.  In that role the essence of the faculty organization is to reflect and constitute the faculty as a separate body from both the administration and the board of trustees, each of which operate through their own representative or administrative institutions and hierarchies. 

This model is quite distinct from a model of shared governance in which all power is exercised through a university assembly with supreme power to run the university.  In that model, it becomes important for all stakeholders to ensure appropriate representation within the assembly, appropriate to their size and role in the university,  Under this model, the university assembly would retain the supreme right to make decisions and direct its administrative officers and faculty.  

But this is not the model embraced by the modern public research university.  Instead in those institutions, administrators are expected to make a large variety of decisions affecting the functioning of the university, subject to board approval in major instances, and to good-faith faculty consultation.  At the same time critical aspects of the university operations--courses, and programs of study leading to the award of degrees, remains a faculty prerogative. In the ideal system, each of these stallholders would exercise substantial control over those who speak for it and who serve in its institutional structures.  

Yet in some public research universities, the ideal model has been undermined.  In some of these public research universities, the administration has reserved to itself the power to select  anywhere from 5 to 15% of the members of the faculty organization, and in some cases to vest them with full voting power, including the power to vote for faculty leaders and for faculty input on matters of university governance. Usually these administrative members of a faculty organization are selected by the President or Provost.  Though they may or may not take orders directly from either in their faculty organization work, it is clear that many hold their positions by the grace of their superiors.  These may have a stake in a particular outcome of matters to be considered by a faculty organization. The result is both a perversion of the model of shared governance and its corruption. Let us try to briefly suggest why this is so.

1.  Administrative voting members can significantly skew, and in close cases can determine, the character of faculty organization leadership.  To the extent that administrative officials vote like other members, they add administration perspectives  in decision making, including voting.  Faculty leadership candidates that seek election to the faculty organization on a platform that these administrators views as inimical to their own interests as administrators might vote against such candidates or might be requested to do so by superiors. In this way administrators might unduly influence and thus manage shared governance by the ability to shape the character of its leadership.
Example: assume a faculty organization with 200 voting members, 180 of which are elected by their respective units and an additional 20 appointed by the Provost/President.  The elected faculty representatives  consist of both tenure/tenure track and contract (fixed term) faculty; the administrative appointees include senior central office administrators and deans. In the absence of administration appointed members (and 200 voting members), a faculty member would need at least 101 faculty votes to win (assuming everyone eligible voted). But where administration officials also vote (recall the assumption of 20 voting administration appointees), the successful candidate would only need a minimum of 81 faculty votes, assuming the administration appointees voted as a block. Thus to win an election to represent faculty, one need not obtain the assent of a majority of representatives of faculty in the organization. Even if 99 faculty members voted against, the candidate might still win with only 81 positive faculty votes. Is it plausible to assume administration members might vote as a block? Yet--certainly the corporate law makes that assumption in voting by board  members where there is a control relationship between the voters and someone else--in this case the Provost/President, who could indicate, formally or informally her preference. And it does not take into account the possibility of pressure on fixed term and other untenured faculty voters by their own unit leaders.  

2. The same logic applies to the legislative, advisory/consultation and other voting undertaken by the faculty organization. Where there is the possibility of large block voting by administrative appointees, the administration gets two opportunities to affect policy.  The first is to influence faculty responses to policy, the second is by responding to faculty positions reflected in these votes. Where the administration may manage both, at the limit, it controls the process from start to finish and shared governance becomes more a formality than an actual process for robust engagement.

Example: Assume there is to be a vote on the adoption of a new general education policy at the university.  The administration has indicated opposition to some aspects of the policy.  Faculty are divided.  Assuming the same administrative structures as in the first example, only the votes of 81 faculty will be required to defeat the measure, even where 99 faculty vote in favor.  As an expression of faculty consensus the measure would have been adopted, but the administrator voting skews the result.  This is particularly troubling where, as in most of these matters, the administration still retains the authority to accept, reject or modify any action of the faculty organization presented to it

3. Administrator faculty organization members may face conflicts of interest and might be unable to engage in the work of the faculty organization with the interests of the faculty at its heart.  An administrator cannot serve two masters simultaneously.  She serves the one who has authority over her job. Her institutional interests suggest a convergence of interest between her and her superiors. In such a context the faculty  organization no longer speaks for the faculty--that is it no longer can assert a faculty perspective as its contribution to shared governance.  Rather, the product of substantial intervention by a sizeable administrator voting and participation block, is to change, and manage, the positions of the institutional faculty representative. This is particularly important in cases of close voting. In any case, such voting tends to push the faculty toward an administrative perspective by exercise of their power to vote as faculty even as they retain their roles and obligations as administrators.
Example:  An administrator serving on a faculty committee is faced with the construction or review of university policy on outside business activity of faculty (e.g.,Just Because it is Legal Doesn't Make it Right--The Extension of University Control of Employee "Outside Business Activity".  One construction favors the interests of administration by significantly increasing its control over all economic activities of faculty while the other permits broader exercise of discretion by faculty. The University Provist has made it clear through the senior administrators charged with the construction of this policy that she views her position as "non-negotaible" but is constrained to follow the forms of consultation and engagement.  It is clear that the administrator sitting on the committee faces a conflict.  Her duty as a member of the committee requires examination in the context of loyalty to the committee and to the institution of the faculty organization.  Yet she also knows that she is beholden for her job to the provost and that her duty as an administrator mat be incompatible with her duty as a committee member. With disclosure it would certainly be within her duty to explain and advance the administration's position within the committee so that the faculty might consider this as they proceed.  But to vote on the resulting action determination is a step too far.  That voting taints the product (no longer a reflection of faculty perspective) which would then be considered again by the administrator now wearing her administrator "hat."  

4. This distortion is further widened by the increasing practice of university administrators to bypass the faculty organization entirely in favor of "joint" task forces with carefully selected faculty representatives. Thus, "where the administrative officers of a university manage shared governance by faculty, especially where this management is characterized by administrative selection of individual faculty invited to the "governance table," the possibility of efficient decision-making might be furthered but such management might either corrupt or appear to corrupt the faculty role in governance." (e.g., On the Institutional Role of a Faculty Senate--Part 2). Here the faculty organization assumes, at best, a secondary role, and the character of shared governance changes from a robust interaction of instituted stakeholders, to an assemblage managed for the advancement of the interests of those with power.
Example: The university is considering significant changes to it approaches to health care specifically and employee benefits generally.  The faculty organization has proven to be effective in the past in exposing the underlying premises of these changes in ways that might embarrass its authors or suggest deficiencies in form, substance and process. The administration wishes to avoid that result.  The President suggests that because such governance in this case involves joint effort that a "joint task force" of administration and administration approved faculty be created to move these projects forward.  The faculty organization would retain a secondary authority to review the finished project through a committee in which administrators involved in the Joint Task Force and in the development of the changes for the administration are voting members.  At this point, effectively the process of change and shared governance has been coopted twice--first by denying elected representatives of the faculty robust initial engagement and then by including voting administrators on what is left to consultation.
5.  Administrator voting, and to some extent participation, may serve to chill the exercise of robust shared governance within the faculty organization by contract faculty--that is faculty hired for a fixed term. This primi inter pares effect puts faculty on notice that taking a position contrary to those of key administrative representatives might serve as the basis for retaliation.  Usually that retaliation will fall just shy of triggering formal action, but the threat of that possibility might be enough for someone whose position is precarious and cannot afford contract non-renewal.But for the purposes of considering the corruptive effects on voting, what this suggests is the extent to which administrator influence already skews the development of faculty positions on matters of shared governance.  Here the administrator effectively gets multiple chances to intervene in chaired governance: (1) in the development of the initial policy; (2) in the consideration of faculty responses through the faculty organization;  (3) in the voting on the form of response; and (4) in the consideration of administration reaction to that response.  What is left of the faculty role in this administrator driven process shrivels to insignificance.
Example: A senior administrator is involved in the development of a particular form and process for obtaining student course evaluations. That administrator also sits as a voting member of the faculty organization and is a member of the faculty organization committee that considers issues of student evaluation policy. There is strong opposition to some aspects of proposed changes to student evaluation forms and processes that were created by the administrator's office.  The administrator serves as an influential voice in shaping faculty responses on the committee, and votes on the official response crafted by that committee and thereafter voted on by the faculty organization.  The administrator than provides input on the central administration response to the position of the faculty that he helped create.

Administrator voting distorts the role of the faculty organization.  Ostensibly the place where a strong faculty view is developed and then shared with other key stakeholders as an essential part of shared governance, the faculty organization itself changes fundamental character when administrators are permitted to vote. It creates a contradiction of governance--the operation of a faculty organization as a supreme governance body in form while the function remains entirely to produce faculty perspectives in its dealing with administration and board. 

This  should not be taken to mean that administrators, or board members, be excluded from the deliberations of the faculty organization, or from robust debate within that body.  Nor is it meant to suggest that administrators do not play a vital role as resources and sources of real time communication absolutely essential for the effective performance by the faculty organization of its role in shared governance.  What it does suggest, however, is that voting is different, and that the power of administrators to wear two hats--as voting members of a faculty organization, and as administrative resources and as the representative of the administration view in deliberations of the faculty organization--undermines the legitimacy of their participation and of the faculty organization as the institutional voice of the Senate.  Public research universities and others that have established such voting rules might be wise to reconsider them. Administrators have no business voting within a organization whose purpose is to distill a voice that is distinct from that of administrators, and for which participation by others would dilute the effectiveness of its role. Faculty cannot represent their perspectives when those perspectives are managed by administrators.Here good intentions have a corrupting effect on the viability of a governance model that is predicated on the ability of faculty to develop and advance their own views.

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