Thursday, October 20, 2016

"We Know You Are Busy and Wanted to Avoid Burdening You With This" -- More Techniques that Undermine Shared Governance in the Contemporary University

(Brochymena, Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have been considering the ways in which administrators undermine shared governance in effect without appearing to challenge the forms by which it is undertaken. Undermining shared governance rather than challenging the authority of faculty to engaged in shared governance avoids the politically costly effort to eliminate formal structures (and the discussions it might require). More importantly, it preserves faculty as a tool, a resource, for governance without having to acknowledge any governance authority beyond those wielded by administrators. One uses tools; one negotiates with governance partners.

I have posted thoughts of 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 added a shorter list of honorable mentions ("We Abhor Retaliation But Expect Loyalty to Our Decisions" -- Techniques that Undermine University Shared Governance, the Honorable Mentions and the Deeper Issues they Reveal).  I noted then:
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. (Ibid.)
This post adds to the list of honorable mentions of techniques that did not make the original two lists. They are the synthesized expression of  experiences from a number of different institutions. 
1. "We Know You Are Busy and Wanted to Avoid Burdening You With This."
2. The Absent Administrator and Ghosting the Faculty Organization .
3. "We promise to get that information to you right away."
I will continue adding to the list, please send me additional techniques I might have missed (and perhaps prudently via personal email from a non-university computer using non-university provided internet service.

Perhaps the dynamic that produces this irresistible tendency toward behaviors that undermine shared governance is a function of the logic of the hierarchical administrative model that is now embraced.  It is a pity, really.  But hardly unexpected where modern university administrative cultures now increasingly create a socio-cultural chasm between faculty, on the one hand, and administrator, on the other.  Where once administrators shared a substantial solidarity with the faculty from which they emerged, now that solidarity has been transformed and redirected.  Faculty and administrative cultures are no longer tied to each other--a closed (self referencing) culture of administration, with its own values and quite strong socialization imperatives, now strip administrators of their connection to faculty, especially at its highest levels.   For those who dismiss this as jrgon let me be clear--self-referencing is meant to suggest that where once administrators would look to their own faculties for advice and retain a sense of belong into faculty, increasingly administrators now gather with their own--associaitons of presidents, provosts  etc. and begin to develop a solidarity within those groups stronger than and different from the cultures of faculty to which they once belonged. Administrators necessarily assimilate into another sensibility, with its own norms and expectations.

The expression of that socialization into an increasingly alien outlook for the university, its objectives and operations, are quite strongly felt in those institutions that were forged at a  time when faculty and administrators shared a common culture and outlook about both the university and its administration.  The most significant of these points of friction are connected to the old faculty institutions of shared governance--the faculty organization or senate.  It is in this institutional form that the authority of the faculty--as a group--are most clearly visible.  It is within that organizational form that faculty autonomy, as well as authority, may be expressed in its most legitimate form.  It is to the undermining of that institution, its work, and its working style, that many of these techniques are directed. The less relevant and effective the faculty organization, the more effective the undermining of shared governance. But it is an undermining with no honor--for all the while it is undertaken, those who use it can piously mouth a continued commitment o shared governance. They are not lying. They merely mean those words in a way quite different from its traditional definition.  It is with that in mind that I suggest additional honorable mention techniques:

1.  "We Know You Are Busy and Wanted to Avoid Burdening You With This."
This is new and will quickly become one of my favorites.  A high administrative official, when caught sneaking policy through without consultation, will, usually with a straight face, declare that it was only done for the most noble of reasons--to ease the burden on faculty who already must undertake altogether too much service. "Leave it to us," they say.  "We can decide what to burden you with" they assure us. "You can trust us to ensure your robust engagement in our work," they reassure. "Rest assured that in the most important matters we will remember to consult you" they promise.  And then they move forward on substantial changes to university policy without a word to the faculty organization.  When thereafter confronted with the omission, they apologize profusely. And they are contrite.  But notice the way that the power dynamic changes: the administration, by this tactic, tales for itself the power to decide how to ration the faculty organization's power, and in so doing also determines the scope of its activities.  The administration controls the extent to which  the faculty organization can exercise shared governance authority, and it determines what it considers appropriate to the faculty organization, and what it considers of a character and importance sufficient to "burden" the faculty organization's time. Yet one can see in an instant the conceptual difficulty of squaring these "good intentions" with the foundational premises of shared governance.
For at the base of this tactic expresses a gross presumption, a presumption that senior administrators somehow have a superior authority --and skill--to determine the scope of administrative action with significant connection to faculty concerns.  The tactic is the embodiment of another presumption as well, a presumption that the scope of shared governance is permissive and that the administrator can take for herself the full extent of the authority to give (or withhold) this permission.  But tactically it is a quite useful device.  For even if the faculty organization disputes this, the faculty organization must now be put to the task of monitoring the administration and challenging its articulation of action or policy that fails to appropriately engage in shared governance mechanisms.  In a sense, then, the tactic--ostensibly concocted to relieve the faculty organization of work, doubles the work of the organization which must now not just engage in policy discussions but also develop mechanisms for discovering administration efforts to avoid engagement in their articulation. One recalls a perhaps relevant passage from the Bible's Book of Exodus 5:3-10
2. The Absent Administrator and Ghosting the Faculty Organization .
There is no more effective road to irrelevance than to be effectively treated as if you do not exist.  That tends to be a favorite managerial technique when dealing with an individual one wants to push out of an organization.  But it can apply with equal force to institutions one seeks to eliminate. How does it work?  Simple: the senior administrators no longer attend meetings of the faculty organization  They become noticeable by their absence.  But their absence is softened through an endless series of excuses--usually variations of emergency scheduling "challenges" (one has to love administrator speak) or more brazenly that other more important matters came up requiring them to avoid a faculty organization meeting ion favor of whatever other matter was deemed more important.  Of course, the faculty organization will never be told what could possibly have been more important--no accountability for senior administrator calendars it seems.  Yet faculty could be excused for wondering when these events appear to occur at every instance of long scheduled meetings over the course of half a year or more

This problem was well captured in comments from a member of a faculty organization of a large institution whose senior administrators were quite visibly and increasingly absent.  These were intended to be delivered to the faculty organization: 
I'd like to make a possibly uncomfortable  comment, a comment based on an interaction I had today with  a couple of my fellow faculty organization representatives I feel compelled to share with you--if only for you to dispel this as a rumor. So here goes: this is about the meetings of the Faculty Leaders Committee to the President (FLCP). For those who do not know, the faculty organization's own rules provide that FLCP is to provide advice and consultation on matters of general concern to the faculty pertaining to the welfare and effectiveness of the university.  It is also supposed to ensure a direct line of open communication between the President and the faculty organization's leaders in the spirit of shared governance.  Here is then the sticking point: There have been several meeting of the FLCP this year.  And our President has not attended any of them. Soem of my fellow members of this faculty organization share my concern that this failure to attend is not a coincidence and instead reflects something else--we all know that some of our colleagues who are members of the faculty and its leadership are employed on fixed term contracts.  Should we be concerned that this indifference to our meetings reflects a sense of their second class citizenship? This is a concern that has been expressed privately by our fixed term faculty colleagues, privately, of course for fear of retaliation. I relay to you that this failure of attendance gives the impression that fixed term faculty are, in fact, second class citizens even when they serve in leadership positions. As you can imagine, this gave me great pause upon hearing it.  Can you please respond to this concern and perhaps reassure us that the lines of communication between your office and our leadership are secure and robust.
When an administration leader fails to attend not merely committee but the general meetings of the faculty organization, when key administrative personnel are not available or fail to attend as well, there is a sense that they have abandoned the institution, and institutional cooperation.  There is a sense that the organization can be dismissed as less important than other matters--any matter really. And this symbolic act powerfully conveys the message of faculty organizational irrelevance.  It is no wonder, then, that faculty get the message--that there is no reason to expend valuable time on governance, and that, indeed they ought to follow the example of the administrative leadership and not show up themselves. And here is where the irony becomes delectable--where this happens the senior administrators can then turn around and use the lack of interest and attendance as evidence that shared governance is not working because of faculty indifference.  Neat trick!
3. "We promise to get that information to you right away."
Power in intra-organizational relations are a function of information.  Effective engagement is based on access to information.  Where one stakeholder has access to information, and the ability to keep it from others, it is hard to imagine that engagement can be other than one sides.  This is especially true in shared governance contexts at the modern American university. In many contemporary universities, administrators have become quite possessive about information in two respects.  First administrators believe that effective governance is grounded on their ability to harvest and manage data that they can collect from their "employees" and students. Second, access to that information must be tightly controlled (always it seems to protect privacy or sensitive material) and shared only to the extent it is sought and when sought and there is no reason to withhold, after it has been framed and "sanitized" to the liking of the officials releasing the data. 

In all these cases, information is controlled in all respects by administrators. This sets up three consequences with negative effects for shared governance. The first is that administrators will ground regulatory initiatives on data that is unavailable to faculty who exercise shared governance.  In that case it becomes virtually impossible to effectively exercise shared governance.  For every comment or suggestion the response is likely to be that the answer is found in data otherwise unavailable.  Engagement, then, becomes a symbolic act, but one emptied of all substance. The second is that administrators do not disclose the data on which policy or regulatory initiatives are based.  Faculty organizations will first be put to the task of trying to figure out what data is important.  And then faculty organizations must ask for that data.  Almost invariably, senior administrators will agree to provide the data--but they not not often actually provide the data, or they delay so long that the engagement for which the data is needed  passes, and with it the chance for effective shared governance. Both cases suggest the complexity of a politics of data and its control, but one in which data management becomes an important instrument in the undermining of shared governance. The third is that administrators are able to delay disclosing information, or avoid information sharing entirely even when appearing to cooperate, by playing what I call the "20 questions" tactic.  It is simple.  I policy s put forward.  The underlying data is intimated but not produced.  Faculty organizations ask for information, they get the wrong data, incomplete day or a summary.  They try again.  And again, data is incomplete, unresponsive or incomplete. And each time the renewed request is met with a sigh, a sense of burdening already busy administrators and an apology for failing to satisfy what appears to be an increasingly of interest in data. Now repeat indefinitely and reduce the effectiveness of shared governance by a large factor.

No comments:

Post a Comment