Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Statement of Senate Chair Made at the January 29, 2013 Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting--Attendance, Alienation and Cronyism

The Penn State University Faculty Senate held its fourth meeting of this academic year on Tuesday January 29, 2013 (e.g. Faculty Senate January 29 Meeting Agenda).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2012)
I used the occasion to speak to an important issue raised frequently at Senate meeting and an object of increasing concern by the chairs of our standing committees--the apparent alienation and passivity of senate members. These issue have important connections to current efforts to work through our self study and hopefully the development of proposals to effectively rework Senate governance structures. Some of these issues expand ideas explored in my prior remarks:  Form and Function in Faculty Governance: Aligning Governance Structures With Changing Realities of University Administration

Statement of Senate Chair Made at the January 29, 2013 Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting 

Attendance has become something of an issue at this body. While some committees have excellent attendance and while senators form some units have traditionally participated in the work of committees and in attendance at this general meeting, others have not. This is especially the case with committees that in the popular imagination might not be considered to be “high status” venues. A related issue is one of participation. In some committees, even when faculty show up they may not expend a tremendous amount of time or energy participating in the work of the committee. We have gone around and around about these issue and our conversations almost invariably descend to something like “how can we make faculty attend and participate.” And we then consider a number of clever thought ultimately unhelpful alternatives. But I think it may be wrongheaded to approach the problem of one that originates in the faculty member who fails to attend or participate. It is as likely that what these failures suggest are fundamental problems of the Senate as a governance organization—that is that the problem of attendance and of lackluster participation is a symptom of the deleterious effects of passivity. Some committees have developed a mode of operation characterized by the periodic delivery of information to it by administrators, who then may package that information themselves, or which the committee may package, into an information report which then populate our agendas. These reports have value for their information, though the Senate adds no value to it. We serve as a sort of pass through. This pattern might well generate a passivity on the part of committee members that may suggest that participation is hardly needed and never required. Critical engagement is absent, and the reports appear to convert the Senate, in the aggregate, into little more than an organizer of administrative data with no additional effect. Writ large, the resulting sense of passivity that might develop in these cultures could lead to the conclusion that the Senate serves little purpose. For busy faculty successful in teaching and research, service of this sort might seem beside the point. And out of indifference to frustration the faculty member might absent herself from our meetings. One can hardly fault her—she is behaving as a rational actor. But one can fault this body for enhancing cultures of engagement that alienate. To solve the attendance problem, then, the Senate may need to spend more time thinking about how to change itself rather than how to change its members.

And one last thing. As we work through these issues we should avoid the temptation of labeling people, and by labeling them then marginalize them. It is sometimes tempting to see in someone who questions they way things operate, especially in times of stress, as someone who is disloyal, who cannot be trusted, who is “not one of us” and therefore needs to be kept at arms length. In conversation with our former Board of Trustees Chair, Karen Peetz, she would emphasize the importance of avoiding the temptation to put forward friends and supporters rather than those who would serve the interests of the institution first. She urged always to choose excellence over membership. I think this insight can be generalized and usefully applied to the culture of the Senate. I agree with former Board of Trustees Chair Peetz: We should all be vigilant to ensure that we do not succumb to the temptations of cronyism. These temptations, the sort of outsider distrust and insularity that can lead to bad decisions, might be understood to be at the heart of recent criticisms of our governance culture. We understand the ease with which a partiality to friends, and to people who share our views, can easily lead us into the temptation of cutting some us out of effective participation, and its deleterious effects on the legitimacy of the institution. At its worst it can change the focus of institutional activity from primary benefit to the enterprise to primary protection of the friend group. It is this sort of cultivation of insularity, of distrust and of a belief in the disloyalty of those who may be presumed to inconveniently question a conveniently held opinion that ought to be avoided as a fundamental failure of our duty to this great institution, and as a critical cause of the sort of alienation that makes solidarity more difficult in this body.

Today, we as a body, will continue to engage on one of our most important tasks this year—our self study. Over the past several months I have been watching the Self Study Committee work, chaired by our Parliamentarian Mohamad Ansari, and aided by a group of dedicated members drawn from our Senate, Administration and our faculty at large. I could not be more pleased.

I expect today that we will focus on the structural element of the Self Study Committee’s work. I hope that this project will produce results. I am grateful for your efforts. I know that the process of change can be both daunting and complex, long and sometimes frustrating. The Forensic Report touches on a variety of issues that, taken together, can appear to be both daunting and not subject to easy modification. The tendency of some, then, even in the face of institutional complexity that increasingly amplifies the fugue state between institutional organization and institutional objectives, is to throw up one’s hands, invest in an increasingly empty formalism and cede even moral authority to those better organized and more willing to invest in effective governance. But not any of you. Change, even complex change, is sometimes better directed by the passions of its members. So as you approach this forensic perhaps it would be most useful for you, each of you, to let us know what change, if any, passionately motivates you. Ask yourselves as you begin the discussion to come: What is the most important change you might want to see us make? Each of us can distill the possibilities of the Forensic Report into one or two principal concerns. I hope you can draw these to our attention—simply and precisely. That will give the committee information it needs to move forward decisively. Perhaps we can even develop consensus among a set of simple propositions, and then go from there. I appreciate your work and look forward to a great dialogue.

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