Saturday, December 21, 2013

Exposing the Weak Underbelly of Intra-Faculty Shared Governance--Managing the Faculty Message From the Top Through Unelected "Leaders"

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

"[We] were sure that the Senate executive director would veto our request to communicate with the full Senate, so we compiled our own list, and sent it to the Senators directly. We figured, what are they going to do, sanction us for sending an email to our colleagues? It's all part of this obsession with control. They need to control everything, the composition of the committees, the flow of information, and the debates themselves."

So begins an all to common complaint at many public and publicly assisted universities from within the university faculty senate--not about the way in which university administrators might seek to control shared governance, but instead about the way in which the faculty's own institutional structures appear to be primarily complicit in the distortion and perhaps debilitation of a functionally effective internally coherent faculty partner in shared governance.  This is particularly acute where the institutional seneschal, usually a Senate Executive Director, reporting to an administration official, is given control of the machinery of communication among faculty senators.

The result, necessarily, is the potential, sometimes realized, of the hijacking of the institutional Senate by the executive director and the possible cultivation of a perception that the administration, through its appointed senate administrator, is actually managing the Senate's role in faculty governance.  This is quite regrettable and easily fixed--though I suspect that universities may be moving in the opposite direction. The problem stems from the way that the structures of administration within the institutional faculty Senate may produce effective power shifts, that is effective shifts in control with substantial effects on policy determination and message control, from elected to administrative officials within a Senate. Here the challenge is not so much from  university administrators as it is from the failures of the internal organization of the institutional faculty Senate itself. 

It is not unusual for the ministerial officials  employed to "run" the Senate and "support" its elected representatives to have charge of the operation of many of the tasks assigned to a faculty senate.  In some ways this is quite useful.  For example, the operation of course approval, student waiver and routine operations tend to be most efficiently undertaken under the direction of a ministerial official, especially where such tasks involve minimal policy making discretion. But where the ministerial officials of a faculty Senate begin to intrude more and more directly on the policy work and discretionary deliberations of the Senate itself, and especially where the executive director begins to assume a role as the unelected member of Senate leadership operations, then the integrity of the Senate as a body representing the faculty, as determined through periodic election, is substantially jeopardized.

More dangerous, is the the Executive director who assumes for himself the role of "institutional memory."  Sadly the role of institutional memory in University Faculty Senates is under theorized.  And Senate structures, because of their subordinate roles within larger University management tend to be treated in a somewhat slipshod manner--that is memory systems are not worth the institutional costs of moving from its personification in the person of an individual (whose personal control is thereby enhanced) to the development of institutional mechanics of memory preservation. There is irony, then to the well understood point that " Knowledge management is a new source of competitive advantage.  A better understanding of the memory processes of knowledge acquisition, retention, maintenance, and retrieval will offer new ways for organizations to profit from organizational knowledge" (Eric W. Stein, "Organizational Memory: Review of Concepts and Recommendations for Management," International Journal of Information Management. Vol. 15, No. 1: 17-32 (1995) ), especially where that management becomes personal rather than institutional.

This is especially the case where the Executive Director or similarly functioned official is accorded power, whether officially delegated or assumed through custom or habit, of control over the media through which the Senate communicates to its members.  Where that occurs, the message of the Senate is likely to be tightly controlled and transparency substantially weakened in two ways.  First informational transparency becomes an instrument for managing perspective and reality among Senators  in ways that may serve not to inform so much as to mold perception and reaction, Second, such deliberate control of information substantially weakens engagement transparency by contributing to the appearance of a robust market for information and debate (and Senate action) where in fact the informational universe available for decision has in fact been constructed to manage a result. What emerges then is a formal appearance of participation, Soviet style, with no underlying reality of considered and robust debate and choice. 

One or more of three things is likely to follow. First, the Senate leadership and/or administration is complicit in and uses the Executive Director to undermine the deliberate foundations of the institutional faculty Senate.   Second, Senators who resist this information and transparency management may seek to end run this sort of democracy debilitating control.  But the transaction costs of this response can be heavy (in terms of time, effort, effectiveness and the potential for retaliation both within the Senate architecture and outside of it).  Third, the Senate begins to resemble a management sanctioned union, one that understood as having no legitimacy except to provide a face for an institution that exists in form but not fact.  This will powerfully engage faculty to seek alternative structures for effective shared governance, but now from the "outside."  This last is an old and well understood pattern of institutional behavior and response.  Indeed, the story of the rise of the AAUP a century ago, from out of the efforts of the founder of Stanford to dismiss a faculty member with whose views he disagreed, is the best evidence of the consequences of stifling shared governance within the management apparatus of a university (e.g., AAUP History).

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