Thursday, December 4, 2014

Undermining Accountability and Enhancing Authoritarianism in University Faculty Senates--Is Penn State to Play a Vanguard Role?

It is well known generally that the early 21st century has seen a cultural shift toward authoritarianism--either in the form of authoritarian democracies in the political sphere, or in the form of corporatism in the private and civil society sphere.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

The university has not escaped these larger socio-cultural trends.  And indeed, many within it have succumbed in large respect to the blandishments of control, monitoring and management of subject populations that they have been elected or appointed to represent. As a consequence, the ability of groups to hold their leaders accountable have been increasingly replaced by regimes designed to separate people from the systems set over them for their governance.  For U.S. universities, this should be a disturbing trend, yet many have sought to turn their representative institutions from democratic into managerial spaces.  In the process the character of faculty governance will change and change dramatically.

While I have written from time to time on these trends as they affect university administration (see HERE, HERE and HERE), I have rarely had occasion to observe and comment on the  way these trends are also shaping the internal governance of university faculty senates.  

This post considers one such effort--the quite misguided effort to extinguish the authority of university faculty senators to interpose resolutions at open meetings of the Senate and to replace it with a system in which such authority is managed by the very Senate leadership who are the object of the accountability enhancing character of this "right to resolution."

The structures of university faculty senates, like those of many representative political institutions, seek to balance two fundamental governance principles.  The first is the principle of efficiency--that is that the institutional structures of representative bodies ought to avoid unnecessarily impeding the work of that body, especially as it is required to put forward the interests and agendas of the people they represent.  The second is an anti-tyranny principle--that is  that the institutional structures of representative bodies ought not to entrench individuals in positions where they might, with impunity, use their offices to further their individual or factional agendas without any method of accountability or consequence.  The principle of efficiency at its limits would erode accountability to a vestigial role and eliminate the power of people to ensure that their leaders represent institutional rather than individual or factional interests. The anti-tyranny principle at its limits would eliminate the discretionary role of elected leaders and substantially reduce the ability fo an institution to function for the attainment of its objectives.

In many university faculty senates, the balance struck between the efficiency and anti tyranny principles of well organized representative bodies, is fairly straightforward.  The efficiency principle is usually embodied in the organization of a Senate on the basis of standing committees overseen by a one or two gatekeeper committees and overseen, but not controlled, by senate leadership. The anti tyranny principle is embodied in the power to censure or recall its leaders and in the opening of a small space for the exercise of "direct democracy."  

Let us consider the example of Penn State's senate.  Penn State's senate is organized through several constituting documents. 
These organize the structures of governance and set out the scope of the autiority of the Senate, especially in relation to administration and board of trustees.  It is grounded o the same set of democratic and representational principles as are basic to national political organization.  And it rightly ought to remain loyal to and comply with the basic premises of political democracy central to the culture of the nation and the Commonwealth with which it is formally affiliated. 

At Penn State, for example, the university faculty senate is organized into a number of standing committees, all overseen by a Committee on Committees and rules that has authority over the management of senate governance structures, and by a senate council, which serves as a gatekeeper of the senate general meeting agenda and as a space for direct, if somewhat formal and stilted, inter-relation with administrative leaders. These serve to enhance the efficiency principle by providing for an institutionalized structure for the reasoned consideration of matters, in due course, and its presentation to the body  of the senate once it has undergone  review within this committee vetting structure. Generally, the charges of these committees, and the control of their agendas, are set by Senate leaders, who may be more or less impervious to the suggestions of senators (or the represented population at large) about the scope of the matters to be considered through this bureaucratized regulatory structure.  In addition, senate leaders tend to exercise authority to engage in governance through  a number of special Other Committees. Thus unchecked, the efficiency principles built into the ordering of the Senate structure effectively insulates Senate leaders from ay need to listen to or respond to either the rank and file senators or to the faculty they sometimes may appear only to purport to represent. That is particularly troubling where Senate leaders might themselves become subsumed, unintentionally of course, within the agendas and serve the interests of administrators. The danger is compounded by the authority granted Senate leaders to establish Special Committees. As a consequence authoritarianism, managerialism and exposure to undo influence by powerful administrators becomes a real danger of faculty governance (see eg HERE).

At Penn State, the university faculty senate organization, however, balances potential dangers of the efficiency principle with a number of important structural devices.  These include: (1) a power in senators to demand the conduct of forensic business, (2) a power in groups of senators to call for special meetings of the senate, and (3) a power of senators to introduce resolutions during senate meetings. These powers are relatively benign, and have been rarely invoked in the absence of crises or failures of Senate leadership.  But they have served as an important element to discipline senate leaders when they have ceased serving the interests of the senate and they also serve as a necessary democratic element when the managerial of the ordinary structures of the senate loses touch with the needs and desires of the senators and of the faculties they represent. Senate leaders have, to good effect, been censured (see HERE); special meetings of the senate have been called to consider important issues in times of crisis where the ordinary processes of the senate are unable to respond (see HERE and HERE). And importantly, in the face of the potential authoritarianism of an unresponsive senate leadership, they have been used to good effect to raise issues before the body of the senate that the senate leadership or its committees have failed to entertain (eg., HERE). These resolutions have advanced important interests that have been ignored by senate leadership (HERE) and they have often been considered and dismissed by the body of the senate with little ill effect to the efficiency of the system or to the ability of the senate to produce good results.  

Though these devices have been used from time to time, they have served an important purpose.  That purpose, to ensure that senate leaders do not remain aloof from the people they serve, and that they exercise their authority solely in a representational capacity, is central to preserving the legitimacy of the current structure of the senate. To unbalance the system would effectively tilt governance from its current equilibrium state to that that would favor  one or the other principles on which such governance is legitimately established. And it would unbalance an effectively operating system with no substantial benefit--other than to enhance the authority of senate leaders to manage the senate's business with less accountability to the people they represent. Thus it is that recent moves to modify or eliminate the authority of senators to put forward resolutions on the Senate floor in the course of senate meetings presents an important threat to the organization of the senate.  Should such a move might come from or be supported by senate leaders, those who have tended to be the object of these disciplining and democratic representation enhancing techniques, might be even more troubling. 

Managerialism, and the allure of a more bureaucratic authoritarian model is certainly more  compatible with emerging systems if hierarchical and bureaucratic corporatism that has marked the evolution of university administration.  I wonder though whether such a model is worth emulating within the structures of faculty self governance.  It would be a pity if indeed faculties embraced such an unsatisfying model for their self governance.

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