Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Faculty Complicity in Undermining Shared Governance--A Hypothetical For a Large Public University

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

Faculty governance depends, in large part, on the willingness of administration and faculty to bear the burdens of cooperation, consultation and compromise in furthering the mission of the university. That, in turn, is based in part on a further burden--the burden of undertaking institutional governance. For faculty, especially that involves the burden of collective governance responding to and assessing administrative actions, as well as in the traditional domains of faculty governance--courses, curriculum, and faculty tenure and promotion. In other words, while administration is institutionally designed for efficient operation, through the institution of hierarchical chain-of-command based operation, faculty governance is institutionally designed for inclusion and engagement in a necessarily inefficient meeting of relative equals gathered for collaborative decision making, consultation, action, and calling administration to account (see, e.g., here and here). 

Those foundational differences in institutional organization and operation cause conflict in collaboration, consultation and accountability.  Administration is built for speed, faculty governance is not.  Most often, that produces incentives to end run faculty (on efficiency grounds) or to cabin its engagement to those matters with respect to which administration views as of little importance to its leadership and command role (discussed here).

But faculty have also been socialized to belief in a hierarchy of values in governance that place efficiency and command and control structures well above the value of collaboration, debate and the processes of holding administration publicly to account.  To the extent that faculty view the logic of its own organization and operation as inefficient, it contributes to the undermining of its role in effective faculty governance by conceding that faculty impede rather than enhance governance by the very logic of its operational modes. 

This post includes a hypothetical example of the sort of complicit undermining of robust faculty governance that results when individual faculty seek to undo the core methods and techniques that are central to faculty governance.  The method is simple--importing values of efficiency and chain-of-command to faculty governance. The tragedy is that this may be done without thinking through implications or rather perhaps unconscious of their socialization into administrative cultures,or it may suggest the sort of systemic corruption that is itself something that may undermine faculty governance more profoundly still.

State University is a large public university university with a large number of academic units.  Each unit maintains its own faculty governance structures.-  These structures usually consist of a faculty organization made up of faculty , which operates through committees appointed either by the faculty or the dean, and charged with legislative control of curriculum, and shared responsibility for programs.  The faculty unit organization also serves to consult with unit administration on a large variety of rules and initiatives that may emerge from out of the offices of Deans and other unit administrators.  These mirror the larger university wide faculty governance structures that engage with senior administrators.

A core part of the periodic meetings of the faculty organization involve time for individual faculty to query unit administrators on specifics relating to the operation of the unit--anything from recruitment initiatives for students, to the rules developed to facilitate the operation of the unit.  These queries sometimes take some time and often have the effect of calling unit administrators to account for their policies and practices. But they might take some time in meetings that may have a number of other agenda items.  They slow the pace of deliberation and operation of the faculty organization, and they sometimes irritate faculty members and administrators who must either listen to question the value of which some might question or that irritate administrators--or both. Though the unit faculty have little direct authority to run the unit, these query periods tend to enhance the faculty's consultative role in addition to the role played by faculty committees.

That state of affairs irritated some faculty who in response to past practice and in anticipation of future repetition produced the following email delivered to all unit members:  

Dear Colleagues: 
I apologize for imposing on your time but you can certainly ignore or delete this if you want, and consistent with the views in this e-mail I would rather share this by e-mail rather than taking time at a faculty meeting.

Our Faculty Chair, has a view that neither I nor many of our colleagues share that a full faculty meeting is the appropriate place for any colleague who happens to be curious about an aspect of unified operation can pose questions to the administration and learn their answers. In addition, she seems to believe – perhaps recognizing that we might ignore or delete emails – that any one of us ought to have the privilege of subjecting the rest of us to listening to answers that “we ought” to listen to.

My own view is that our current administrators are open and friendly folks and if any trained faculty member has any question about governance, they can pose it individually to these administrators without subjecting a captive audience to the pursuit of their own personal interests. If any of us have received information that ought to be shared with our colleagues, the All Faculty email list is a handy way to do this.

For those of us who want to avoid unnecessary time-wasting at faculty meetings, our Chair has the strategic advantage, because of course he/she realizes that the time it would take for the majority to work its will to preclude a parliamentary question period approach to unified meetings would likely take longer than the actual time it takes. However, I note that, including invited administrators, there are often dozens of people at a faculty meeting, so even 10 minutes of time taken up satisfying the curiosities of a small handful of colleagues reflects 10 person-hours of work that the Board of Trustees are paying us to do.

Perhaps more than most, I welcome any motions regarding items for action to be presented to the faculty from any colleague, but I would implore you to pose any questions you have to our fine administrative staff to then individually, share anything you want with us via e-mail, and limit our unified faculty meetings to items for action.

Thank you for considering this request.
So, let us consider this request.  It raises a number of interesting and some quite troubling points. 

First, it suggests the way that faculty collective action is viewed as a disposable commodity, as a gesture that is itself not worth the time devoted to it.  Email is better than speech precisely because it can either be consumed, as an object, or deleted as if it was never offered.  That suggests that collaborative governance is as disposable as the emails sent to further its operationalization--in this case by seeking to undermine collaborative action within a faculty body.

Second, it suggests an astonishing immense degree of faculty indifference to any role in monitoring and assessing the performance--and decisions--of unit administrators charged with the operation of a unit the effects of which will be directly and immediately felt by unit faculty.  Worse, its suggests a positive abnegation of a positive faculty role in monitoring and assessing the performance of administration. That can have a significant effect on the extent to which faculty are involved in and help shape the operation of the unit with respect to its programs, mission, research, and students. The approach suggested, for example, would impede the ability of faculty to query administrators on the state of student recruitment or admissions, or to challenge decisions taken by probing as to its genesis, support, objectives and results.

Third, socialization is well built into the substance of the request.  The key elements of that socialization is that (1) administration is hardly the stuff of interest to faculty; (2) that faculty as a unit has little role in querying administration; (3) that such queries in any case can produce little more than information; (4) that the transparency inherent in requests for such information have less value than the time "wasted" in seeking that disclosure or those answers to queries raised; 5) that any resulting discussion or debate within the faculty as a whole add little value to governance; and  (6) that there is no useful role for faculty, as a body, in hearing and responding to the information extracted from administrators during the course of such query exercises.

Fourth, this socialization plays into the evolving cultural expectation of changing governance architectures at the university.   I have suggested how university administrations have sought to weaken traditional structures of faculty representation by embracing a populist-technocratic model of governance. And in that context examined a recent example in the form of the announcement of a town hall meeting at Penn State (Practicing Mass Democracy at Penn State: The New Populist-Technocratic Model of University Governance, Socialization, Stakeholder Management and Benefits). The administrative practices of so-called town hall meetings illustrate nicely the way in which this populist technocratic model has worked (discussed here).  More importantly, this model now appears ready for transposition ot the governance cultures of units, substantially reducing the viability of effective faculty engagement in the governance of the units in which they work. 

Fifth, it unnecessarily erects stronger barriers between administration and faculty at the unit level in a way that increases the distance between them and suggests some substantive chasm between faculty and administration that may be beyond th abilities of "knowledge worker" (faculty) to grasp.  But that can hardly be true.  If we are moving toward functionally differentiating administration from faculty, and suggesting that administrative expertise speaks a language beyond the reach of faculty to monitor, assess, and influence, then we move to a model of governance that bears no relation to the robust shared governance developed, at great cost, in the last century. 

Sixth, and perhaps most insidiously, it suggests something far worse.  The suggestion implicit in the message is that there is a necessary differentiation among "inside" and "outside" faculty--those with access to the administrative mind and those with none.  And it suggests an impulse to protect and enhance the privilege of "pet faculty" relative to unit administrators.  That, in turn, carries with it the reek of corruption of the system of governance in ways that ought to trouble us deeply.  I have spoken to the corrupting effect of administrative cultivation of "pet" or "tame" faculty elsewhere (see here and here).

Seventh, it is in this sense, and this sense only that one can appreciate the meaning of "time wasting" criticized in the hypothetical, and consequently understand the profoundly negative effect that such a line produces for faculty governance vitality. Queries waste time precisely because some faculty have access and are complicit in extra-governance power sharing.  That personal power depends on ensuring that the general body of the faculty avoid engagement that is collectively governance enhancing.  It is not the faculty's time that is wasted; rather it is the power of pet faculty that is threatened.  And that, itself, provides the key to the understanding of the power of administrative mechanisms for encouraging faculty complicity in the undermining of collective governance.

Eighth,and perhaps most troubling, the communication evidences a quite narrow understanding of the role of information, of the nature of transparency and of the place of the faculty in engagement with decisions that may be taken by administrative officials. The statement assumes, without more, that the sole purpose of questions is to elicit information.  It supposes, further, that the sole obligation of administrative officials is to inform, but perhaps only when asked.  Both miss the mark by a wide margin. I have spoken to the issue of transparency elsewhere (see, e.g., here and here). Informational transparency focuses on the obligation to keep stakeholders informed.  Engagement transparency focuses on the obligation to provide information necessary for stakeholders to effectively take part in decision making.  Both are vital to legitimate shared governance. The former looks to the delivery of information after action has taken place.  The latter looks to the delivery of information necessary to participate in decision making.  But the comment in the email is oblivious to the necessity of engagement transparency, and trivializes informational transparency to something of an afterthought.  The email suggests that even informational transparency--the bare obligation to inform--is unnecessary except on an ad hoc basis.  It reveals an attitude that is not merely disinclined to engaged in governance but that positively dislikes it as a waste of time. What that email would do is reduce faculty governance to the bare forms of approval of actions deigned to be devolved to such faculty committees as might be constituted and charged.  It leaves the faculty , in its institutional role, as little more than a gesture--a memory of more robust governance principles now abandoned. That last should trouble us most of all. 

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