Sunday, November 8, 2015

Faculty Engagement in Dean Searches: Shared Governance in an Age of Retaliation and the Problem of Anonymity

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

It is still common, in the public and publicly assisted university, for the inclusion of some form of faculty and staff participation in the process of hiring unit administrators--deans and their equivalents who are charged with the management of the "operating units" of the modern university. But of course, faculty and staff have limited opportunities to be involved in hiring their managers. At many universities, that engagement involves participation by representatives of internal stakeholder groups--faculty, staff,. students--in a screening committee that considers submitted expressions of interest. Once winnowed down to an acceptable level, the finalists are usually brought onto campus for presentation to the unit--through a combination of interviews, meetings, and the opportunity to present to the relevant community. These stakeholders are usually given an opportunity to report their reaction to and assessment of the candidates brought to campus. These reactions, taken together with the impressions of decision makers and the relevant due diligence usually forms the basis of a decision on hiring of managers of this sort. The final decision, of course, is usually reserved to a senior officer of the university--usually the provost, confirmed by president and sometimes the board of trustees.

At first blush, this procedure appears innocuous enough. And also inclusive enough, providing at least a sense of thinking and reaction within a unit that may well be burdened with a choice that has, for all practical purposes, been made for it through representatives, outside stakeholders and administrative superiors.But in an age of retaliation, in an age in which one can never be sure about the ability of an institution to keep information confidential, the process raises an issue, especially for those in the most dependent position--to what extent do formally inclusive procedures of this kind expose the most vulnerable employees to a risk that their opinions, perhaps unfavorable, will be communicated to those who assume management of their unit--exposing them to a threat of retaliation?

That is the issue this post considers--and offers a suggestion for going forward.

Assume the following:  
A unit of State university must fill a decanal vacancy.  As is the usual course, a senior administrator convenes a committee composed of the dean of another unit, and representatives of faculty, staff and students.   The committee is charged with the task of reviewing the applicants for the decanal position and presenting, of all applicants, about 3 to five candidates.  These finalist candidates are then invited to the unit where they spend two days in interviews with all stakeholders--faculty, staff, students, representatives of senior administration, and other deans. After these interviews, the successful candidate is selected by the senior administrators, usually the president and provost, and conformed by the board of trustees. 

Every person who participates in the interviews on campus is invited to submit their assessment of the candidate to the senior administrators charged with making the final selection.  These assessments and reactions are to be submitted on line by filling out a form specially prepared for that purpose.  The assessments are not anonymous and my not be submitted unless identifying information is submitted as well.  It is administered by an Office of Internal Communications (OIC).  The OIC reports indirectly to the most senior administrative officials. OIC files may be accessed by senior administrators with access to private university communications (the Confidential Files or CF).  Access to the  CF are available to anyone with clearance--at State University that means anyone in the offices of the senior executives.
These individual forms are used to prepare a survey that identifies comments by faculty, staff, student, and other invited persons, which allows the university to determine where the candidate has strong support. The names of those submitting comments are not linked to directly to their comments. There is one page with a list of participants and separate pages with the comments for each candidate. All the data initially appears in an Excell file with each column being a question and each row being a person and thus each cell is a person's response to a particular question. It's all in one file. Before generating the report for administrator review the data is separated manually, but can always be reconnected.

As a matter of institutional practice no one sees these comments but the senior administrators directly involved in the hiring decision. OIC has assured people in the past that these surveys, with or without names attached, are not made available to successful decanal candidates, or anyone else.  But within the university's access systems, the materials might still be accessed by those with the proper clearance. When employees complained to the OIC, they were told that senior administrators had determined that they would not  accepted anonymous feedback for decanal candidates. The reason given for the policy was that the university had no way to determine if one person is sending in multiple letters to skew the results to their viewpoint. But faculty and staff had pointed out that this problem could be eliminated through the use of a variety of alternatives that have not as yet been considered.

Younger tenure track and fixed term faculty, along with staff, are uncomfortable with the comments system.  There is a history of reprisal at many units and they have hear stories of careers ruined and jobs lost because of a sense that "word had gotten out."  They know there is no way they can protect themselves from comments made at meets "getting back" to the successful candidate, but are even more concerned that written comments may somehow be made available to the incoming dean. Fixed term faculty are especially wary of providing assessment information about people who may in the future have the authority to terminate their contracts, or which may be read by persons who can assert that power before the next dean is installed.  Especially where it is difficult to prove reprisal or retaliation these fears have become a cultural standard within many departments.
 Even if that is not the case, the fear of possible reprisal has substantially changed the way in which faculty and staff respond to the request for comments.  Many faculty and staff, in discrete conversations, admit that they have tempered their comments, especially when, as is often the case, more senior people express their preferences.  They figure that in these circumstances, the safest thing to do would be to write something vaguely positive about candidates, even where there might be doubts about their suitability for the office.  As a result, what appears to be a robust discussion of candidates by faculty and staff is actually, to some degree at least, a ritualized effort to provide senior administrators what they think they want to hear.

This state of affairs presents a conundrum for both administrators and for faculty and staff.  For administrators, it appears that there is both a morale problem and a problem of trust among their rank and file.  Without confidence building, real efforts to curb cultures of reprisal, it will be hard for administrators to get effective feedback from faculty and staff.  On the one hand, that may be a price worth paying.  Feedback may not be worth the effort--and it may be more important to preserve the forms of engagement than to give it actual robust effect.  On the other hand, the problem suggests a far larger one of trust.  But confidence building may not be possible under administrative regimes in which the extent of decanal discretion is not bound by rules with any real effect.  The problem of the anonymous feedback actually masks a much greater problem--the problem of deep cultures of fear of reprisal that tends to infect most relationships between faculty and the administration.  And that problem masks an even greater structural problem--the great rift that has appeared to open between  administrative and faculty cultures.  There was a time, a generation ago, when administrators, rising from the academic ranks, appears to retain shared academic cultures with the faculties from which they had risen.  But over the course of the last generation that vertical connection has been replaced by a horizontal one.  Administrators now have more cultural and social affinity with their peers in other institutions than with the faculties from which they might have come.  That change profoundly affects the relations between administration and faculty--creating socialization pathways that produce academic cultures increasingly differentiated from academic cultures. And that produces the inability to comprehend the extent of fears of reprisals and the indifference to the unreliability of assessment forms. 

For faculty and staff there appear the opposite problem.  This is augmented with the refinement of processes that effectively make the process of staff and fixed term faculty review opaque. Because it is easy to cite economic reasons for contract termination there is a real fear that incurring the ire of those who may have influence with the person who can decide to terminate their contracts will have significant impacts on their careers. That expands the scope of lack of trust to the entire administrative staff of a unit.  And might, as well, extend to tenured faculty, who might also seek to have fixed term faculty terminated.  That produces a culture in which faculty with continuing appointment may be pitted against the fixed term faculty whose status is viewed as inferior, and who provide a cushion of protection against their own termination.

Lack of trust is augmented within a system in which faculty is constantly re-socialized within an academic environment in which De-professionalization affects the status and sense of connection between faculty and institution.    That de-professionalization increases the sense that there is little to protect staff from the discretionary peccadilloes of administration officials--and especially those serving in a decanal capacity.  The structural and social protections of professional faculty have slowly eroded over the past half century.  And the transaction costs of protection are high. There is virtually nothing that protects fixed term faculty from contract non renewal and no place to turn for effective relief.  The old cultures of protection give way in the face operating cultures focused on cost cutting and efficiency in the turning of revenues. The concern about anonymity, then, masks a greater concern--that of reprisal and of decanal administrations that have no societal restraints except as they might come from senior administrators. And these mask the greater concern--that the cultural context in which deans were embedded within their units, one that produced societal restraints on and coherence to the exercise of decanal discretion, has given way to an hierarchically institutionalized culture in which deans are expected to shape their units as they like, with the only real restraint that provided by the taste of senior administrators for control.  

In this climate the distance between administrators and faculty is great.  And it is not just distance measured by difference of opinion.  The distance is marked by a comprehensibility rift--neither side now speaks the language of the other, neither sees things the same way, and neither shares a common culture of operation that makes coherent conversation possible except at the level of forms.  It is not clear that when faculty and administration use the same words they understand them in the same way.  What was once a joke about bureaucratic babble has turned into the language of governance that is now beyond the comprehension of faculty. But what haunts faculty most is its inability to serve its own interests, even as those interests become more nuanced and complex in the face of a changing institutional and labor environment (see e.g., here).  This applies as well, with some force, to decanal hires--where currying favor and self serving strategic behavior may not serve the long run interests of faculty or institution. 

The situation is not hopeless despite the trends. Faculty will have to come to terms to the great cultural revolution that has transformed the university administration into the institutional bureaucracy that it is  becoming.  The relations between the two are still collaborative, but their interests are sometimes adverse, and there is a growing obligation on the part of faculty to serve as one of the few forces that can hold administration accountable--as hard as that has become in recent years.  That accountability is a work in progress.  But at a minimum it requires the creation of a space within which faculty may make their views known without the fear of reprisal.  Administration will have to come to terms with the reality that de-priofesisonalization and labor segmentation will not produce a factory model of service delivery in which administrative discretion can be exercised with impunity.  For those institutions with greater ambitions in prestige markets among universities a proletarianized workforce will plunge the peer reputation of an institution.  Until a university is able to detach its reputation from the professional stature of its faculty, it will always be faced with a limitation on its ability to transform its workforce into a fungible  factor in the production of income.  And that will require administration to concede at least some small space for collaboration that avoids the extremes of hierarchy inherent in command and control bureaucratized institutions. That, in turn, will require attention to the corrupting effects of cultures of reprisals that appear to exist at many institutions, cultures that have been used successfully to discipline that part of the faculty targeted for proletarianization.   

Perhaps a first step in the appropriate direction--and the creation of a new status quo and balance of power within the university, is for universities to take the small step of conceding anonymity to the delivery of comments about decanal candidates--commentary that has no mandatory effect in any case, but which can be used, as administrators like, to exercise their own discretion.  On the other hand, the status quo produces the appearance of engagement without the fuss of engaging.  Where faculty become more cautious about sharing opinions, they are happy to share what they believe those with power over them wish to hear.  And where necessary, they might well opt out of the process altogether.  That also produces a benefit--it provides "data" that shows how faculty are themselves no longer interested in shared governance and participating in the operation of the university--and the excuse that may buttress additional efforts to separate governance from faculty.  The better approach, and perhaps the more ethical one, would be to enhance the ability of faculty and staff to share their views--which to emphasize have no mandatory effect--anonymously.

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