Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Limiting Access to Faculty Organization Archives and Records--When Administrative Gatekeepers Abuse Their Authority and Undermine Shared Governance

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

Universities are well known as great centers of knowledge production and dissemination.  Faculty tend to be at the center of the production of both.  But like other industries, administrators have increasingly assumed a larger role in the management of exploitation of knowledge production and dissemination by and through faculty to the greater glory of the institution.  In the process there has been an increasingly large distance created between those who produce university wealth (faculty) and those who manage those productive forces and their product (the administrator) who produces no wealth. 

Administrators produce a very different kind of knowledge than that produced by faculty. Administrators generate data from the productive work of others.  And that data is then used either to (1) increase the productivity of wealth producers (appropriating the entirety of such increases in wealth per productive unit to the institution and their greater glory) or (2) ensure the separation of the means of production of knowledge-wealth (faculty) from its control  (invested increasingly in an administrator class with no connection to knowledge production). 

Within these new forms of production and control--the ownership of information, especially the ownership of information relating to the wealth production of the university becomes among its most valuable commodities. It is valuable especially in the sense that it represents the ownership fo the power to control the wealth generation by the university and to direct its form and expression.  Information, then is power.  Information, in this sense, is power. 

This relationship between information, its control and power over an institution suggests bath the emerging hierarchical character of the university and the way that appropriation of control is used to reduce the role of knowledge producers to share in the governance of the university and in the control of their own knowledge production and dissemination. But this emerging relationship, as troubling as it may be int he context of shared governance, faculty de-professionalization, and the administrative control of a university becomes a tragedy when the same pattern is used by the administrators of a faculty organization against its own members

This post speaks to the issue, increasingly problematic of administrators of faculty organizations from access to the archives of their own institutions.  

1,  In many universities, the faculty organization has a long history.  Many such organizations can trace their origins to the turn of the 20th century, some enjoyed even longer existence.  During the course of those long existence, faculty organizations produce a records of a ricjh variety of actions.  These include a record pf the changes to their institutional forms, a record of the great and less great debates of the times, records of meeting, and perhaps most importantly, records of deliberations and taken on the host of issues that have been the stuff of shared governance for a century or more. The records also include the names of notable figures that helped shape a faculty organizaiton, and provides evidence of their contribution, of their intention in shapiong decisions and in their counsel to their successors.

2. Most of thes erecords are essential for a working faculty organization that needs to recall its past action, including its own records of its interactions with administrators as a basis for legitimate forward looking action.  Contemporary issues always profit form an ability to draw on institutional history to inform current decision making.  In addition, an acute knowledge of the past makes it possible for a Senate to preserve the scope of its authority to avoid inadvertent acquiescence in actions  that may reduce the scope of its authority over time. 

3. Most of these records have been in written form for the greater part of the last century.  It has only been recently that that these records have been transferred to other media--sometimes preserved in digital form and made word searchable, sometimes now preserved in microfiche or related technology.  Most faculty organizations thus have a rich record of its institutional history form which it may draw. 

4.  In some institutions, university senior administrators appoint an administrative official responsible for the operational functions of the faculty organization, including the preservation of the faculty organization archives. At Penn State University, the University Senate Constitution (Art. II, Section 6) provides:
An Executive Director appointed by the Provost of the University after recommendation by the Senate officers shall carry out staff functions, manage the Senate office, and support and facilitate the Senate in the performance of its duties. The Executive Director shall be responsible to the Senate Chair. A review of the Executive Director will be conducted every five years by the Senate Chair. The Executive Director shall be nonvoting but shall have the privileges of the floor.
 Among the duties of such offices are the maintenance of the faculty organization records and agendas as a core staff function.

5.  It is in the role of manager, and as manager, as the responsible official for the faculty organization records that the faculty organization administrator sometimes appears to serve as a gatekeeper to the organization's archives. That is a necessary function--to maintain the integrity of the records of the faculty organization.  Yet it is altogether too common for the gatekeeper to become the hoarder of the information contained in the archives--reserving only to himself the right to access the information in the archives.  The consequences are obvious and perverse:
a.  With respect to faculty organization leadership this usually means that faculty leaders must seek the intervention of the administrator to access the records of the institution they lead.  Worse, they must rely on the choices made by the administrator with respect to the information accessed and the forms in which it is presented.  Te administrator thus becomes not just the keeper of the records by their master as well--faculty leaders can know only what the administrator provides.
b.  There is no way to mind the gatekeeper. Administrators that maintain such an unfettered control of the archives of a faculty organization  have no mechanism for ensuring that have maintained the records well.  There is no way to ensure that information requested as been accurately and adequately retrieved.  The temptation to bend interpretation to the interests and predilections of the administrator cannot be dismissed.  This is especially of concern where the organization administrator reports ot senior university administrators.
c. The problem of access and control become even more troubling when the faculty organization administrator forbids access to the archives to any member of the faculty organization.  Where faculty representatives are denied access to the archives that are the memory of the institution itself, it vests institutional memory only in the administrator.  That effectively shifts power away form elected faculty representatives to the gatekeeper. More importantly, it makes it impossible for elected faculty leaders to undertake their roll effectively.
 6.  The issue of the control of faculty organization archives is part of the larger question that has become a central issue in university administration--the generation and control of and access to the data that makes up the institutional memory of the university and its organizations.  The move has been toward reduction of access to the sorts of information that is critical to the management of the university.  And by limiting access to information, to limit as well effective participation in university governance.  This trend is both augmented and its perverse effects becomes  unavoidable when it is the faculty organization that seeks to limit access to its own institutional memory from its own members.

7. For most faculty organizations, such a usurpation by its organizational administrator would be considered both unethical (judged by the standards of University Ethics Codes), and may be inconsistent with the organization and allocation of authority within the faculty organization itself. Most university organization rules are silent with respect to access to it own records.  But there is a long tradition in business that officers and directors are granted reasonable access to all records necessary for them to perform their duties. Because a faculty organization represents the interests of all faculty, and because they are an essential conduit for shared governance, it makes no sense for them to engage in the sort of participation inhibiting conduct as that practiced by administrators bent on using control of information to increase their power over others. That is bad ethics even if it is unconstrained by law.  As such the best rule for be for all faculty organization records to be made freely available to anyone who would like access. Where that is not possible, and at a minimum, all elected members of a faculty organization should have access to all of the faculty organization's records.  To do otherwise is to pervert both the spirit and purpose of a faculty organization and to undermine robust shared governance.

8.  A final thought: records of faculty activity belong to the entire faculty.  There are no issues of privacy involved, nor of chilling debate that occurs within a collaborative body of individuals serving in a representative capacity.  Their actions and engagement with the university serves as a record of faculty history that is itself central to an understanding of the university and its development.  It seems odd, then, that such records, central to the history of the university itself, should not also be housed within the Penn State library system as the authoritative repository of history that such records represent. And perhaps, so housed, such records of free open robust engagement should be available to all.  

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