Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Killing Shared Governance From the Bottom Up--How Middle Level Administrators Kill University Shared Governance

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

"As you know, it was only because of my kindness and indulgence that I allowed you to accept a grant that afforded you a buy out of your courses last year. I should tell you that this really put me out; I had to go to the trouble of finding substitutes for you just so that you could do this research funded by the grant rather than teach. Reluctantly I also lose you because of your duties as an elected member of the University Faculty Governance Organization. There is nothing I can so about that. But I will insist that those duties are in addition to and should be undertaken only after you have complied with all of the service and committee work that I need to impose on you. That is your primary job. So you figure out how to fit in your University service; I have a unit to run. I still need you to fulfill your service responsibilities to this unit first, which include advising students, serving as a peer observer of teaching for faculty, and serving on unit committees as I assign you. And be sure to remember that your year end evaluation for me will be weighted heavily in favor of your unit service.

For faculty elected to university service--especially university level faculty organizations--hypothetical emails like this are not unusual.  And they effectively shut down effective service on university faculty organizations.  And that, in turn, helps kill university shared governance.  It is not destroyed by high level decisions based on principled objectives--shared governance is killed by the exercise of lower level administrative discretion by middle and lower level managers eager to protect their "resources" and to punish, through the exercise of that discretion, those of their "staff" who presume  to provide service outside their unit.  

This attack on university level shared governance  can be undertaken with impunity. It is passive and self serving.  Its effects become noticeable only over time and from the accumulated burdens on many faculty.  It is unlikely to be included in any review of the lower or middle level administrator engaging in these activities. Indeed, the incentives for administrators appear to encourage this behavior that is ultimately deleterious to the functioning of the university through it provides short term benefits for the career of the lower or middle level administrator.  The connection between individual discretionary administrative decision making and substantial negative effects on governance are hard to prove--there is hardly ever a smoking gun (aside from occasional emails like the hypothetical example above).

Most egregiously, conduct of this kind, altogether too common at many large and small research institutions, reveals the toleraiton of a culture in which lower and middle level admibnistrators appear to be encouraged to worjk for their own personal ends rather than contribute to the aggregate long term well being of the university. These cultures of fief aggrandizement does the university little good and produces the sort of morale issues that infect not just shared governance but the willingness of the faculty to contribute an iota more than required by theor work contracts.  That is hardly the way to run a successful university.

What can be done?

1.  Commitment starts at the top.  Universities have been promulgating ethics codes, conduct codes, and the like.  Universities ought to promulgate a Shared Governance Code that reaffirms commitment to shared governance at the university and unit levels. 

2.  Elected service to university governance must count for the expected contribution to faculty service, not in addition to it.  Administrators should be well schooled in this policy and affirmatively commit to its implementation.

3.  Such a Shared Governance Code ought to include, at a minimum an obligation to coordinate service obligations between the university and units where faculty serve university level faculty service. 

4.  For university wide elective office, the university ought to include a policy of relief from unit service in its entirety; and bar lower level administrators from the exercise of authority to impose service obligations on faculty serving in those capacities. 

5. A sanctioning mechanism ought to be put in place (beyond the cumbersome process of formal Faculty Rights and Responsibility proceedings, assuming jurisdiction) to discipline administrators that fail to adhere to university policy.

6.  Senior administrators ought to be compelled to produce an annual report to the faculty organization, like a Cleary Act Report,  on the administration of its Shared Governance Code, including disciplinary actions against administrators. 

7.  Compliance with the Shared Governance Code should be incorporated into the formal periodic reviews of administrators at the unit and sub unit levels.

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