Thursday, March 29, 2018

Hollowing Out Governance--Thoughts on the Emerging Structures of Governance at the Unit Level: Bureaucratization, Information Asymmetries and Control

(Px © Larry Catá Backer 2018)

One of the most interesting trends of the last decade or so has been the way in which the edifice of robust shared governance has been carved out.  What was once a structure vibrant with engagement (although always to some extent asymmetrical) now appears as magnificent as before, though hollowed out of any real content. 

One gets  areal sense of this not at the university level--where the grand strategies of bureaucratization have already become a normal element of operation, whose premises appear unremarkable even to those most deeply and adversely affected by them.  Rather it appears in its most acute forms in the operation of sub-units of the university--colleges and large departments--whose governance structures remain outwardly a shining beacon of shared effort, but which have effectively been hollowed out. 

This post includes some thoughts on the nature of that process of hollowing out and its consequences.  A future post considers the effects. The view is pessimistic; it is not clear that the antique model on which these structures once operated well can be saved except as echoes of themselves now most useful as a veil behind which real power is exercised through increasingly bureaucratized administrative apparatus with no real connection to faculty other than to understand them as factors in the production data useful to the assessment machinery of the university as a whole.  Yet what emerges as well is the certain knowledge that faculties will adjust to changing conditions, at least in order to survive.  And they will thrive, if only by changing the meaning and methods of that term. Still, it is worth chronically the transformation of a governance order that once was fully embraced by a dynamic culture and that now is quickly losing even status as a memory. Still, there may be something distasteful in using antique terms, rich in history and practice, to describe the new realities to which they have little functional connection.

Let us consider the issue of the hollowing out of shared governance within a unit through the lens of a hypothetical situation that could  apply within virtually any unit of any largish multi-college or unit university. It really doesn't matter which it might be--I have elsewhere suggested that the process trans university intra-administrative socialization within their own functional class is already much advanced (see, e.g., here, here, and here). 

A unit administrator (note while it might be interesting to consider the effect of gender, race, ethnicity, background on the character of this hypothetical, I would suspect that deviations captured by such variance might affect the form of delivery rather then the substance of the thrust of the effort) sends an email to faculty announcing the intention to adopt a broad series of new policies covering a related group of initiatives:  summer research stipends, project development stipends, course buy-outs, course releases, and pre-tenure course releases.  None of these are initiatives are unique, and indeed, they tend to stand at the core of the operation of many units.
All of the initiatives were heavily discussed by the unit administrator and the administrator's "team"--a group of associate and assistant deans (only some of whom also hold tenured positions int he unit) and other administrators with a variety of titles (most of whom having no connection with teaching or research, including registrars, finance officers, admissions officials, marketing managers, support staff managers, and giving/fund raining managers).   Those discussions would have usually been informed by discussions that might have taken place within meetings of university unit administrators and more likely with the university provost or the official charged by the provost to deal with these issues on a university wide basis. All of these discussions were confidential--some more confidential than others.  But other than perhaps to mention to faculty that some of these discussions occurred (usually at the unit level unless the unit administrator thinks that clothing oneself in the mantle of the provost might legitimate the proposal), faculty were neither invited to participate in these discussions nor were they informed about the way the issues were presented or debated.
The proposals all shared a set of common characteristics. With the exception of pre-tenure course releases, each of the initiatives is based on competition for a fund, the size of which is to be determined by the unit administrator.  The faculty neither knows the size of the fund, nor has any input in determining changes in its size from year to year.  That is consistent with unit policy in which faculty have no information about unit budgets and have no part n the establishment or approaches to unit budgets.  Each initiative was to be managed through the adoption of a policy under which the unit administrator, acting alone or with the guidance of a committee made up in whole or in part by selected faculty, would be empowered to make decisions about the awarding of stipends or course relief and to set the terms of course buy outs.
Having finalized the forms and rationale of these initiatives, the unit administrator then submits the finalized form of these initiatives to the faculty for consideration and guidance.  The decision to seek guidance is trumpeted as a sign of deep commitment to shared governance.  The faculty is invited to provide guidance and response, either during the course of a forthcoming meeting or by submitting comments, publicly or privately to the unit administrator.  Within a few days of the meeting unit administrator announces the success of the shared governance process, indicates that the administrator has received substantial comments in addition to the few circulated among the faculty--none of which are shared with the faculty--and suggests that some of the initiatives may be reserved for later consideration and that others may proceed substantially as written.  At the meeting the unit administrator defends the initiatives as they are to be implemented, as modified by later thinking, and thanks the faculty for their input.  The policies are thereafter adopted by the unit administrator and the administrative leadership group.  
How does this evidence the nature and state of the hollowing out process of shared governance?  There area  number of practices and assumptions of behaviors that in this little example, suggest the shrinking space within faculty might exercise a role, certainly at an institutional level.

Let's start with process principles.

1. Engagement. One of the most interesting movements in shared governance is the way that emerging institutional forms have reshaped the context in which shared governance is exercised in ways that have appeared without much discussion. These are the consequential effects of changes in the way in which units are administered. In the past when units were thinly staffed, a unit administrator had little choice but to seek advice--and support for implementation of programs--from the faculty. The faculty represented the largest body of individuals available and the one's best suited--both professionally and because of their rile in research and teaching--to advise and to implement issues of administration. In this environment shared governance was natural in the sense that both administrator and faculty needed each other to ensure that the unit functioned at all. As a consequences, faculty tended to be engaged not just in the review of administrative decision making but also intimately involved in that decision making itself.

But this intimate connection between engagement and faculty has slowly disappeared as the size of the unit administrator entourage has grown.  One need only compare the size of unit administrator suites over the since the beginning of this century to see that increasingly interposed between unit administrator and faculty is an army of administrators who report to the unit administrator and many of which have no institutional or cultural connection to teaching or research. Their loyalty is to the person of the unit administrator at whose pleasure they serve.  With the exception of intermediate unit administrators drawn from the faculty (who sometimes use the position for their own administrative career advancement plans) the modern unit administrator presides over a system designed to separate the administrator from key stakeholders. And, indeed, the modern logic of unit administration rewards a clear separation between all things administrative and a smaller domain for faculty input, centered on courses and graduation requirements.

Within the logic of this administrative set up shared governance becomes a much small space.  It has little to do with the domain of those matters that are increasingly the business of the administrative machinery.  It tends to be reduced to strategic consultation and the forms of engagement, rather than its function.  Consider the nature of the engagement in the hypothetical--faculty were not involved in discussions respecting conceptualization, they were not involved in the initial drafting, they took no part in the construction of the rationale for the policies advanced.  Rather it was only after the policies were finalized that they were presented fr "comment." But what sort of comments can effectively be made after the administration has committed to the substance and form of an initiative.  Little to nothing except strategic consideration are left.  And indeed, the shape of modern engagement through the forms of shared governance can be reduced to strategic engagement--for the value of information about the extent of resistance, to identify "troublemakers" or those who would challenge the policies or their forms, and to identify issues of timing and strategic engagement with faculty who are "on the fence" about the issues.  Whatever one one might consider this, it is not robust shared governance. . . and the structures of the modern institution makes any form of robust engagement effectively unattainable. 

2. Transparency and Information Asymmetries. Commentators are fond of reminding their audience that this is the century of information.  Information has become the new gold, the new petroleum.  And yet it is precisely with respect to information that unit administrators have tended to betray any sort of fidelity to notions of robust engagement.  The hypothetical outlines the usual forms.  They center on information asymmetry--the process of acquiring information and managing it so that the unit administrator and the lead4rship group always deal with faculty guidance and input from the position of information holder.  Faculty engagement becomes less useful the less information is shared.  And indeed, the hypothetical provides the usual pattern: input is requested; information is acquired by the unit administrator; it is not shared; on the basis of information not shared the administrator then changes position in "response" to input to which faculty have no access.  The result works well in a military of corporate hierarchy where clear lines of subordination and obedience are built into the system.  but here that is functionally achieved because the administrator is able to manage and control information. And in the process to sand bag guidance form faculty.

3. Retaliation
. There is no getting around the elephant in the room of contemporary governance.  Retaliation is everywhere in the back of the minds of faculty--especially where the initiatives to be considered involve competitive programs where the unit administrator is given authority to choose which faculty are to be awarded resources and which are not.  In this context one must Eb a fool to think that discussion, especially disagreement with the ideas and programs dear to the heart of the unit administrator, will not increase the probability of "punishment." Unit administrators of course are appalled at the making of such an assertion and they are quick to reassure all who will listen (an artform that they increasingly find hard to practice themselves and something quite distinct from "hearing") that this is either insulting (the ad hominem defense, or absolutely at odds with their intention or character (the "not me I am in your corner" approach). Yet, there is little data in either psychology or sociology that suggests how in a conflict of interest situation (one asks people who one will judge to approve the system through which they will be judged, punished and rewarded), it is possible for an administrator not to factor personal feeling in decision making.  Given the nature of the legal or administrative standard for abuse of discretion (one which creates enormous presumptions against abuse), it would be quite easy to shade decisions even if one buried it deep in psychological denial.  It is the nature of people.

And even if a unit administrator was better than most people, it is likely that those under the unit administrator's control would rationally assume that there is a high probability that such shading will occur.  In that context it is the foolish faculty member that would strongly disagree with a unit administrator presenting an initiative already backed by the force of the admi9nistratve apparatus of unit governance. When this calculus is tied into the power of the unit administrator rto control "unruly" discourse through unofficial power to manage "civil discourse" ad the unit administrator judges it, then  control is complete.  The modern unit administrator does not have to exercise a power of retaliation with frequency (though no doubt there are some administrators that derive a measure of joy from such practice or who think that this is a useful mechanics of governing a subject population). The chilling effect is quite palpable though it requires some measuring; a subject perhaps for an ambitious academic. Worse, of course, are the positions of contract faculty who also must weight the unintended and unconscious effects of opposition on contract renewal.

4. The Conundrum ad administrative discretion and its control. Administrative discretion is an important element in the operation of a university. But as the scope of administrative decision making has grown, so has administrative discretion. This discretion is now exercised not only by the unit administrator but increasingly through a growing administrative architecture that has, over the last 20 years or so, begun to undertake much of the duties once at the core of faculty service to the unit. Whatever one thinks of these developments, the reality is now that the scope of faculty governance has substantially changed and the administrative machinery (and its costs) has grown. One sees the consequences of these changes in the form of the regulatory proposals put forward. These are at their core manifestations of goal or objectives based regulation which vest the administrator with substantial discretion (including the discretion to interpret, measure, and apply the objectives) without any mechanism for accountability or reporting. Administrative discretion plays a vital role in the operation of the contemporary law school; that is something that might well be conceded. Yet discretion that is substantially unconstrained by mechanisms for accountability—and in the tradition of the academy through the mechanisms of shared governance—might reduce the effectiveness of the exercise of that discretion in ways that in the long run work against our collective best interests.

5. Assessment.  One of the most curious changes in unit governance is the shifting of assessment from faculty and administrators acting collaboratively to administrators using it for managing and disciplining unit behavior and imposing coherence in cultures of teaching and research (which at their limits might produce a contradiction with the fundamental principle of knowledge production at the heart of the traditional university).  The hypothetical describes the typical approach to faculty initiatives of this kind--they focus on assessment from faculty to administrators. The astonishing thing is the transformative effect of this unconscious reflex toward authoritarian assessment--it perverts the function and expression of knowledge production and dissemination in troubling ways. The object of the initiatives is usually to aid in the production of knowledge and its dissemination in a variety of context.  Yet none of that knowledge is made available to faculty--rather than promoting collective cultures of knowledge production and sharing, the character of knowledge changes to an object of assessment, a tool of disciplining and resource allocation.  And the university is ultimately diminished thereby.  It also reduces the incentives toward risk taking--assessments grounded in the programs now generally embraced tend to drive faculty toward the safe middle.  The rewards of risk are very small and the likelihood of punishment are large--consider the faculty member whose journey toward knowledge production results in a certainty that the idea pursued has no value. Yet it appears that the modern university is most comfortable as it moves from risk rewarding to a riskless environment--work toward the median, do not stand out, appear agreeable, write to reassure others to ensure publication in the appropriate journal.  All of this rewards conformity and the replication of what is known and what is safe.  One ought to wonder whether that is, in fact, what the university should be producing.  Perhaps it is--the result of course is to eventually move knowledge production out of the university to a more rewarding environment.

Taken together, these trends produce a hollowed out shared governance.  There is a furious effort to invoke its forms by unit administrators eager to clothe themselves in the backwards looking legitimacy it might produce.  But make no mistake, the forms of such engagement, in the context of the four trends described above produces great theater and little robust function.  But substantive principles are also at play here. Let us consider two substantive issues.  There are more, of course, relating to the implementation of programs of thus kind. Many of those may be contextually contingent.  But some may have relevance across institutions.

1.  Guiding principles of intra-faculty relations:  competition or cooperation.  It has been a long since since there was any discussion of basic presumptions that tend to guide the building of administrative initiatives for the management of faculty and their productivity. For decades now the approach as based on the presumption that intra-faculty competition is healthy and that the unit administrator  ought to use the concept of limited budgets as a tool for managing behavior through the rewarding of stipends on the basis of a broad or sometimes slightly narrowed scope of discretion. And certainly, form the administrative perspective such a  model works well--it shifts power to an administrator, both with respect to decisions about how much money to put in stipend pools and how to award them, and it reduces the likelihood that faculty can as a practical matter unit to provide guidance (since any such concerted action would work against individual interest, especially if the unit administrator uses the ward power strategically).

One might come to believe over the last several years that while it may be useful and important for law faculties to engage in the give and take of competition with other faculties, that embedding principles of competition within a faculty might not be the best way to develop the productive capacity and talents of our faculty. It seems to be that a law faculty should be quite sensitive to the objective of working together to develop all of our talents and that this requires a joint effort of cooperation and shared community. Competition for those resources that improve individual, and thus collective productivity (and reputation) reduced the feeling of solidarity which I believe is foundational to collective progress as a faculty and as an institution committed to the production and dissemination of knowledge.But a faculty will never get there is the unit administrator manages discussion in ways that make such consideration (and its implementation impossible).

Still, one might wonder whether the faculty might consider if the highest obligation we owe each other is to help collectively toward our mutual betterment. Usually that obligation is discharged by traditional methods of enhancing our scholarly culture--workshops, conferences and the like, especially where non domestic faculty are invited in. Those are important steps in the appropriate direction. As well it might be more productive in the long run to enhance our reputation and development as a well reputed faculty among our peers in invest in our faculty and their development in lieu of, perhaps, using funds to bring in other faculty (whose hiring is meant to serve that purpose in the shorter run). Perhaps it might be worth considering whether the great resources that unit administrators are able to procure for the betterment of their units might be well spent on projects of enhancing a culture (and the reality) of working collectively to enhance each other’s development—by sharing, by engaging with each other, by helping each other, and by supporting our individual efforts in a positive and collective way. Yet this important institutional solidarity building behaviors might not be well enhanced by deepening a culture of competition (rather than of cooperation and sharing) among us. It is certainly true that a sustained and long-term project of cultivating the faculty’s potential on a long-term basis requires resources. To that end it may be worthwhile for the faculty to consider whether it would be more useful for  long-term development and reputational aims to devote funds that might otherwise be used in increasing the size of our faculty rather than investing in the faculty we have.

Yet none of those questions are put to the faculty.  Nor are faculty welcome to raise them in a way that matters. These basic considerations tend to be characterized as within the domain or administrators. More perniciously, they tend to be seen as "givens"--the unalterable conditions of common cultures, traditions and expectations.  That faculty guidance on those issues is either unwelcome or unavailing suggests the shrinking of the scope of the area where faculty guidance has any effect.

2. Ahistoricity.  New unit administrators like to indulge the conceit that they write on blank slates.  That is useful as a matter of strategy.  But it may have some ethical dimensions that ought to be considered, especially in universities that increasingly oblige unit administrators (and others) to put ethics first). The hypothetical builds in the assumption that no history worth recalling occurred prior to the delivery of the new initiatives for consideration. Working in an ahistorical environment serves to shift power to unit administrators by shrinking the environment against which current actions can be judged. It strips authority from tradition and reduces the power of already sometimes well reasoned communal positions.  It is true enough that at times it also breaks through the authoritarian impositions of a prior abusive administrator.  But one wonders if there are better ways t achieve "reform" in that context that also strengthens the shared part of shared governance.


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