Friday, March 24, 2006
The more I think about it, though, the less I understand the concept.
I think the core idea behind faculty governance rests on the assumption that faculty are experts in their individual fields, and that they therefore know best how a college should be run. The non sequitur there is enough to cause whiplash.
I’ll grant without argument that faculty know their individual fields better than administrators do, with exceptions for administrators who came from faculty. (I know my scholarly field better than a professor of astrophysics knows my field, and certainly vice versa.) To me, that’s an argument for academic freedom in the classroom and in research, for faculty autonomy on grading, for homegrown (as opposed to standardized) outcomes assessment mechanisms, and for all manner of decisions specific to given departments.
When you cross departments, though, and matters come up outside one’s area of scholarly expertise, it’s not clear to me why faculty should govern. Why should the art historian decide whether equipment funding goes to chemistry or to engineering? If departments vote on which departments will get new faculty lines, I’d expect to see little more than interest-group politics at work, with the rich getting richer.
The claim to special competence is discipline-specific. It’s not universal.
Worse, there’s a glaring, fundamental, catastrophic conflict of interest in faculty governance. Tenured faculty are bulletproof; they are the group least affected by the fortunes of the college as a whole. If the college’s fortunes wane, the college will respond with hiring freezes, administrative consolidations, and increasingly-frantic searches for operational efficiencies; the worst that might happen to tenured faculty is a reduction in travel money.
As a dean, I’m accused of arrogance every time I open my mouth. But at least my fortunes are tied to those of the college as a whole. I have to take the big picture into consideration, or pay the price in my career. Tenured faculty can simply plant a flag on their little patch of ground, and tell everyone else to go to hell. (And they do.) They don’t have the same sort of accountability. Power without accountability leads to abuse, inevitably and predictably.
One common and very frustrating instance of that abuse is in the current model of evaluating transfer credits. I’ve had more than my share of conversations with four-year colleges, trying to negotiate seamless transfers for students who don’t switch majors. Vice Presidents, Provosts, and Deans are eager to talk; department chairs balk, claiming the moral high ground of faculty owning the curriculum. Frequently, there’s nothing more to it than turf, but the idea that faculty owns curriculum makes coordinating curricula between schools effectively impossible. Students pay the price, literally.
In fact, any attempt to treat a given state’s higher education system as a system will run into faculty governance issues. If each college is its own independent fiefdom, run by people with lifetime tenure, well, good luck with that. Managers who try to rationalize a given college’s offerings with those of the rest of the state are accused of running roughshod over process, by which is meant trespassing on turf.
Faculty unions, I understand. They can be good and bad, but at least I know where the lines are drawn, and I can grasp the concept behind it. Faculty governance, by contrast, increasingly strikes me as archaic. And colleges that have both leave me completely bewildered: are the faculty labor (and therefore union) or management (governing)? After all, managers can’t unionize. You can’t have it both ways.
(In fairness, I’ll draw a distinction between input and governance. A competent manager will solicit input from stakeholders in decisions, and sometimes that will include faculty. I’m all for input, when it’s relevant. Governance means actually making the decision. I think that should fall to someone who’s actually accountable for the outcome of the decision.)
Is there a coherent theory of faculty governance out there somewhere?
In a cash-strapped situation such as the one you consistently describe, faculty governance makes a lot less sense. What you need now isn't a chance for a thousand flowers to bloom, you need a strong focus on things which work right now in hopes of getting to a more comfortable place later.
As for the question of transfer credits, that's just a basic public goods sort of problem. You'll note that everyone who said that the problem got solved mentioned that it was solved legislatively. There's a reason for that.
As for the cash-strapped argument - again, I completely understand what you're saying here, but it's also been my experience that when a campus is cash-strapped, if you put more and more of the business of running the campus on the shoulders of the faculty, you don't have to hire as many other people. That is, I've seen "faculty governance" play out in practice as something that adds to faculty workloads and becomes increasingly necessary at an under-funded, under-staffed institution.
But of course, I am faculty. ;-) and I come out of a background of institutions that were big on faculty governance.
Funny, I just attended a departmental seminar on the history of our university's governance (a group of professors are hard at work, preparing a history for the 40th anniversary upcoming) and my colleague touched on the critical problems where faculty were not at all involved in governance and micromanagement reviewed every expenditure or budget-line transfer in every department, bogging down the entire system.
The 60s changed that with the Duff Berdahl report here in Canada, but also in the states less official mechanisms led to the incorporation of student and faculty representatives in university governance. I happen to think those are good changes -- a university needs to incorporate perspectives from all its constituents.
I'm a bit troubled in that some seem to think that "pure administration" is ideally aligned with student interests: it's not. For instance, administrators often want to "rationalize" parts of the curriculum they don't understand or appreciate and faculty has to jump up and down to defend these. I've seen that each of these three parts (four parts of the university if we count the completely ignored staff!) has different perspectives, expertise and aims. A good university governance has to understand and balance all of those. I don't think that administrators, alone, can do that. Nor do I think that faculty, alone, can do the job. But empower one part over the other and you'll pay the price.
Under full disclosure, I too am an expat faculty member now on the Student Development side of the house. Believe me, there are plenty of days I wish I was back in the safety of the classroom! ;-)
What governance really boils down to is one thing...Relationships. I tell my staff is SD that "Life is Relationships" so we need to be very thoughtful as we build relationships with our students. Are all sides (faculty/ staff/ admin/ students/ governing board/ etc.) willing to invest in the hard work of relationship-building? The fruits of such labor is Trust. Much can be built once Trust becomes the foundation. Without it, nothing gets accomplished.
We now have a much more developed theory of corporate bodies. We now mostly think of colleges and universities as abstract entities, quite distinct from any actual human beings involved with them. But sometimes we revert. Sometimes we need to think of the institution as the people who comprise it ("piercing the corporate veil" and suchlike). In the case of a college, the faculty insist they are ultimately the people who comprise it. Faculty governance seems to me to be the vehicle through which that assertion gets made.
(as for transfer credits, my university gets a ton of transfers in from CCs and other branch campuses--I'm at the main branch of a state U--and we don't seem to have any problems, and the students are often my best ones; at the same time, the curriculum and standards do differ somewhat (that's part of the point of a nested hierarchy like a state system, isn't it?) and so one shouldn't automatically count all courses for credits in a major, I think.)
Love the blog, by the way (it's my delurking post)!
When I was an undergraduate, I attended a university that took faculty governance and democracy very seriously. But the faculty council and the senate of the university also included student representatives (both undergraduate and graduate, I was one of the former), non-tenured faculty and contract faculty. I am currently a graduate student at a well-respected university that only allows representation to the tenured faculty, and while it is a very fine university, I find I am far less comfortable with the institution. It is less responsive to the needs of the people there, and that includes the tenured faculty (many of whom seem to have little desire to get involved in governance). For all that my current university has more resources and advantages, I feel like my former university was often better to its students, because it tried to keep its own adminstration open to the scrutiny of the faculty and students.
(In case you are curious about how it was run, student representation on the faculty council and in the university senate was always only a proportion of the whole council - 10%, or about 80 students in my Arts faculty. But we were able to make statements, to serve on committees, and to generally bring the student perspective to the issues being debated. I found that the faculty were generally very interested to hear our opinions, and I was very glad of the chance to get to know so much more about how the university functioned. I regret that my current university doesn't have this kind openness.)