Friday, March 24, 2006


Faculty Governance

Stephen Karlson’s recent piece over at Cold Spring Shops prodded me finally to try to address faculty governance. This is one of those topics, like tenure, that can really get people going. As a thoughtful academic, I am supposed to genuflect before the altar of faculty governance, and to dismiss any questioning of it as know-nothing business-model authoritarianism. The blogosphere is chock-full of very self-confident tenured faculty opining that management is theft, and that faculty governance is all that stands between us and perdition.

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?

I thought the whole idea was that the faculty would themselves be invested in the institution, providing institutional memory and suchlike. Of course, this has to involve a vaguely functional faculty culture and a situation where it's reasonable to accept a bit of waste in the name of experimentation.

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.
I understand a lot of what you're saying here, but I also would suggest that a lot of faculty expertise isn't discipline-specific, but is teaching-specific; that is, faculty are the folks actually in the classrooms, dealing with students, administering (sort of) the curriculum on the ground. That's not to overlook all the work of various advising offices and other non-faculty folks, at all - I'm not saying faculty input should be the ONLY thing involved. But I would say that the faculty role does go beyond simple disciplinary expertise, and that therefore the faculty should have perhaps a greater say/role in determining the shape of the curriculum than you seem to allow in this post.

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.
Full disclosure, I'm a tenured professor on a campus with a faculty union and a faculty-dominated senate.

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.
As someone who has moved (lurched?) from faculty to admin in the last year, I'm seeing the other side of faculty governance (the facts: I'm an associate provost at an R1 in charge of undergraduate education). Faculty governance here is pretty interesting - to wit: last year the faculty decided that there ought to be a freshman summer reading program. Good idea. Faculty, however, have no way to pay for it. Admin won't pay for it because they don't like the precedent (that faculty can create a program and demand that others pay for it), so we're at an impasse - faculty, who voted for the program, won't partcipate in the program unless the college buys them books and provides summer stipends for development of curricular materials; admin won't budge...and thus we have faculty governance without any real accountability for the decisions that are made.
All very interesting posts. This is one blog that I read daily for inspiration and thought provocation!

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.
Well, of course, once upon a time the faculty _was_ the college. "The master and fellows of ..." sometimes meant the actual people, but more often meant the corporate body. So the notion that the faculty would govern the college meant merely that the faculty would govern itself.

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.
My understanding of "faculty governance" certainly doesn't mean that each dept takes a blinkered and purely local view of its own interests over those of the university. Nor does it mean that there would not be administrators who are specially charged with looking after the university's interest as a whole. But it does mean that, ideally, these administrators should be faculty, and thus a part of "faculty governance." The problem, as I see it, arises when too many of the administrators are not, or have never been, faculty, and therefore often don't understand the issues faculty face, and often don't make education and research the primary mission of the university (at least that's how it seems from my untenured tenure-track vantage-point). The second big problem, and what I mean by "faculty governance," is when at public institutions (like my own), the Board of Trustees, which consists of political appointees, or the state legislature starts to interfere in the nitty-gritty of the university's mission. See Pennsylavnia and the "Students' Bill of Rights" of David Horowitz et al.

(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)!
That said, I agree there's also plenty of turf-guarding and knee-jerk claims of "corporatization" going on with these issues.
I think you make some very good points about the problems that can exist with faculty governance, but perhaps the real root of the problem is that the governance isn't open enough. As another commentator notes, tenured faculty are only a part of a university, which includes many different groups with very different needs and concerns - undergraduate students, graduate students, contract lecturers, tenure-track faculty, and staff, as well as tenured faculty and adminstration. And board members or government, the list goes on. (I realise that community colleges will be a little different, but not so different.)

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.)
I'm sorry, I'm not used to blogger and I have mistyped. In the first paragraph, I meant to say "isn't open enough". Also, in the last paragraph, "this kind of openness".
Any comments out there on getting faculty to take an active role (to volunteer) to serve on faculty governace committees? Does apathy reign at your institution? Specifically, at the SCHOOL level, as opposed to the campus or university as a whole.
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