Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Teaching Governance

There's a thoughtful piece in yesterday's IHE by Terri Givens about how graduate students and new professors are socialized, or not, into the norms and expectations of shared governance. Check it out.

What I like about it is the acknowledgement that for all the lip service paid to shared governance, the pragmatic advice many of us received (myself included) during those formative years was to steer clear of committees, service, and administration generally. As an administrator, I'm constantly struck by the unacknowledged contradiction among many faculty between "consult us in all things" and "back off and leave us alone." It's not that I don't understand the impulse; depending on local practice, 'service' may or may not count for tenure or promotion. If it doesn't, then the duck-and-cover approach makes short-term sense. Certainly, anybody who has put in time in contentious meetings (hi!) can attest that they can be draining, that you'll sometimes see people at their worst, and that some great projects end with a whimper. All true. And that's before accounting for difficult personalities in powerful roles, people who don't know how to run meetings, and resource battles. It ain't always pretty.

I've mentioned before that at my current campus, as well as my previous one, most of the 'good soldiers' who are willing to put in serious time on 'service' are women. Weirdly, it seems to be getting ever more one-sided over time. (Admittedly, I'm dealing with a small sample, but it seems to square with what I've read elsewhere.) I haven't yet figured out an effective way to get more guys to step up, though I'm very, very open to ideas. (Within the confines of the collective bargaining agreement, I can't just start playing with the incentive system. I'm looking for ideas I could actually implement.)

The article suggests that graduate school is the time to learn a lot about governance. I'm not sure about that. Governance models vary widely from sector to sector, and in the case of publics, from state to state. What might be a perfectly accurate picture of an R1 might be otherworldly at a cc, and neither would accurately describe a small private college or a for-profit. Since graduate students often don't know where they'll land, it would be difficult to give contextually-relevant information. (When I signed up for grad school, community colleges weren't even on my radar.) Even if a given program managed to guess right, I'd be surprised if most grad students saw the relevance yet; at that stage, getting published counts for far more than learning how to navigate committees.

There's also the question of where governance shades into administration. It's probably not news that effective committee service can mark someone as a hot prospect for administration. Unfortunately, to too many faculty, "Administration" is a black box (or "the dark side"). I was several years into my first faculty job before giving a moment's thought to what various levels of administration do. I'd bet that only a small minority of grad students could explain, say, the difference between a vice president and a provost. This is basic stuff, but until you need it, it's just arcane.

My preferred approach would be somewhat different. I'd go after incentives and culture first, rather than information. Once the information seems relevant, people will seek it out. Colleges and universities that face a generational crisis in leadership, which is most of them, need to connect the dots and reward effective service. If it actually counts for something, then more people will step up and develop the skills and experience needed to manage a complicated and idiosyncratic institution. And if we could drop some of the knee-jerk demonization of "the dark side," that would help. If good people are scared away from administration, bad ones will fill the gaps. We. Do. Not. Want. This.

But I agree strongly that coaching newbies into the profession to steer clear of committee work, while still paying lip service to shared governance, is counterproductive. Kudos to Givens for seeing the problem clearly.

I cut my academic teeth as a student at a community college in the University of Wisconsin System. UW has an interesting approach to shared governance -- it's actually legislated that students participate in governance matters. Mind you, we're talking freshman and sophomores -- NOT grad students (at this particular institution!) We had students sit on numerous faculty committees. At the highest levels, there's even a student elected to sit on the Board of Trustees.

Imagine my shock and horror when I transferred to a Private University on the East Coast, where the student government had no teeth what-so-ever. And then I hit grad school (masters) where I didn't even care enough to find out anything about shared governance.

I suppose this blog focuses on the grad students that would ultimately end up in faculty roles; I studied in an discipline where PhD's are quite likely to end up in industry... and the Masters students don't give a thought to a PhD.
Oddly, perhaps, I was first involved in service activities while a grad student, and my experiences were largely positive--which makes a huge difference.

At my grad school, we all used the same intro econ text, which was selected by a committee on which one grad assistant (me, for two years) served. No one seemed to have an agenda (perhaps because no one had an in-pring textbook, but I digress) and the committee worked well. I was also on a committee that reviewed the course-teacher evaluation form (that was used to assess GA performance, not faculty performance, but, again, I digress). That also went well.

So my early socialization into service consisted of two experiences that worked. You can guess the consequences--I am Dr. Service...
I had the opposite experience of Dr. Service - I served as a graduate student representative on the student health care committee and help to chose the health care plan for a number of years. The committee was great, explaining our actions to people made the experience a negative one.

During my (long) tenure I learned about the inability of leaders, particularly student leaders, to contextualize institutional problems and that governments can have the memory of a goldfish. This knowledge will probably serve me well once I get a faculty position.

After about 4 years I got tired of explaining every quarter that 1. we were in the same boat as the entire US, 2. no there was no magic discount fairy that would get us a cheaper rate without giving up benefits, and 3. we would have to find a magic pot of gold in order to make things cheaper for the students.

Every year we came armed with comparisons (surprise we have better coverage than X school nearby and pay less) only to have people squawk about how bad the cost of healthcare is and to have some idiot medical student serving in the student government contact me and tell me how he (usually a he) could fix everything. This was usually a horrid experience where the med student didn't know anything and took it upon themselves to educate me (it was usually a guy who assumed I was an idiot girl social scientist until I slammed him with the fact that I was basically permanently hired as the head TA for a class on the structure of the US health care system). I encountered one knowledgeable persons who after listening to my full reasoning also concluded we did the best we could.

Given my experience in the industry and in a committee, I probably will end up on a similar committee for faculty and repeat the experience.
Long time reader, first time commentor....

Perhaps we are splitting hairs at our college, but after a decade or more of truly dysfunctional conduct by virtually all governance groups, we reached a new consensus - we are a Participatory Governance model, not a Shared Governance model. But we think the distinction is critical, and has made a world of difference for us.

We realized that not every group merited a voice on every issue. Futher still we also came to the conclusion that some issues required that a group or groups should have a greater say than others that were included, based on higher knowledge base or particular skill set. State Law helped us in this regard as well, as frequently Ed Code began examining some of these issues and codified them for everyone's use.

Once we stopped with the label of Shared Governance, began clearly defining roles and "membership" in various parts of the decision making process, and began operating within a Participatory Governance model, we became a much more efficient institution, morale was significantly improved, and we became a better college in all areas as our efforts were geared toward improvement, achievement, and excellence.

This also caused us to look at how we include students in how we made decisions. As result of our self-analysis and new model, students are now part-and-parcel to almost every decision making process. Our only disappointment there is how frequently they choose NOT to participate, and their erractic pattern of attendance and/or contributing to committeess, votes and the like.

We only wish that students would be more committed to the opportunities our processes provide. After reading a few of the comments here, it is apparent that they may not be aware of how good they have it here. Attendance and contributions are erratic despite our every effort to include them. I think that this blog entry and some of the comments are really good fodder for our students, and I will use them with our Student Government to continue our dialogue.

As always, thanks for a great topic and the contributions of your readers.
If you want your faculty to participate in more committees, I might have an idea for you. And no, it doesn't include money. Of course you can dismiss this comment if it's too naive or over simplifying the problem.

Since your faculty want to avoid committees, make the reward for serving on one a time period of not having to serve, or even being asked to serve. If Bob sits on a committee for one round of problem solving, then he's free for 2 months from serving or being asked to serve. If Bob chairs a committee on an issue, he's free for a whole semester.

I know many committees are permanent things that may require year long membership to actually be effective, but I'm sure you can figure out a way to make the rewards match the service. For those that want to serve more often, gold stars all around and choice of reward. Being committee free for a while? Getting first choice on a classroom next semester? Approval for a work-study student assistant?

I wish I had been more involved as a student, but like many have said, students just don't care as much because they don't know how good they have it.
I know we're getting slightly off topic but in CA, similar to some of the examples here, student participation in CC governance is mandated by an Assembly Bill (1725) and therefore students (usually via student government) are afforded significant access to committees, and also generally serve on the local governing board. It is a great opportunity for students on many levels, but many administrators and faculty often forget that students are the only unpaid volunteers at the table and generally have many other complicating factors (like class, work, family) to consider. At my college, committees have generally been generous to the student representatives, but often a kind reminder of the unique position of the student is required.
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