Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Put It Through Governance"

Shared governance has many definitions, and the boundaries can be fuzzy. But most academics have a pretty clear idea that in the academic context, part of shared governance involves faculty control over curriculum. Administrators are well-advised to tread as lightly as possible in curriculum, ideally functioning mostly as traffic cops. Make sure the process is followed and the course descriptions in the printed catalog match the ones online -- which sounds simple but isn’t -- and otherwise don’t mess with it.

But the outside world doesn’t really get that. The gap in understanding was brought home to me at a meeting last week with some “workforce development” people from the state.

From the perspective of the state, community colleges are arms of the state, and they are to be used to help get the economy back on track. Among other things, that means that they should be the front line in retraining displaced workers for the jobs that actually exist.

That’s great, as far as it goes. For example, there’s pretty good data to the effect that the jobs with labor shortages are mostly in the “middle skills” range -- jobs that require some post-secondary education or training, but not necessarily a four-year degree. Veterinary technicians fall into that category, for example, as do certified nursing assistants. These aren’t glamorous or high-paying, but they beat working at Jiffy Lube, and people who aren’t academic superstars can get these jobs.

In the face of a nasty and lingering recession, the state is getting increasingly concerned that we aren’t training people for the jobs that actually exist. So it’s establishing a series of grants for programs to prepare unemployed or underemployed people for those middle-skill jobs. It’s pretty clear that the state is envisioning quick-turnaround programs with fast results.

In discussion about the process for establishing new curricula, we were told to just “put it through governance” and get on with it.

And here’s the culture clash.

When the program doesn’t award academic credit, the conflict is moot. Noncredit programs don’t need the approval of the faculty, since they don’t “count.” That makes sense, given the content of most noncredit programs. Some of them are very narrow and tightly focused, like a “how to” class on a single software package. The target market for those is people who already have degrees, but who need to learn something for work. Other courses are more the personal enrichment stuff that people just take for the joy of it -- drawing, dancing, that sort of thing.

But the middle-skills jobs often require credit-bearing coursework, which means that faculty approval is needed. And that process is neither quick (cough) nor automatic. It can be neither rushed nor assumed.

The state isn’t terribly interested in hearing that. And I imagine that people who need work don’t really want to hear about the yearlong curricular approval process. They need to make money, and they need to make it yesterday.

It’s a difficult dilemma, since both sides are right. Yes, we should be responsive to the needs of the community, especially when the needs are as pronounced as they are now. The college still receives public funding; I’m comfortable with the idea of some sort of obligation to the public.

But it’s also true that giving a green light to top-down curricula -- whether the ‘top’ is the local president or the state government -- can lead to some pretty asinine outcomes. Faculty are hired, in part, for their content matter expertise. And they’re the ones who actually have to teach the content, so it makes sense that they should have a strong voice in deciding just what that will be.

The calendars the two groups assume are notably different. Beyond that, though, is a more practical issue. Curricular proposals stand or fall, in part, based on whether they have someone on the faculty who’s willing to go to bat for them. (We call those people “champions,” as in “the proposal needs a champion.”) Typically, the champion is someone in whose range of expertise the proposal falls. I’d expect that the proposal for a Psychology minor would come from someone in the Psychology department; if it didn’t, it would die on the vine. But the issues about which the incumbent faculty care the most may or may not align with the needs the workforce development people have identified. When they don’t, there may not be a champion willing to take up the cause, and the proposal won’t see the light of day.

Academic administrators are in-between, and therefore have the enviable duty of trying to find a way to address the valid concerns of both sides. And I have to admit that sometimes I get stumped.

So I’ll crowdsource it. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably fair and elegant way for a college to respond to identified workforce development needs without riding roughshod over shared governance?