Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Shared Among Whom?

Among whom should “shared governance” be shared?  And how, exactly?

This week, IHE featured two articles on the subject, both of which rely on an assumption I find troubling.

The first is a profile of the argument in a new book, The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance, by Larry Gerber.  Assuming that the article got Gerber right, his argument is fairly standard-issue administrator-bashing.  Once upon a time, there was a Golden Age, in which white male tenured faculty roamed free, grazing happily upon the groves of academe.  But then (cue ominous music) Administrators appeared on the scene, bringing with them an inexplicable lust for power matched only by their apparent fecundity.  They left in their wake trails of adjunct sections and outcomes assessment protocols.  Now, nearly all is lost, but we emeritus few can compete to see who can compose the most self-indulgent eulogy.  (Benjamin Ginsburg is quoted, with characteristic humility, calling Gerber “the official historian of the end of the academic world.”)  If not for those evil Administrators, IT, financial aid, payroll, regulatory compliance, disability services, admissions, and marketing would just take care of themselves.  Or something.

The second is a much more nuanced and intelligent take offered by Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College. Rosenberg takes as given that the concept of “shared” governance is importantly different from “faculty” governance, and instead focuses on how to make the sharing effective.  He suggests that the first step is to move away from the illusion that it’s possible to have substantive discussions in mass meetings, since they fall prey too easily to uninformed theatrics.  Instead, he suggests moving from a “direct democracy” model to a “representative democracy” model.  Have the faculty elect some representatives to be present at smaller group meetings where decisions are actually made.  Make sure those representatives, and any other faculty who wish to be, are brought up to speed on how the institution works, so their input can be more practical and effective.

Rosenberg’s approach accepts the basic reality that colleges are complex institutions full of moving parts.  But it still assumes that governance is mostly an on-campus issue, and that the “sharing” involved is sharing among people who work on campus.  That’s much less true than it was, especially in the public sector, but theories of shared governance haven’t caught up to the changes.  As I noted a few months ago in my response to Susan Resneck Pierce’s Governance Reconsidered:

The premise is that a college is a self-contained institution -- what, in the sixties, they used to call a “total” institution -- and that all conflict is contained within it.  Nobody comes out and says that, of course, because it’s facially absurd.  But they assume it, and act as if it were true.  That’s becoming increasingly untenable.  Faculty owe allegiances to academic disciplines.  Administrators and Boards are increasingly subject to levels of rulemaking from state and federal authorities -- as well as financial pressures -- that greatly restrict their freedom to decide...It’s easy (and proper) to call out, say, the legislature of South Carolina for scolding a college for teaching a book about lesbianism.  But that’s an easy case.  The more common case of legislative troublemaking isn’t even around rulemaking.  It’s around uncertainty.  Hiring decisions, for example, rely on the availability of money to pay the new hire.  When we don’t know if that money will be available until very late in the fiscal year, we hold off on hiring.  That has direct programmatic impact, especially when small programs lose full-time people and we don’t have the money to replace until it’s too late for the following year.

Many of the decisions made on campus are in the context of decisions made elsewhere, or facts from the outside.  Combine a legislative “performance funding” formula with a demographic slide, and you have the beginnings of a context in which to understand how decisions are made.  Then add federal mandates, case law, collective bargaining agreements, financial aid regulations, and whatever else.  Adding some representatives to committees -- a good idea, as far as it goes -- won’t change those external drivers.  

A more robust theory of shared governance would have to place colleges within the larger political economy.  That would involve acknowledging that colleges’ issues are not self-contained.  Legislatures often regard public colleges as tools of public policy, and treat them accordingly.  (“We need $10,000 bachelor’s degrees!”  “We need more STEM grads!”)  Those directives are not generally subject to local veto.  In Connecticut, the state actually went so far as to prescribe the amount of remediation a college could offer.  That bypassed typical administrative decisions, and went straight to what a curriculum committee would normally do.  I don’t see those trends abating.

I don’t see much point in hand-wringing about a lost Golden Age, and not only because most Golden Age narratives rely on selective memory.  The idea that higher education should be eulogized implies that it’s dead, and frankly, I take offense at that.  Higher education is taking place every single day.  It’s the old theory of how it works that’s dead.  We need a new theory, in which the “sharing” of governance is broader, messier, and higher-stakes.  Because it is.

Once upon a time, there was a Golden Age, in which white male tenured faculty roamed free, grazing happily upon the groves of academe. But then (cue ominous music) Administrators appeared on the scene, bringing with them an inexplicable lust for power matched only by their apparent fecundity. They left in their wake trails of adjunct sections and outcomes assessment protocols.

The problem is that this narrative is basically valid (except the nostalgia for a purely white and male faculty, the one change that was deserved). Admins are not merely the institution's internal response to the outside world. You are, whether you know it or not, viceroys of outside masters. What the outsiders have done, they did through you as their local agents.
On our campus, the issue is how the administration responds to those external demands -- often ineptly, spinelessly, and without vision or even strategy. To me the loss of faculty governance is about losing a diversity of opinions (often messy, contradictory, and annoying) that, in fact, include better ideas than those put forward as 'necessary' or 'inevitable'.
I would also say, though, that faculty ignore those outside influences either willfully or cluelessly. They sometimes pretend rules and budgets do not exist. I have seen more than once a faculty member assume that X is not happening because administrators just don't want it to, not because X costs too much. Where faculty can be helpful is reminding everyone of the mission of an institution so that priority is placed on teaching and/or research. Again, some faculty assume the mission is to support their pet project. I have been on too many committees where this has been the case and where faculty equate the institution with the administration and therefore thwart any forward momentum for the institution. Sort of like Congress right now.
It is certainly true that college and university administrations have expanded greatly in recent years. There are lots of valid reasons for this.

Back in the good old days of the early 1960s, my college administration was rather small—just about all that was there were a president (whose main job was fundraising), a dean of the college, a dean of men, a dean of women, plus a registrar and a director of placement. Now there are all sorts of government-imposed regulations that need to be handled, most of which weren’t there in the early 1960s. In addition, financial aid, disability services, student psychological counseling, admissions, and marketing need to be handled. Also, the accrediting agencies now seem to require all sorts of extra programs and accommodations—outcomes assessment being the most prominent example. None of these services are free, and they require additional staff and administrators to handle them. Consequently, there are now a whole bunch of assistant deans, associate deans, and vice presidents of this or that, along with a lot of front-office and back-office staff to handle all the details.

It is easy for the faculty to conclude that there has recently been a change in overall administrative philosophy from the purely academic to something more closely aligned to the goals and philosophies of a typical for-profit corporation. Under the new academic corporate model, academic programs become franchises, students become consumers, donors become investors, the fruits of research become proprietary and secret, faculty members become employees, courses become business products, and other peer institutions become competitors. Just like corporate executives, academic administrators are now mainly focused on increasing the revenue stream and on cutting costs.

I can see why academic administrators tend to regard faculty unions, the tenure system, and shared governance as being unnecessary and unwanted irritants that simply get in their way in managing the college or university efficiently and cost-effectively. It would certainly be much better for them if tenure did not exist, and administrators could simply let faculty go when they become obsolete and are no longer needed, or if they become too uppity and become a thorn in the administration’s side. It would be nice if administrators did not have to accommodate with shared governance, that faculty members would be subordinate employees who would keep their mouths shut and do as they are told. It would also be nice if there were no faculty union to impose all of those costly and cumbersome work regulations. It would be very nice if the administration could concentrate university resources into those areas that promise to bring in the most money, and marginalize or eliminate those areas and disciplines that do not instantly show a profit.

But administrations need to accommodate with a lot of external forces and pressures, over which they have little or no control. They need to deal with a thicket of government-imposed rules and regulations, most of which are unfunded mandates. They need to deal with reduced funding from state and federal sources. They have to respond to demands from the accrediting agencies. Nowadays, most student receive some sort of financial aid, which requires a large staff of people to handle all the ins and outs of application, as well as being able to demonstrate compliance with lots of regulations. Colleges and universities have to spend lots of money on computers and IT services. In many aspects, student life has become not unlike summer camp, and students demand all sorts of extras such as athletic facilities, climbing walls, or fancy dormitories, or else they will go somewhere else. A lot of money must be spent on advertising and recruiting. None of this stuff is free, and the money for this has to come from somewhere. It is small wonder that administration has expanded, and it is easy to see why faculty members accuse administrators of being soulless bean-counters who only think about money.

I agree completely with the elected model, but that still depends on an informed electorate. IMO, that is where the real problem lies.

From the Rosenberg article:
"Achieving this goal has become increasingly difficult as the economic model of higher education has come under more intense stress ..."

Agreed, and college administrators have no one to blame but themselves for failing to communicate any of this in a clear way to their faculty. At my own institution, administrators will have known for months what they will present at the fall faculty convocation. We will find out when we see the first slide that morning. The thought of flipping that classroom is totally alien to them, and poorly informed reactions to information flashed for less time than it takes to write down a number is the result.

Yet the budget has been set and the projections have been made. If you want to see the budget, you have to wade through the Board minutes without the aid of the presentation made to the board. What has changed is hard to find. Ditto for whatever educational innovation or theme will be the message of the year. Even when it comes from the faculty, it is presented as a surprise.

You reap what you sow.

From the Flaherty article:
"American faculty members gained primary control over the curriculum and personnel matters, ..." [emphasis added]

Uh, no. Hiring and firing authority always resides with the corporation that is the college or university, usually its board. Some of this is shared or delegated, but it was never under faculty control. Ditto for the assignment of faculty lines or other budget issues.

BTW, I think I'm almost as old as ArtMathProf, but peer institutions have always been viewed as competitors -- in both academics and athletics.
Speaking of a representative model for faculty governance, I recall what the system was like back when I was teaching at Research Intensive Technological Institute back in the 1970s. We had a faculty senate, but membership in the senate was restricted to tenured faculty members only. In fact, untenured faculty members (whether on or off the tenure track) were not permitted to get involved in any type of shared governance or committee work at all. I suppose that this was probably because untenured faculty members were pictured by the administration as being lesser beings unworthy of the responsibilities of shared governance, or perhaps because it was considered too dangerous to the careers of untenured faculty members for them to get involved in controversial academic politics.
In those days, the faculty had the primary role of the initial vetting of new faculty members, but such hires were subject to approval by the administration. The faculty had little or no say in the hiring of deans or provosts, or in the appointment of department chairpersons—the administration was solely responsible for these. In order to hire a new president, the approval of the Board of Trustees was required.
As far as tenure decisions were concerned, the tenured members of the candidate’s department made the initial decision. But the tenure decision was subject to approval or disapproval by the office of the Provost, which meant that the departmental decision on tenure was effectively meaningless and was only for show. In fact, many times tenure candidates initially approved by the department were eventually turned down by the Provost, including in my own case.
Even in a representative model of faculty governance, it is difficult to function when the administration operates in an atmosphere of high secrecy, under which the faculty is informed about a vital matter only when a final decision has already been made, with little or no faculty input.

I don’t remember colleges and universities being overly competitive with each each other back in the 1960s, at least not in academics. But this competitiveness has ratcheted way up in recent years, especially with the advent of college rankings, especially the US News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities, which first appeared in 1983. These rankings have driven an enhanced competitive drive among colleges, and college administrations are scrambling against each other to get a higher ranking on these listings. The rankings attempt to rate schools against each other on such things as SAT or ACT scores, class sizes, faculty reputation, graduation rates, retention rates, selectivity, acceptance rates, alumni donation rates, among others.

Many Boards of Trustees fixate too intensely on their school’s ranking, and a college president whose school drops too sharply in the rankings is in serious danger of losing their job. Many schools now design their policies with these rankings explicitly in mind. In an attempt to get ahead in the rankings game, some schools have even been accused of sending in faked statistics to US News, in the hopes of jacking up their scores in the next ranking. A desire to achieve a higher ranking can lead to some perverse incentives, in which policies are specifically designed to raise their rankings rather than to satisfy any valid educational goals. An uncritical examination of these statistics might make it difficult to make any meaningful comparison of one college with another--each college has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, which might make it a good choice for some students and a bad choice for other students.

Some schools discount the value of the rankings, but most often when their rankings have slipped. Some schools have boycotted the rankings, concluding that they are of little or no value in helping a student to select a college or university.

The Obama administration’s plan to get into the rankings game might ratchet the competitive forces between colleges and universities even higher. The goal is to develop a ratings system that would push colleges to deliver better value to their students, will put significant emphasis on debt levels, and will include data on how well students do in the workforce once they graduate. I can foresee a whole bunch of very perverse incentives if such rankings are actually put into place.

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