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?