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.