Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Notes on “Shared Governance Reconsidered”

Susan Resneck Pierce’s new book, “Shared Governance Reconsidered,” offers a useful outline of many of the dilemmas facing shared governance in American higher education, and I’m not just saying that because it’s part of the same series as my book.  

Pierce is the former president of the University of Puget Sound, in Washington state, and much of her perspective reflects that.  Although shared governance is found throughout higher education, her focus is mostly on four-year colleges and universities, and especially on private ones.  Reading the book from the two-year public perspective was a bit vertiginous at times, but I don’t think too much got lost in translation.

Although understandings vary, “shared governance” is usually taken to mean that college faculty have jurisdiction over the academic program of a college, while the trustees and administration have jursidictionion over the finances, physical plant, and operational details.  The idea is that faculty have to be free to pursue truth as they see it, and they can only do that when they have control over the academic program.  Similarly, they need to be able to give the grades that students have earned, rather than giving the grades that the market rewards.  Otherwise, the entire enterprise loses its reason to exist.  On the administrative side, someone has to be in charge of making sure the lights stay on, the students get registered, and the paychecks don’t bounce.  

Pierce writes mostly about boundary disputes.  Is the decision to close a low-enrolled program for financial reasons properly academic or administrative?  In other words, when programs have to be cut, should the faculty have a veto?  

She doesn’t actually answer that question, which I’d suggest is to her credit.  It’s complicated.  In many cases, the core of the conflict is that both sides have a partially valid claim to jurisdiction.  A curriculum decided solely on finances may lack integrity.  Conversely,  a curriculum designed with no attention to finances will bankrupt the institution.  Whether that comes across as contradiction, tension, or balance depends on context.

In my world, I’ve found that taking ideas to open venues when the ideas are still in the formative stage tends to work much better than bringing fully formed proposals and asking for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  If the only way to demonstrate independence is to be contrary, then contrary some people shall be.  But if they can make discernible and credited contributions while things are taking shape, both the climate and the actual proposals tend to improve.

Pierce makes reference, rightly, to the increased meddling by state legislatures in academic decisions since the Great Recession started.  She also devotes a chapter to the issues around the inclusion (or not) of adjunct faculty in shared governance, which is particularly resonant in a community college context.  She barely mentioned unions, which probably reflects her focus on private universities; in the public setting, any discussion of shared governance has to make note of where, say, curriculum stops and faculty workload starts.  Anyone who thinks the demarcation is always clear has never worked in academic administration.

I wish she had devoted more detailed attention to the flawed premise behind many conflicts around shared governance.  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.  Faculty who don’t know that, or don’t believe it, sometimes shoot the messenger and claim the moral high ground of shared governance in doing it.  They make the mistake of using “the administration” as a synecdoche for everything external to their own world, and then they direct all of their objections and frustrations at what is, in many important ways, a stand-in.   As Pierce rightly notes, that kind of culturally sanctioned abuse drives good people out of administration, and thereby becomes self-fulfilling.

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.  

Midyear cuts (“rescissions”) are even worse.  Most of our costs are “fixed,” for all intents and purposes.  A cut announced in January hits the Spring hard, since we’ve already been through the Fall and spent what we spent.  At that point, the time required for meaningful consultation simply does not exist.  Pierce correctly notes that people who want greater participation need to attend to speeding it up, but to my reading, she understated the degree of speeding up needed.  Yes, in a perfect world, we’d get our budgets well in advance and we could plan accordingly.  But in this world, things don’t work like that.  Abrupt external shocks are sometimes processed on campuses as failures of the administration to consult with faculty; just as often, though, they’re dictated by external circumstances and deadlines.  In other words, a 21st century theory of shared governance has to reach outside the boundaries of the campus if it’s going to get the issue right.  Otherwise, we’ll keep responding to external shocks with internal bickering.  This is not likely to succeed over the long term.

Still, PIerce does a nice job of outlining the history and common understandings of shared governance, and her anecdotes are well worth the read.  I look forward to the followup volume that extends the “sharing” to external constituencies, and grounds their jurisdictional boundaries in a sustainable theory.