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.