Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Longtime readers know that I’m a fan of C.K. Gunsalus.  Her “College Administrator’s Survival Guide” is one of the most useful and realistic I’ve ever read on the subject.  So it should come as no surprise that her latest piece in IHE, along with Nicholas Burbules and Robert Easter, struck a chord.  It’s about dysfunctional academic departments. This paragraph, about one style of handling difficult issues, jumped off the screen for me:

Fourth, some faculty members may actively prefer to delegate such issues to leaders to worry about -- not only because they don’t wish to tackle them themselves but also because their us/them view is that the faculty ought to stand together versus “those” administrative people who get paid to worry about such matters. That attitude may lead, ironically, to granting to administrators even greater powers to try to solve matters. Meanwhile, because faculty members aren’t implicated in making those administrative decisions, they retain greater latitude to criticize or reject them. In more extreme forms, that binary worldview leads faculty members to reflexively take the side of their colleagues, even when they know they are in the wrong.

I love the use of the word “implicated.”  It implies a lot.

Although it’s certainly the exception, I’ve seen this dynamic enough times, in enough places, to wince at the description.  The exchange often goes like this:

Admin: This is a problem.

Prof: Yes!  Someone should do something.

Admin: What if we tried this? (shows plan)

Prof: How dare you?  I wasn’t involved in creating that.  What about shared governance?

Admin: Okay, what would you suggest?

Prof: Not my job!  That’s your problem!  

It’s considered bad form to point out the contradiction between “I wasn’t involved!” and “Not my job!”  

In this model, “shared governance” devolves into a series of reactive plebiscites.  Over time, administrators simply start working around the process, because it’s the only way to get anything done.  Faculty purity is maintained, but at the cost of irrelevance.

Being involved -- “implicated,” if you prefer -- means getting your hands dirty.  It means moving from just passing judgment, often in a theatrical way, to getting involved at the formative stages.  It means making choices, disagreeing with some people, and owning imperfection. Sometimes it means annoying people. (In a context of declining resources, it may mean worse than that.) Frequently, it means relegating “solidarity” to a secondary concern.  

But all of those very real risks offer the payoff of actually making a difference.  

As the article notes, though, the fastest way to eviscerate shared governance is to adopt an absolutist position.  If folks treat it as little more than a venue for theatrical performance of group solidarity, it will fade away. That’s true of Congress, and it’s true of college senates.  

Kudos to Gunsalus and her colleagues for boiling all of that down into a single paragraph.  Here’s hoping we can heed the warning.