Sunday, November 8, 2015

Faculty Engagement in Dean Searches: Shared Governance in an Age of Retaliation and the Problem of Anonymity

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

It is still common, in the public and publicly assisted university, for the inclusion of some form of faculty and staff participation in the process of hiring unit administrators--deans and their equivalents who are charged with the management of the "operating units" of the modern university. But of course, faculty and staff have limited opportunities to be involved in hiring their managers. At many universities, that engagement involves participation by representatives of internal stakeholder groups--faculty, staff,. students--in a screening committee that considers submitted expressions of interest. Once winnowed down to an acceptable level, the finalists are usually brought onto campus for presentation to the unit--through a combination of interviews, meetings, and the opportunity to present to the relevant community. These stakeholders are usually given an opportunity to report their reaction to and assessment of the candidates brought to campus. These reactions, taken together with the impressions of decision makers and the relevant due diligence usually forms the basis of a decision on hiring of managers of this sort. The final decision, of course, is usually reserved to a senior officer of the university--usually the provost, confirmed by president and sometimes the board of trustees.

At first blush, this procedure appears innocuous enough. And also inclusive enough, providing at least a sense of thinking and reaction within a unit that may well be burdened with a choice that has, for all practical purposes, been made for it through representatives, outside stakeholders and administrative superiors.But in an age of retaliation, in an age in which one can never be sure about the ability of an institution to keep information confidential, the process raises an issue, especially for those in the most dependent position--to what extent do formally inclusive procedures of this kind expose the most vulnerable employees to a risk that their opinions, perhaps unfavorable, will be communicated to those who assume management of their unit--exposing them to a threat of retaliation?

That is the issue this post considers--and offers a suggestion for going forward.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Benefits at the Public University--Why the Individual Ought to Matter and Why This May Touch on the Ethical Obligations of University Administrators

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have been writing for some time on the turn in the basic principles underlying the administration of health benefits at the American public and publicly assisted university. I have been particularly concerned that much of this turn has been driven by quite veiled changes in, and the manipulation of, the core premises within which discussions about benefits are presented--and constrained within relevant stakeholder communities (see esp."First Principles" and Benefits Policies at Public Universities--How "Where You Start" Determines the Shape and "Ends" of Benefit Programs). 

That is, when administrators choose to frame the "issue" of benefits as one of "sustainability" and cost containment, the resulting conversation will invariably turn on the means through which the scope and operation of benefits provisions may be legitimately discussed. It turns the human element into an abstraction--and the individuals benefited into factors in the calculation of operating margins--margins that when positive go toward the care of the institutional machinery that itself appears to need constant feeding without regard either to cost cutting or to the constraining language of sustainable operation. Sustainability, it turns out, can mean little more than the conversion of all university outlays into segmented units expected to pay for themselves.  It is the language of the balancing of ledgers without regard to ethics or morals.

What is lost when administrators manage university stakeholders into the sort of sterile  framework of "sustainability" and cost containment as the only basis in which benefits can be discussed? 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Unionization of Fixed Term/Contingent Faculty and the Abandonment of Shared Governance--The View From the University of Chicago

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have been suggesting that shared governance in the modern American university is failing. That failure is a function of fundamental changes in social expectations of universities, in the effect of the changes in the composition of university faculties (introducing a class element to labor structures), in the reactionary response of faculties unreasonably holding on to past ideals now effectively abandoned, and to university administrators eager to reject the classical model of collaborative governance in favor of the (more efficient) hierarchical corporate model of diffused governance in which accountability becomes easier to avoid.

These changes appear to move the university to the adoption of 20th century corporate factory models of administration and operation.    And the consequence of the adoption of that form will have an inevitable consequence for labor--the move toward unionization of a "deprofessionalized" cadres of knowledge workers seeking to protect their interests against exploitation by the operators of learning factories.  These effects are now quite visible among the most elite American universities.  The contingent and fixed term faculty at the University of Chicago have now begun a process that might lead to the unionization of their ranks (Maudlyne Ihejirika, University of Chicago's nontenured faculty file to unionize, Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 29, 2015) (portions reproduced below).    

This post considers the inevitable move toward unionization and suggests that it may point to a radical change in the nature of the university and its abandonment of a collaborative for an adversarial model of governance. It suggests the way these changes may point to the need to restructure the operations and objectives of faculty governance institutions  in this new administrative and operational climate.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"First Principles" and Benefits Policies at Public Universities--How "Where You Start" Determines the Shape and "Ends" of Benefit Programs

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have devoted a lot of space on this essay site to the issue of benefits, especially at public universities in the United States (see eg here, here, here, here and here).  Beyond its obvious relevance for the operation of the modern public university, the focus on benefits has another and perhaps more important aspect:  benefits policies are a doorway to understanding the core managerial approaches of senior university administrators across the United States.  This class of university servant--now much more aligned with their own professional class interests across universities (eg provosts tend to align with other provosts with whom they share much more in common than with those upstream or downstream the emerging chains of university command)--tends to set the parameters within which all discussion of all aspects of the university are now constrained.  The recent efforts at Penn State (On the Practice of Town Hall Meetings in Shared Governance--Populist Technocracy and Engagement at Penn State) suggest the normative parameters of this significant shift in the locus of authority to determine the basis on which the university sees itself and structures its approach to identifying and meeting its mission.  (See also here). 

To set the first principles of an issue, then, is both to shape the discourse (the way it is discussed) and the constraints (the structures within which that discourse is viewed as legitimate). This essay suggests the way that public universities now set these first principles for approaching the "issue" and "challenge" of benefits (notice how even here I have been able to shape the discourse by starting from the premise that benefits presents an "issue" that poses "challenges"). I will suggest that, in the hands of senior university officials, increasingly remote from and indifferent to any need to empathize with, their faculty and staff rank-and-file, benefits has ceased to be understood as a positive for the university and instead is almost invariably clothed in the language of burden or through the imagery of instrument to more directly shape the workforce they "own" into something that will profit them better.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Faculty Complicity in Undermining Shared Governance--A Hypothetical For a Large Public University

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

Faculty governance depends, in large part, on the willingness of administration and faculty to bear the burdens of cooperation, consultation and compromise in furthering the mission of the university. That, in turn, is based in part on a further burden--the burden of undertaking institutional governance. For faculty, especially that involves the burden of collective governance responding to and assessing administrative actions, as well as in the traditional domains of faculty governance--courses, curriculum, and faculty tenure and promotion. In other words, while administration is institutionally designed for efficient operation, through the institution of hierarchical chain-of-command based operation, faculty governance is institutionally designed for inclusion and engagement in a necessarily inefficient meeting of relative equals gathered for collaborative decision making, consultation, action, and calling administration to account (see, e.g., here and here). 

Those foundational differences in institutional organization and operation cause conflict in collaboration, consultation and accountability.  Administration is built for speed, faculty governance is not.  Most often, that produces incentives to end run faculty (on efficiency grounds) or to cabin its engagement to those matters with respect to which administration views as of little importance to its leadership and command role (discussed here).

But faculty have also been socialized to belief in a hierarchy of values in governance that place efficiency and command and control structures well above the value of collaboration, debate and the processes of holding administration publicly to account.  To the extent that faculty view the logic of its own organization and operation as inefficient, it contributes to the undermining of its role in effective faculty governance by conceding that faculty impede rather than enhance governance by the very logic of its operational modes. 

This post includes a hypothetical example of the sort of complicit undermining of robust faculty governance that results when individual faculty seek to undo the core methods and techniques that are central to faculty governance.  The method is simple--importing values of efficiency and chain-of-command to faculty governance. The tragedy is that this may be done without thinking through implications or rather perhaps unconscious of their socialization into administrative cultures,or it may suggest the sort of systemic corruption that is itself something that may undermine faculty governance more profoundly still.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Return to Salary Transparency at Penn State and Transparency Failures at the University of Denver

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

In May of 2015 I raised a concern about the reversal of transparency rules at Penn State University with respect to faculty salary data (The Rise of University Data Mining and Analysis Oligarchies--From Transparency to Confidentiality Regimes in University Operations and the Issue of Salary Information).  Though I remain concerned, as a general matter affecting all universities, about the ways that  both the harvesting of data on salaries (what is going to be gathered up  as data) and its presentation (the extraction of meaning from the data), can be a substantially manipulative affair, best controlled by those with the power to generate and analyze data (see here, here and here), those issues can only be addressed in a transparent environment.   

These concerns appear to have been shared by others in the university, including its administrators.  After much work, personally and deeply appreciated,  by key university administrators, the University Faculty Senate Chair, Mohamad Ansari, was able to make the folloibng announcement:
I am pleased to announce that the "20142015 Report on Faculty Salaries," Appendix O on the March 17, 2015 Senate Agenda, has been returned to the Senate Archives. This report can be viewed on the Senate website [HERE. The link to the salary tables is included in the report, but they can also be accessed through the following link: (HERE).
Please note that the Report in its entirety is public and may be freely referenced.

On behalf of the University Faculty Senate, I wish to express my sincere appreciation to Betty Harper, Interim Director of the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment, and Karen O'Brien, Associate Director of Budget and Reporting, for their assistance in restoring public access to the report and tables.

This is an important step and Penn State University is to be lauded for its efforts.

The importance of such data cannot be underestimated.  What follows is an example of the consequences that might flow from failures of data transparency and the importance of transparency for accountability.  It also suggests the difficulties that occur where transparency comes late to an institution, even one with good intentions.  The example relates to recent events at the University of Denver which have been publicly reported. Irrespective any ultimate liability to the university, the important insight is that perhaps greater salary transparency might have reduced the likelihood that the dispute at issue would have taken this course.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Power of Assessment and the Production of Knowledge: An Example and a Warning for Faculty Complacent About the Mechanics of Value

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have been speaking to the issue of assessment--not so much as a set of techniques designed to extract data that can be evaluated, but rather than a mechanics for the management of behavior through the instrumental use of data extraction (here, here, and here; for the theory see Backer, Larry Catá, Global Panopticism: States, Corporations and the Governance Effects of Monitoring Regimes. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 15, 2007).  

But theory tends to bore.  And in our culture theory has become detached from the way in which knowledge is produced and understood--and employed.  One teaches now by example, and perhaps clusters examples around a theory that may help provide context to example or fashion example into instrument to be used not so much to explain or understand, but to employ to change the world around us. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The University as Irony--Disciplining Faculty for the Exercise of Speech and for Seeking to Manage the Speech of Students

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have recently noted the AAUP's Supplementary Report on the disciplining of a faculty member at Louisiana State University, in part, for the use of profane language (The "Spirit of the Law": From the AAUP--Supplementary Report of Misconduct by LSU Officials).  That, the AAUP has suggested is troublesome for a number of important reasons.  She was faulted for “her use of profanity, poorly worded jokes, and sometimes sexually explicit ‘jokes’ in her teaching methodologies.”  The actions of the University raise significant issues of arbitrariness and the erosion of what had once been deeply American attachment to rule of law systems.

In the face of the apparent willingness of a university to discipline faculty for the use of profane language, it is exceedingly ironic to hear of the case of another university where a faculty member is (again) disciplined for efforts to prevent the use of offensive language by students.  In this case, Washington State University apparently faulted a faculty member for seeking to prevent the use of offensive words and speech, including those that got the Louisiana State University professor disciplined.

Irony indeed. Taken together, it appears at in the modern university, students are protected in saying things in the classroom that will get a faculty member disciplined.   A pretty picture indeed!  Both are problematic for the same reasons but to opposite effect. LSU evidenced the dangers of unbridled discretion clothed in the appearance of a rule system which, in effect, does not exist (except perhaps in spirit and as exercised in the discretion of officials with impunity).  Washington State evidenced the same sort of discretion, though this time again against faculty,  in a contect in which rules were ambiguous--at best.

The tragedy of both cases, of course, is that bad governance, and maladministration, tends to obscure the important issues at the center of each of these events--the extent to which language and expression may be managed within a classroom in its two most important aspects: (1) speech by faculty and (2) speech by students.  This discussion centers on an application of academic freedom , human dignity and the basic ground rules set by our nation's laws. And sadly, that is the only conversation that no-one seems in the mood to have. And perhaps that discussion ought to start from the approach of the University of Chicago (The Scope of Protection for Speech at the University--A View From the University of Chicago).

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The "Spirit of the Law": From the AAUP--Supplementary Report of Misconduct by LSU Officials

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

It is becoming something of a truism within the industrial sector in which academic institutions occupy a large place, that administrations are increasingly adopting a two track approach to the enforcement of their regulations.  Academic administrators, and officials in collateral and financial departments are expected to abide by the spirit of the rules.  Employees, including (or perhaps especially) faculty are expected to abide by the letter of the rules (as interpreted in their contextual spirit by administrators). 

As one can imagine, the resulting chasm creates tensions in the way rules are understood and applied.  The problem is compounded because administrators, bound only by the spirit of the rules have an increasing and increasingly absolute control over the application fo the letter of the rules.  The result is to create a vast zone of discretion in which the relaitonship between administratrors and rules is becoming increasingly different from that between faculty and rules.

A recent example from Louisiana State University makes the point. And the point needs emphasis--the emerging approach to rule application and interpretation creates a large zone of discretion.  This zone of discretion increasingly serves as a space in which arbitrary decisions may be made with impunity and without regard to any principled system of accountability.  At its limit it will threaten to replace a "rule of law" system with one of almost pure administrative discretion that is quite at odds both with the core values of this Republic and with emerging societal notions of fairness.

What follows is the summary of the actions of Louisiana State University and the press release from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).  The AAUP Report, "Academic Freedom and Tenure: Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, A Supplementary Report on a Censured Administration," may also be accessed here.   

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Presentation: "Institutionalization of Faculty Role in Shared Governance: The Faculty Senate at Penn State University"

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

Last week I was pleased to have been invited to speak to Chinese and Japanese academics about the concept of shared governance from its origins, through its golden age to the challenges that have emerged in recent years (for more see, here, here, here, here, here, and here). The focus of the study was the organization, operation and challenges of the University Faculty Senate at Pennsylvania State University.

The group of administrators and graduate students was organized by Hideto Fukudome, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Education, The University of Tokyo. More about the group here.

A transcript of the presentation follows: