Friday, January 16, 2015

Shared Governance

This is a reflection on how an institution of higher education might take best advantage of its resources, specifically, it's hierarchical structures.   In the corporate world you might have a hierarchy like this: CEO, vice presidents and directors, unit heads, staff teams, and clerks. On the academic side of universities you have this: President, Provost, deans, chairs, and faculty members.

Already there's an important difference.  Unlike most clerks, university faculty members are extraordinarily well educated, highly specialized, prestigious, opinionated, and they are more qualified in their fields than are the administrators they must often answer to. In addition, they have regular, direct, and close contact with students, on whose satisfaction the institution depends. 

Hierarchies are valuable because of the different and important perspectives at each level. For example, the President has a keen eye to external forces, macro opportunities, and long range plans. The Provost is aware of national trends in the academy, concerns across colleges, and issues in non-academic areas. Deans synthesize information and plan across all departments and programs. Chairs oversee curriculum, craft schedules, and supervise faculty. Faculty members stay current within their specialization and they instruct, mentor, and guide students. They are all essential, but no one really knows the other one's business.

Decisions from the top which affect the bottom, if refined at each level, will be filtered and improved before implementation.  If there is good enough reason they may be changed or even retracted before they are carried out.   When a high level officer tinkers a level or two below -- without consulting intermediaries -- those decisions may be poor simply due to the lack of local knowledge.  When one layer simply delegates its own decisions to the level below, the advantages of that layer are skipped over just the same, only for other reasons.  A third problem is when a level blocks good ideas or important information, and there is no recourse.  When the system is opaque, unnecessary roadblocks and obstructions pop up for wrong reasons.  And without a safe appeal process, there is no way around them and good things perish.

Every level has to supervise the levels below – that’s the hard job of management.  Micromanagement usually means tinkering too much, or skipping a level or two and getting involved in details one doesn’t really understand.  But there is a equal opposite sort of micromanagement, when those down below in the hierarchy think they understand the business of those above.  It’s a similar mistake, just in reverse direction, and both lead to misunderstanding, antagonism, and distrust.  In a university setting, at least, both ends of the hierarchy are very smart. If they could work together it could be wonderful thing.

Here’s an example of the problem, though it’ll require a little backstory.  These are two population pyramids which simply graph age cohorts horizontally, (youngest below) with males to the left and females to the right..

The first one shows my unversity's students, with the very lowest bar representing 18-year-olds. Compare this to the frightening pyramid below, which represents census data for the 10-mile zone around the campuses.  This is that area from which 79% of students commute. The largest age cohort in this 10-mile service area is 25 to 29 years of age, and younger populations become continually, and dramatically smaller for 15 years, where there appears to be only a slight rebound. These are tomorrow’s college students; these graphs suggest that we are facing some tough times ahead. I did this analysis in 2012 and proved true; enrollments have spiraled downward every term thereafter.

With enrollments, so falls tuition, of course.  That makes up 60% of income in this situation ... and state appropriations also falling, revenue is on the wane.  This presents a rather important problem.

One response was to cancel classes that weren't nearly full, mainly those in different sections of the same course, when seating would allow. So a 50-seat classroom for an introductory course, with only 20 enrolled, could be closed and those students – one would hope – would move into the other identical class offered later in the day. It was a sharp departure from past practice, and it took students and faculty by surprise.  While the cancellations made sense, in a way, it meant some faculty lost classes or were shifted to another course often just days before the term started.  Some adjunct faculty members lost their jobs and retirements were not replaced.  Students’ programs were interrupted because their schedules aren’t always flexible; those losing a daytime class, for example, may not be able to come in the evening.  There was surprise and ire and a blow to morale.

Why?  Maybe micromanagement or hasty judgment, perhaps a decision not fully informed by deans or chairs. Maybe a little opacity made the reasons difficult to understand.  Also there might have been some second guessing about the reasons – a presumption, among some faculty members, of  simple mismanagement.  Students get their understanding of the institution from the faculty.

To the left is a poster, one of many carried by students and faculty protesters, I believe with good intentions.  There were many like it … “We Keep Busting Our Asses.You Keep Cancelling Classes!”

The photoshopped sign to the right works just as well. Is it really causation?  Or simply correlation?   The problem with enrollments is an important and complicated one, and it will require a very thoughtful, coordinated effort to solve.

Fortunately, there are several systems in place, designed specifically for that coordination between faculty and administration --  although they may not be used to capacity. The hierarchy I've already described, if seriously used step-by-step, can refine decisions coming down so they are better informed and more effective.

But why should faculty simply wait to hear what next new initiative is in store? Why should the best ideas always to come from above, from the birds-eye view, and never from the ground level, where there is great expertise and local knowledge? And many institutions of higher education do have an inverse hierarchy, a bottom-up system called shared governance – it’s a way that the smart people down below can share in decision making.  In my institution the Faculty Constitution looks something like this: 

That’s pretty robust.  The Standing Committees represent important programs across campus and these all report to the key academic council: Faculty Council on Academic Affairs.  Each council works closely with a vice president and also shares important matters with the elected Faculty Senate, the last filtering step infusing faculty perspective before the Senate advises the President, shoulder-to-shoulder with vice presidents.  In the circle you'll see that the colleges also have their own structure by which faculty can contribute.  These bodies vet proposed curriculum changes and other important matters, and the Faculty Council coordinates and oversees that process.  Either of these may pass important issues to the Senate, which itself can initiate requests or advice from any committee or council.  The UAC and the UPBC, two separately elected bodies, made up very broadly of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, advise the President too.

It’s a structure that is certainly unique to this one institution, but the important point is that it allows voices from below to be heard, and puts the best big ideas into the President’s ear.  It runs counter to the top-down hierarchy, and might be seen as an opposing structure.  But everyone wants a a vibrant, robust, intellectually stimulating, welcoming, dynamic campus.  Everyone wants student success.
So what goes wrong?  In practice many of the links in the diagram above are tenuous. Some committees don’t exist, some hardly meet, and some may have a dominating chair or vocal member who may be more interested in a personal agenda. Or there is good discussion but no decisions, or there may be an expectation that decisions made (and passed upward as advice) are perfect and final.   The result may be bad advice, further antagonism and distrust, and deterioration of the system itself.

These two hierarchical structures offer ways in which very different, yet equally essential, parties can collaborate toward a shared goal.  They are two well-designed engines – one running mainly top-down, the other mainly bottom-up.  They are both built to pull in the same direction but imperfections in the operation of each machine so easily put them out of sync and at odds, resulting in damaging, aggressive, actions shooting upward, and damaging, harsh rules pumping down.  And at best a painful lurching forward. 

I have a few ideas how the mechanism might be lubricated -- so simple that I share them at the risk of appearing (even more) naive.  
·                     Simplify the hierarchical structures, whenever possible
·                     Apply the brilliantly democratic Robert's Rules of Order
·                     Seek, welcome, and study opposing opinions

·                     Consider the process of decision making more important than the decisions themselves