Thursday, April 15, 2010

Governance Matters: What Should the Core Functions and Goals of the University Be?

Michael Meranze hits the nail on the head once again. He argues:

The UC faculty needs to assert their own vision of the core functions of the University.... If the faculty do not become more involved and assertive in defining the University, its definition will be made by market-share and balance sheets....

The budgetary crisis has meant that unless we do a better job of defining what we think to be the core mission of the university, the financial managers will do it for us. And we have yet to do that in a systematic way.

Similarly, his critique of the University of California's Commission on the Future's "marginalization of faculty" strikes exactly the right note:

the marginalization of faculty has sidelined what we might have thought would be the central question facing the Commission: how best to preserve the educational core of the University. Instead, the Commission has been primarily concerned with how best to produce revenue lines and lower costs. Increasing revenue and effectively spending money are obviously central concerns; but they can only be addressed once we have made clear what the central ends of the University itself are. The danger is that the question of the purposes of the University will be decided without real debate....

Furthermore, he's right that putting the shared back in governance is one key way to get that real debate going.

The Senate, both system-wide and the Campus Divisions, must take the lead in pressing for far greater transparency in the budget than now exists. The faculty throughout the system is being asked, or will be asked, to reexamine priorities, administrators are looking for ways to cut costs, and the burdens will ultimately fall upon departments and programs. But if real budget reform is to occur it has to be through knowing participating and shared responsibility between administration and faculty.

Finally, he's right that

[B]udgetary transparency can only accomplish so much. It can make clear the structures of funding and costs, and clarify the choices that are being made. But in order to reverse the relationship between educational and budgetary decisions faculty will need to do a better job of indicating what we believe the core goals and functions of the University should be.

This is what makes me so curious about what he and other activists in California would say about the process and rhetoric of SUNY's new strategic plan, The Power of SUNY. Chancellor Zimpher's approach has been much more inclusive than Chancellor Yudof's, she's made a big effort to convince the state-wide University Faculty Senate that she's committed to shared governance, and her strategic plan seeks to put SUNY's research and teaching squarely in the service of New York state's people, communities, and economy.

Being so outwardly-directed, SUNY's strategic plan doesn't directly address Meranze's interest in a "renewed vision for undergraduate education" or his attempt to start conversations about the relation between general education ("provid[ing] students with diverse and complex intellectual literacy: conceptual, cultural, experimental, historical, linguistic, and scientific") and departmental majors ("Students would still get the concentration they need in order to continue to further and deepen their learning; but they would also be given the general competencies needed to contribute critically to the world"). But by making SUNY's general education requirements more flexible and putting more responsibility for assessing it in individual campuses' hands, Zimpher clearly wants to see the faculty take more ownership of general education. And I wouldn't be surprised if the strategic planning process generated a whole lot more ideas than made it into the glossy brochure, ones more directly about the educational mission of SUNY.

Here's what I'm hoping comes out of the launch of the SUNY strategic plan and the last push this year to influence New York state budget politics:

What I want to see from SUNY leadership, in short, is a commitment to doing everything in their power to convince all concerned parties that the system and the campuses are prepared to handle the responsibility and take advantage of the opportunities the PHEE&IA would grant it. The key part of that commitment is being open to amendments to the PHEE&IA and revisions to their draft policies that enshrine such principles as collaboration across constituencies and organizations within SUNY, power-sharing from day one and ground zero across SUNY, and robust checks and balances on all involved. If this happens, I'm ok with the fact that many things would still have to be worked out in practice. Because ultimately that experience of working together in a common cause, treating disagreements as a normal condition to be addressed openly and frankly at all levels of decision-making (not as treason or disloyalty), and trying to develop revenue streams that enhance the educational, research, and service missions of SUNY without providing rationales for further cuts in state support is all preparation, to my mind, of the larger state-wide, national, and even international consideration of the following questions that SUNY can take the lead on: namely, why public universities ought to continue to exist in the 21st century and beyond, how their roles, functions, and uses ought to be defined, what their value is (in non-economic as well as economic terms), and where their financing should come from. If all of us concerned about the future of SUNY and of public higher education were to systematically revisit these fundamental questions, consider why traditional answers to them have been losing support from citizens, taxpayers, and politicians (among others), and develop new, more compelling, answers (when needed), then we might find ways of moving out of crisis mode and into growth mode. If we can't even commit to this much, what hope is there of anyone else doing it for us?

Yup, I still haven't changed my mind from mid-March. Glad to see others are raising similar questions and proposing their own answers.

[Update 1 (12:54 am): Check it out! Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg's The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age is available as a download from MIT Press!]


Michael Meranze said...

I haven't been able to read the SUNY stuff but I will try. But I certainly agree with you that this is a national, and indeed international, problem that needs to be discussed in that context. One of the key things is how do we break out of the notion that higher education is only worth it when it produces marketable commodities (e.g. the new definition of impact in the British system). Especially in a moment when the public is reeling from worries about their own economic situation.

The Constructivist said...

I totally agree with you, but Zimpher is clearly prioritizing the production of marketable commodities in her strategic plan, precisely in order to assuage public worries about the "upstate" (and western, southern tier, north country, and well, just about every region in NY, including the NY metro region!) economy. Casting SUNY as key to NY's economic revitalization, as a jobs creator (and trainer/retrainer), as a population magnet, and as part of an effort to make NY more start-up friendly (by attracting more international students and financing from venture capitalists, for instance) is certainly a strategy calculated to play well with Republicans and many Democrats across the state. Whether this is really job 1 and the other 5 are basically liberal/progressive window dressing remains to be seen. As will be the effects of her attempt to shift the discussion from "can we afford our state colleges?" to "here's what SUNY can do for NY."