Tuesday, April 22, 2014

First Principles of Shared Governance, Part II: The Vision Thing

Every set of bylaws, no matter how seemingly dry, arcane, or limited to procedural matters, articulates a vision and enacts a theory of shared governance and consultation.  At SUNY Fredonia, we've spent a good portion of the last 5 years trying to work out just what that "vision thing" is and should be.  Our current Bylaws are the product of multiple revisions (in advance of approval by University Senate, ratification by the Voting Faculty for each set of substantive revisions, and sign-off by the President for each set that affects consultation).  By no means are they perfect, but at least we are trying to make them consistent, both internally and with respect to a theory of shared governance that I haven't seen clearly articulated elsewhere.  So let me try to identify what it is, what it's not, and what its implications for shared governance seem to be.

What It Is

The Preamble to our Bylaws makes reference to an underlying theory of shared governance by recourse to a pair of similes:
The Policies of the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York establish a framework for shared governance and consultation at SUNY Fredonia (and throughout the SUNY system) and our Bylaws function as a constitution and operating system for institutional communication and decision-making that involves the Faculty and its official representatives.
What does it mean to think of bylaws as something akin to a constitution?  One way that's been quite pertinent to my own thinking about the question is that a constitution's primary function is to provide a framework within which disagreements can be aired, vetted, debated, and eventually resolved.  The only consensus it presumes is a shared commitment to resolving disagreements within the framework established by the constitution, including the means for amending it.  In the same way that all branches of the U.S. federal government are subject to the U.S. Constitution, and that state laws must be consistent with it, so, too, are the President and her designees (~the executive branch), the University Senate or other predominant official governance body for a college or university (~the legislature), and any other official governance bodies, like Standing Committees, Affiliate Committees, and academic departments are at SUNY Fredonia (~the states), all subject to their college's or university's bylaws.  The analogy isn't perfect, of course--for instance, with no equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, power is more concentrated in the hands of the President of a campus than it is with the President of the United States--but it gets across the high stakes of the procedures our Bylaws lays out for how institutional communication and decision-making will be handled on our campus.  With those stakes in mind, our Bylaws err on the side of overspecificity; our goal is to provide everyone involved with as clear a picture as possible of how the overall (political) system is supposed to work.

Why do we do this?  I won't take you through a line-by-line reading of our definitions (although see in particular how we define "Faculty," "Shared Governance," and "Consultation" in Article I) or our run-down of the Faculty's powers and functions (Article II, which I think is our most important innovation), but I will point out some peculiarities inherent in being a campus in a state university system that includes a statewide union which represents all faculty and professionals in the system (United University Professions, or UUP).

For one thing, the Policies of the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York might be better compared to the U.S. Constitution, while the SUNY Fredonia Faculty and University Senate Bylaws might be better compared to a state constitution.  Everything we do has to be consistent with the BOT's Policies, as well as with the system-wide policies and procedures approved by the statewide University Faculty Senate and signed by the Chancellor.

For another, it means the current Agreement between United University Professions and the state of New York, which focuses on terms and conditions of employment and establishes what is subject to negotiation rather than consultation, also sets bounds on what the system- or campus-level shared governance process can achieve.  When UUP asserts its exclusive right to bargain on behalf of the faculty and professionals it represents, the most any governance body can seek to do is advise both labor and management on that matter.  By the same token, unless management agrees to negotiate with UUP on any matter other than terms and conditions of employment, UUP can only advise the official governance bodies on the SUNY Fredonia campus.

This is where we probably reach the limits of the "constitution" analogy's usefulness, and where it might be more useful to turn to the "operating system" simile.  For another way of thinking about bylaws is that they function in a similar way as an operating system in a computer does:  they allow the parts of the computer (~the university) to work together, act as an intermediary between hardware (~the people and resources of the university) and programs (~the functions of those people and resources), provide a platform for application software (~the range of things universities do), and need to be working for users (~administration, academic faculty, professional staff, students) to make the computer (~university) do anything.  Without a clearly-identified process for, say, approving a new degree program or a revision to graduation requirements in an existing program, well...you get the picture, right?  Bylaws help allow the orchestration of a variety of concurrent decision-making processes essential to the operation of the university.

Consider, as well, one of the major projects it's taken leaders from the administration, the Senate Executive Committee, and the Fredonia UUP Chapter almost a year to plan:  updating and improving our University Handbook.  This entailed developing a process for deciding who reviews, revises or creates, and approves which policies.  While in theory some policies are purely administrative, others require consultation, and still others require negotiation, in practice that meant multiple meetings to determine which were which and build trust, so as to reduce the odds of turf battles arising down the road.  We're just about ready to start divvying up the actual work of policy review, revision/creation, and approval.  By clearly defining shared governance and consultation (Article I) and clearly identifying different levels and processes for shared governance (Article II, Section 3), the Fredonia Bylaws helped make it easier for the leaders of different groups figure out how to work together.

Perhaps an overly simplistic way to treat the "operating system" analogy is to think of the system of shared governance instantiated by the bylaws as a car that needs to be tuned up or overhauled periodically so that the driver can use it to get somewhere safely and quickly.  Our process of revising the Fredonia Bylaws between 2008 and 2013, and particularly during the 2012-2013 academic year, has enabled faculty and administrators to better trust the vehicle and trust each other to play our appropriate roles as we take it for a spin.

To move from similes to theory, then, one underlying principle that animates the Fredonia Bylaws is that the most unproductive conflicts--and those most important to avoid--come about because of a lack of agreement over what kind of shared governance activity is necessary in order for a given decision to be legitimately made (and by whom).  Our Bylaws draw on BOT Policies, a landmark statement by the SUNY Chancellor, and principles articulated by Middle States and AAUP (all of which we quote extensively from in Article II, Section 2) to enjoin the President and the representatives of the Faculty (which is typically the Executive Committee of the University Senate) to reach procedural agreement on every kind of decision where consultation or input from the Faculty (whether through a faculty meeting, the Senate, standing or affiliate committees, academic departments, or other bodies delegated by the Faculty to consult or give input) is warranted.  By limiting the possibility and scope of procedural conflicts, the Fredonia Bylaws enable all of us to focus on substantive matters.

What It's Not

It should be clear by now that we are trying to strike a middle ground at Fredonia between two extreme views of shared governance.

One puts the administration firmly in the driver's seat.  Since everything that bubbles through shared governance processes is ultimately advisory to the campus President--is at heart a recommendation to the President--some argue that this makes the activities of official shared governance bodies nothing but a rubber stamp or road block for decisions the administration has already made.  You see this conception of shared governance in arguments for or expressions of both administrative and faculty cynicism.  "Shared governance is a medieval relic inappropriate for the modern world of higher education."  "Why should we take shared governance seriously?  The administration will do what they want anyway."  "The key to managing faculty is getting them to believe they came up with the policy themselves."  "Faculty are too indecisive, complacent, and self-interested to govern themselves."  "Administrators are too manipulative, dishonest, and careerist to be trusted."  It's this conception of shared governance that leads too many faculty to become disengaged or disillusioned.  It's this conception of shared governance that leads too many administrators to scheme how to bypass or bamboozle official governance bodies.

The other extreme either puts the faculty firmly in the driver's seat or casts the administration as the faculty's chauffeur.  One problem with this mode of shared governance--which as a faculty member I admit I find more attractive than the other extreme--is that it tends to presume that "the faculty" will always speak with a united voice, that given time clear majorities will emerge on any and all issues, that the faculty will in fact have an infinite amount of time to arrive at consensus.  Absent the bogeyman of the administration to rally support for or against a particular position or solution, however, how consistently will the faculty be able to arrive at decisions in an efficient, fair, and collaborative manner?  Another problem with this conception of shared governance is that it runs the risk of turning official governance bodies into shadow administrations, with all the duplication of effort, turf battles, second-guessing, and mutual recriminations that seem to go with that territory.  Furthermore, the more powerful leaders of official governance bodies become, the more distant they are in danger of becoming from everyday faculty, the more everyday faculty are prone to start treating them as quasi-administrators.  And given that administrators have to manage faculty and make personnel decisions, to the extent that faculty take on these roles, whether or not they have those titles (or salaries!), they, too, will have to make judgment calls where there are valid arguments on many sides of a question or issue and competing goods and interests at stake.  It's truly difficult to imagine how a large and complex enough college or university would function with just the President and the Faculty doing it all, no matter how nostalgic some of us may be for those good ol' days.  And believe me, I've tried!

Implications for Shared Governance

So the moral to this version of Goldilocks is what exactly?  Let's identify a few morals:

  • Your bylaws are a useful tool for engaging in serious discussions across roles, positions, and lines of responsibility about the meaning of shared governance and consultation on your campus and the principles and values underlying the policies, procedures, practices, and systems that enable institutional communication and decision-making.
  • Revising your bylaws can provide opportunities to revisit, review, and rejuvenate agreements and ground rules for interactions between the President and the Faculty.
  • Going through the bylaws review, revision, approval, and ratification process can therefore increase awareness, build trust, and limit the odds and scope of conflicts over proper procedures, allowing everyone involved to focus on what's best for the institution and what best helps it achieve its mission.
  • It may be a pain and painstaking process to figure out how to come to agreement on what kind of shared governance activity is warranted for which kind of institutional decision, but it saves time and headaches down the road.
  • Always look to adapt rather than adopt models from other institutions or principles articulated by national organizations.  It's more important that faculty and administrators at your institution go through the process and come to agreement on a framework for approaching procedural matters than it is to hold out for every last detail of your ideal external model.  Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good--or at least the better.
  • If your President is ever resistant to good-faith efforts to improve the bylaws on your campus, look for windows of opportunity, such as when planning for a major university-wide accreditation agency site visit is in the works, when a President is close to retiring and interested in leaving a legacy, or when a President is new on the job and looking to establish good working relations with multiple campus constituencies.
All that said, bylaws are always a work in process.  They depend for their validity on the confidence campus constituencies have in them.  When legitimate objections are raised, and thoughtful revisions are proposed, they need to be carefully vetted, debated, approved, and ratified.  This fall and spring, the Executive Committee proposed and the Senate approved two more sets of Bylaws revisions, the latter of which are going up for a ratification vote shortly.  And just in the last week a procedural debate has bubbled over onto our faculty listserv.  More on these topics in later posts!

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