Wednesday, April 23, 2014

First Principles of Shared Governance, Part IV: The Live Wires

So far in this series on shared governance, I've been focusing on the importance of bylaws revision and have been attempting to convey something of the vision that has been motivating me and other leaders of the University Senate at SUNY Fredonia, as well as the issues we have addressed and attempted to resolve through discussions with a range of individuals, representative bodies, and constituent groups among the Faculty before seeking approval on amendment motions from the Senate, ratification from the Voting Faculty, and sign-off by the President on any revisions that affect consultation.  Today I want to move from "the vision thing" and "the nitty gritty" to the "the live wires" that are generating their fair share of discussion and debate on the Fredonia campus right now.  It's the unresolved questions about shared governance that I find the most interesting and important right now.

As in the last couple of posts, I'm going to assume readers will be interested enough in these questions to examine our actual language in the SUNY Fredonia Faculty and University Senate Bylaws.  I don't think of our Bylaws as necessarily providing a model for any other college or university, as they are the outcome of a very specific institutional history and the choices of a variety of people responding to particular conditions and structures, but I do think understanding how and why they've come to take the shape they now have can be useful to those considering whether and how to go about revising their own policies and procedures regarding institutional communication and decision-making.  Institutional bylaws are always a work in progress for many reasons:  changes in leadership and leadership styles, developing understandings of the consequences (both intended and unintended) of specific provisions, unforeseen situations that expose a crucial gap or ambiguity, changing attitudes and perspectives among the Faculty, changing circumstances (whether demographic, budgetary, relating to accreditation or external review or system-level policy), and so on.  The key, as I've emphasized in the last couple of posts here, is to figure out how to use bylaws revision to help build trust and solid working relationships between the President and the Faculty that best facilitate honest assessments of the challenges and opportunities facing the university, frank exchanges of views on how to meet them, careful consideration of the grounds for goals and decisions and actions, and a clear understanding of who plays what role when and what those roles entail as and after goals have been set, decisions have been made, and actions have been taken.  Anything that diminishes trust or threatens working relationships provides an opportunity to reexamine bylaws and other relevant governance and policy documents (such as policies and procedures manuals for standing and affiliate committees, department handbooks, and the University Handbook) and consider whether there may be any procedural dimensions to the problem.

So let me put a spotlight on just a few examples of what we've been considering of late on the SUNY Fredonia campus.

Academic Departments as Shared Governance Bodies

We are still working through the implications of the requirement in The Policies of the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York that the Faculty delegate certain consultative responsibilities to academic departments, which strongly suggested to us that they should be considered official governance bodies.  We revised the Bylaws (particularly in Article II, Section 3 and Section 6) to reflect and operationalize this understanding.  But many unresolved questions remain:

  • Which kinds of communication and decision-making processes within departments should be determined at the department level?  Which, if any, should be established via Bylaws- or University Handbook-level revision?  (Right now, the Bylaws leave everything up to departments.)
  • What should happen if a department can't or won't develop its own policies and procedures on matters that are clearly departmental prerogatives?  (Right now the Bylaws envision loss of consultative responsibility unless certain minimal conditions are met, but the provisions are too new to be enforced.)
  • Who ought to participate in which kinds of department decisions?  Who ought to vote on which kinds of matters before the department?  How to sort through the differences in faculty appointments, responsibilities, workloads, time in the department, and areas of expertise to arrive at a fair, transparent, and effective internal governance structure?
  • To what extent, if any, should university-level governance policies and procedures established in the Bylaws serve as a guide for department-level structures?  To what extent, if any, should recommendations from professional associations (such as the AAUP) be implemented for department-level governance activities?
  • Since academic departments are also part of the administrative chain, with department faculty typically making recommendations to department chairs, who then make recommendations to their dean, and so on, how to clearly differentiate administrative from governance matters?
As I mentioned in the last post, the Senate Executive Committee has approached these questions very deliberately, seeking this year to determine which departments already have handbooks or other potentially-governance-related policy documents, to survey and code the contents of the handbooks so as to gain a sense of the range of governance-related topics departments have already addressed and variations among them, and to share an inventory with departments, administrators, Senators, and Senate committee members.  Meanwhile, the chapter leadership of United University Professions has identified specific policies (such as the chair appointment process) that they wish to make a priority during the University Handbook review, revision, and approval process I mentioned in previous posts.  Their aim has been to solve existing problems and resolve current conflicts; they have had an opportunity to share their proposal with the Senate Executive Committee and explain it to the Faculty and Professional Affairs Committee, which Executive Committee has charged with reviewing the issues, seeking input from appropriate individuals and bodies, and developing a policy proposal for University Senate consideration.

Executive Committee Responsibilities and Actions

The role of the Executive Committee in converting reports and recommendations from task forces into motions for the Senate to vote on has also come under recent scrutiny on our faculty listserv.
  • The timing of responsibility baton passes--in our most recent case, from the General Education Revision Subcommittee to the Executive Committee to the Senators--has been questioned by some faculty.  The original timeline envisioned at the creation and charging of the subcommittee had to be adjusted to allow for sufficient exploration of a range of unanticipated issues and important questions.  So who was responsible for what when may have become less clear than hope for--or at least more in need of explanation and clarification than may have been expected.
  • The role of the Executive Committee during the spring semester, as a scheduled Senate vote in February was postponed until May, has also been questioned by some faculty.  In coordinating the "review, deliberation, revision, and approval process" and attempting to "develop an efficient, fair, collaborative process aimed at maximizing the quality, legitimacy, and support" of the motion to be brought to the Senate floor, has the Executive Committee ever crossed the line into advocacy for a particular model for General Education?  In its communications with the Faculty, has the Executive Committee clarified the content of the General Education revision motion and explain the process by which it was developed?  Or has it entered inappropriately into debates over the costs and benefits of General Education revision?
I'll close this post with a disclaimer that I'm in the middle of all these debates, not least because I serve as both Vice Chairperson of the University Senate (term ending 30 June 2014) and Officer for Contingents for the Fredonia chapter of United University Professions (term ending 31 May 2015).  Since I haven't been shy about expressing my views and engaging in dialogue with my colleagues on university-wide and department-level communications fora, I'm not going to hold back here, either.  Out of respect to my colleagues and my audience here, I'll try to avoid playing too much "Inside Baseball" and stick to the issues, positions, rationales, and policies and their stakes and implications.

Well, it's time to get ready for that SUNY Voices conference!  Wish me luck!

No comments: