Friday, July 2, 2010

Another take on shared governance

So let me own my bias up front about how organizations function. When I was in the military, the core function of each service is its combat arms units. In the Air Force, there were airplanes, missiles and space operators. They made up a small portion of the service. The larger portion was the support functions; administration, personnel, supply, transportation, etc. I bring that experience into my understanding of all organizations. There is a core activity and a group or people responsible for that core activity. The rest of the people in the organization are there to support that activity and those people.
In academe, the core activity is the academic function. Everything else is support. This doesn’t make one more important than the others. I realize in our modern world of ‘don’t hurt anyone’s self esteem’ everyone is important. Importance and spatial relationships are separate issues. Conflation of those two issues misrepresents my point. If those in support are not supportive, it is likely that either they don’t understand the concept of the core activity or are so arrogant they believe they are the core activity. From an outsider’s perspective it seems as if the perpetual meetings and reports and committees are used as justification for the importance of the support function. Instead of asking those being supported how best to support them, educational administrators plod along often without regard to the core activity or the impact of their behavior on that core function. There is a process in the Academy whereby those at the center and those on the periphery work together to support the mission of the institution. That process is called shared governance. It isn’t about who makes decisions. Quite frankly, I don’t want to make administrative decisions and I will if it is too difficult for those administrators to collaborate with faculty to reach a sound outcome. Many administrators I have had conversations with seem to believe there is an inability of faculty to perform administrative functions. This may be the result of the professionalization of higher education administration. It is actually reversed. Unless an administrator has some disciplinary expertise and the credentials of a terminal degree, they can’t do my job. I most certainly can learn in a short period of time to do their job. Instead of focusing on who is better positioned to do someone else’s job, shared governance is about there being full disclosure and participation by the core with the periphery; with those who execute the mission and those who support them.
Rather than viewing the core as obstructionists or cats in need of herding, they (we) could be viewed as vital to the healthy functioning of the university. That would include having conversations at the front end of an idea, not 8 months later e.g. Senior Thesis. That would include putting requests in writing and creating a paper trail to prevent misunderstandings. Most academics I have worked with have very orderly minds and work better when things are thought through. They work less effectively with ill-conceived or unprepared ideas. Ideas that do not pass muster of the intellectual rigor of academics are likely to be unsound ideas and should be dismissed out of hand.
Formal communication could alleviate those challenges and allow fuller participation in the life of the institution. I find it strange that our university would still be pursuing a West Side campus when the faculty have not weighed in, been heard and been responded to about their concerns. It appears to be administrative hubris once again, believing that administration is the core function that is to be supported by everyone else.
As an intellectual construction, shared governance is an excellent and meaningful tool and process. In practice it is like a relationship. It takes work, commitment and communication to be successful. We haven’t quite mastered it here at CSU and until we do, we will never accomplish what we otherwise could.

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