Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Some Thoughts

Given the most recent post by Corday, I have been thinking about issues like “shared governance” and “consultation” for a number of days. Of course, the two are intertwined, there is no possibility of shared governance without consultation. The question seems to be, do we have either on this campus?

Another dismal set of audit findings underscores, I think, the fact that the old ways of doing business at Chicago State do not work. There is now too much scrutiny, too much political pressure, and too much public notice taken of Chicago State’s various problems. At this point, the institution is facing a set of crises that, if unresolved, will, at best, continue to adversely affect the entire university community, and at worst, may result in the school’s closure. I believe a serious commitment to a more democratic, consultative process on campus would help address some of our most troublesome issues.

For the past several years, our administration (and I include the Trustees here) has worked assiduously to shield itself from criticism over the school’s academic problems. Our dismal graduation rate? The fault of faculty and advisors. Poor performing students? Bad teaching. Concern about the rigor of academic programs? Impose by fiat meaningless academic requirements like senior theses and “mandatory” M.A. theses. Students unhappy over treatment in various administrative offices? The departments and faculty do not adhere to a “customer service” model, or alternatively, display banners that proclaim “students first” while continuing to make their experience in the Administration building as unpleasant as possible. Faculty unhappy with search processes that they feel do not recognize their concerns or result in the hiring of the best qualified candidates? Hire the candidate you want and give interviews to the press blaming “disgruntled” faculty members for causing problems in the search process. I could go on here, but this list seems representative.

How has all this worked? Quite well from the standpoint of dumping the blame on the faculty. Unfortunately, the school is now on the defensive, trying to improve a graduation rate that represents the efforts of a minuscule number of students while doing nothing to increase admissions standards. Meanwhile, the public believes Chicago State to be little better than a community college, with unqualified faculty teaching badly. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no concerted attempt to counter the prevailing narrative, or defend the faculty, by presenting figures that paint a true picture of Chicago State and the students it serves. Perhaps most important, the atmosphere on campus is toxic, with neither faculty nor administrators trusting one another.

The Orwellian corporate-speak sloganeering that attempts to mask actual conditions on campus reflects what seems to be the reality of governance at Chicago State. Because of the union contract, our administration must convene various committees that include faculty. However, these committees are constantly reminded that their role is strictly “advisory” and, on some occasions, admonished not to exceed their contractual “charge.” The perception among many faculty is that members of the committee then work diligently on the issue or candidate only to see their recommendations ignored by the administration. This interface between faculty and administrators, of course, reflects the actual practices of “shared governance” and “consultation” on this campus. In fact, consultation here seems to mean that you grudgingly and impatiently listen to faculty committee members (who after all do not have the “administrative knowledge” to make a good decision) then do what you wanted to do in the first place. When criticized, you then claim that you “consulted” with the essentially “disgruntled” faculty.

This desire to control these processes and to shape, or ignore, committee recommendations that are ostensibly reached through consensus reflects, I think, an administrative model that sees power concentrated at the top in a hierarchical structure (much like a business). As other posters on this blog have pointed out, however, universities are not corporations, and the decision making process should not be viewed, or operate, as a zero-sum game.

I am unaware of any faculty on this campus who want to see this institution fail. That means faculty are willing to work together with our administration to do what is best for the school, and especially its students. Although some faculty are critical of a variety of administrative proposals, these objections, while inconvenient, are important to shaping policies that serve the entire university. Although likely apocryphal, a quote attributed to Attila the Hun fits here: “a king with chieftans who always agree with him reaps the counsel of mediocrity.”

I would argue that this model of consultation has served the university poorly. In particular, groups with expertise in certain academic areas, although consulted in a figurative sense, have ultimately found their voices silenced. Since good management utilizes all its resources, this is a risky course of action. For example, our own board regulations acknowledge the expertise of the faculty and its responsibility for curriculum. Why then does the administration see fit to make unilateral decisions regarding the curriculum? As an extension of that expertise, CSU faculty are likely in the best position to determine who will be successful teaching here as well as who will make a good colleague. Why then, is the faculty not allowed to rank candidates? Why does the administration insist on hiring its own choices without any explanation? These practices, while technically permissible, are hardly desirable. They contribute to faculty demoralization and cynicism about the motives of the administration.

I would urge the administration to abandon the practices that have been demonstrated to be ineffective. No need here to reference Einstein’s definition of insanity, but I think it is time to take a new approach. Ideally, this approach would include the faculty in a more meaningful way. At a minimum, faculty should have primary responsibility for developing curriculum and specifying degree requirements. Faculty should also have primary responsibility for recommending candidates for faculty positions. These recommendations should rarely be overruled by administrators, and only for compelling reasons communicated in writing. Finally, faculty input should be prominent in the hiring of administrators. Using the faculty as a resource instead as treating them as a group of miscreant children might result in better hires and a more stable administrative environment--which might improve performance and generate fewer audit findings. This does not have to be viewed as a diminution of administrative authority, rather it represents a commitment to utilizing the university’s resources to their maximum. The paternalistic and largely punitive management approach that defines this university culture, an approach directed toward faculty, staff, and students must be abandoned if we are to have any hope of success.

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