Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mirror, mirror...

"A Song of Vice and Mire"
For fun, I've been reading George R.R. Martin's marvelous fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, about a medieval-ish kingdom and its wars and intrigues. If you haven't yet encountered the books (five in the series so far), I highly recommend them, as Martin deftly intertwines fantastical elements, such as dragons and wights (medieval zombies), with a quasi-historical storyline to create a kind of J.R.R. Tolkien-meets-Philippa Gregory effect.

What fascinates me most about the narrative, however, is the extent to which it parallels my experiences as a community-college professor and administrator. As I follow the political machinations of the fictional court at King's Landing—the alliances and conspiracies, the jealousies and betrayals, the dalliances and beheadings—I am frequently put in mind of actual people I have known and events I have witnessed over my 27-year career. Sometimes I wonder if George R.R. Martin isn't really just a pen name for some old colleague of mine who has been secretly plugging away all these years at a monstrous roman-à-clef.

I suppose that is an indictment of community colleges, but I believe it is a fair one. Because, truth be told, for all of their many fine points and all the good they do for society, community colleges have historically been rather bad at governance, to say the least. On many two-year campuses, if not most, corruption, cronyism, abuse of power, and fiefdom-building constitute business as usual.

I make that observation as someone who has worked at five two-year colleges and visited dozens more, who corresponds frequently with colleagues around the country, and who reads everything available about community colleges. But the truth of what I'm saying should be obvious to anyone who has followed recent high-profile cases involving alleged corruption and mismanagement at two-year institutions in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. To name a few.

That isn't a new phenomenon. In California's community-college system, the largest in the country, such problems grew so rampant that in the late 1980s the state legislature mandated a shared-governance model, intended to give faculty members and other key stakeholders significant involvement in how those institutions were run. Yet more than a decade later, Linda Collins, then president of the system's Academic Senate, wrote: "We have yet to create structures and cultures that support and nurture the practice of shared governance throughout the state's community colleges."
Her statement seems to still hold true today for most of the country's community colleges. Despite the best efforts of many faculty members, some administrators, and national organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and the National Education Association, true shared governance has still not become the model of choice at most two-year campuses.

Over the years, the two most common forms of governance I have observed are what I would characterize as feudalism and Soviet-style dictatorship.

What the two models have in common, of course, is that both are authoritarian in nature. Both feature relatively small groups of sycophants who place themselves in orbit around the leader, jockeying for position and seeking to consolidate their own power through flattery and zealous support of the official agenda. Neither model is particularly kind to dissidents or independent thinkers.
One difference between the two is that, under the feudal model, shared governance is paid only the barest lip service, if any at all. Some of the organizational bodies necessary to support shared governance, such as a faculty senate, might exist in name but are only window dressing, without any legitimate function.

The Soviet model, on the other hand, tends to have all of the trappings of democracy, or (in this case) shared governance—faculty and staff senates, policy councils, standing committees. Their meetings are often conducted with great fanfare. But in reality they are under the iron-fisted control of the leader and his or her cronies, and every decision made is part of the approved agenda.
Another important difference is that a feudal lord or lady may, on occasion, be relatively benevolent. The dictator is rarely, if ever, that.

For those reasons, the Soviet model, which may on the surface seem to embrace shared governance, is, if anything, even more inimical to it than feudalism is.

It's easy to tell, by the way, if your college has adopted one of those two models:
  • The same people tend to be named to the most important committees, over and over.
  • Those people, instead of more-qualified colleagues, are ultimately rewarded for their "service" with promotions or other key appointments.
  • The committees always seem to reach conclusions or submit reports that are widely praised by the leader.
  • Those who disagree find themselves released or disinvited from future committee service, while known dissidents are never invited to serve in the first place.
  • Anyone who dissents too loudly or too publicly is punished, often in a highly visible way, in order to serve as an object lesson to others.
Does any of this sound familiar?

Of course, authoritarian leadership is not peculiar to two-year campuses. Recent history has shown that even some of the nation's most prestigious research universities are not immune, as presidents, provosts, trustees, and deans (not to mention powerful football coaches) have been known to engage in a fair amount of fiefdom-building. But I believe that community colleges are especially susceptible to the phenomenon, for several reasons.

The first is the growing trend of community-college presidents who have never been full-time faculty members. These days, most chiefs of two-year colleges seem to have backgrounds in other areas: business and industry, law, elementary and secondary education, or student services. Many, in fact, are not even qualified to teach anything offered on their own campuses. They hold graduate degrees in areas like higher-education administration.

There's not necessarily anything wrong with such degrees, but I think it's problematic when too many leaders see a doctorate purely as a credential—as a ticket to a high-paying, upper-level administrative position—and not as a mark of scholarly achievement. The proliferation of online doctoral programs offering those sorts of degrees illustrates the problem. Such degrees tend to be expensive and often do not carry a great deal of prestige, but do technically qualify the recipient for one thing: to be a community-college president.

I also believe that it is potentially a problem when the president of a college has no significant experience as a faculty member and, therefore, cannot even remotely relate to faculty concerns or understand how a college faculty is supposed to function. In my experience, such leaders can even be openly hostile to true shared governance, which, to their way of thinking, gives the faculty far too much power.

Couple that attitude with a natural affinity for the kind of top-down leadership that is standard operating procedure at most companies, and it's easy to see how a president can quickly earn a reputation for being heavy-handed and dictatorial.

Another reason community colleges seem especially susceptible to authoritarian governance models is closely related: the "corporatization" of the American campus. Other academics, including (notably) the former AAUP president Cary Nelson, have commented on this trend at great length, but suffice it to say: The corporate model, while no doubt affecting nearly every institution in the country to some degree, has gained a solid foothold at community colleges, where it has found a group of leaders predisposed to embrace it.

Finally, governance at community colleges tends to flow top-down because of the pervasive nature of what I have called in previous columns the "13th grade" mentality. For some people, community colleges are not "real" colleges but rather occupy a place somewhere between a high school and a university—perhaps closer to the former than to the latter. Plenty of people in government, and even within the two-year institutions themselves, believe that community colleges should be run much like high schools, with strong, autocratic leaders and little or no input from the instructors.

Whatever the reason, it's obvious from the headlines that governance and leadership are especially thorny issues for many two-year colleges. Our failure to embrace true shared governance has, it seems, opened the door to corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of power. The results might not be quite as dramatic as George R.R. Martin's novels, but then again, you can never be too sure. If you don't hear from me again after this column is published, you can assume that I'm probably in a dungeon somewhere, awaiting my execution—figuratively speaking, of course.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America's Community Colleges. He blogs at
and writes monthly for our community-college column. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.


  1. Some form of governance may conform to the stereotype of practices during the period of Stalin's leadership of the Soviet Union but not to actual practice, at least as far as I know. For some evidence of what went on see J. Arch Getty, Origin of the Great Purges (Cambridge University Press, 1985). Also you can google Grover Furr's more recent work based on the opening of the Soviet archive for yet further evidence of the gap between stereotype and what actually occurred. I am sure students of history can appreciate this observation.

  2. Paul,
    I know there has been a revisionism where Stalin is concerned and I am no Sovietologist, but totalitarianism is totalitarianism, no? The critics of J. Arch Getty et al refer to them as "left-wing deniers"--apologists for Stalinist crimes. Years ago, a lefty Chomskyite I knew in Boston said that the only difference he saw between the US and the USSR (it was pre-1989) was that the US still had something of a free press. Not sure what he would say today. Does it just come down to the degree to what one will tolerate in their leadership? What of the novels of Milan Kundera that portray a very repressive day to day existence even in face of condemnation of fascism? Again, I'm no specialist in this era or any of the ideologies mentioned above.

  3. "The same people tend to be named to the most important committees, over and over."

    This is true, AND some faculty work hard to avoid service.

    "Those who disagree find themselves released or disinvited from future committee service, while known dissidents are never invited to serve in the first place."

    I believe that this is a problem AND I know that some faculty members who disagree with the decisions of service committees dismiss themselves because the process is not perfect or because they do not agree with the every conclusion of the committee. They choose not to attend committee meetings and then complain that they are left out of the process.
    I know that this can be due to a lack of hope for change, but we really do need to address both problems if we are going to heal as a campus community.

  4. Absolutely true Sarah. I think there are enough faculty on campus who could be described as "tenured adjuncts." All they want to do is come in, teach (and barely that if they can help it), and dissociate themselves from governance on even the most fundamental levels of department and college work, let alone university levels. And its not as if these shirkers are bringing heaps of glory or money to the university by their grandiose research. There is also the old trick--"if I do something badly enough (advising, assessment)they won't ask me to do it again."

    On the other hand, for more than 16 years now, at some point in the school year, be it a faculty-member or an administrator, someone says, "Chicago State has so much potential, if only we could _____..." You fill in the blank. I am sick and tired of hearing that and sick and tired of putting myself forward on committees (Pres search comm in 2008-2009 is the most extreme but not the only one for me) that end up being twisted or shaped by administrators (or trustees) who do not want things done in any way but their own. After 16 years in the trenches here at CSU I now refuse to serve on any committees that are pointless time-wasters, or committees that become so watered down by administrative fiats that whatever "contribution" faculty give to the process is negligible. It's more than just petulance that one's personal gripes are not addressed or incorporated into a report. It's that the time put into the process is disproportionate to the negligible outcome that one sees in a final result--spinning one's wheels and going nowhere. Spinning one's wheels at tedious "Budget Committee" meetings, or on a Grad School report regarding reorganization or College reorganization only to find that a master plan has been approved at a much higher level already and your committee is thanked, patted on the head, given letters to put into portfolios, but the powers that truly call the shots are not bound by anything you "recommend." All they have to say is that they are "going to go a different way" and yet they can claim faculty had "input" into the process.

    One area where faculty outrage should be more vocal across this campus is in faculty hiring. At a university that wants its faculty to have Ph.D.s and to do Harvard-level research (Prez's latest phraseology in his "listening tour of the campus" is that our CSU "tenured" faculty should be interchangeable with those at Harvard) we are not even allowed to rank candidates. These are candidates who may very well be our colleagues forever. And since 2011 the president changed the hiring rules so that now he can review the portfolios of applicants that your committee allegedly screened!!? It is no longer the case that the Deans and Provost make the final decision in hiring with the Prez rubber-stamping. It's full-on Presidential power. Even the Human Resources Department now reports immediately to him. Why is that? Frankly, I'm surprised that anyone stays on some of these committees any more.

    Maybe if there is more disaffection from this kind of overlordship of an imperial presidency model people will feel more inclined to serve on committees and show some loyalty to the school as well as the process. They might be more inclined if they also saw their chairs and deans acting like leaders instead of sheep. Until the extensiveness of this is exposed and restructured we won't get out of the cycle. I will continue to join committees that I think will be effective and invest time in them, but I will continue to drop out of those committees when I find they are merely propped up shams that act as eyewash for administrators who must tell granting agencies, state agencies, or accrediting bodies that decision-making and governance on campus is shared. This may be subjective on my part, but I think you and I want the same thing for the university, we just see it from a different point of view.

  5. I appreciate and concur with Corday's response to Sarah Austin. Still, since my service has taken a different form (politics of revolution or anti-racist resistance where possible), I confess to not being deeply involved with committees (except the Senate for the past seven years or so).
    However, I would like to reply to Corday's response to my comment on Soviet history. I think the idea that Getty is some sort of evidence denier is ridiculous; nor has he apologized for crimes. What is going on, from my limited reading, is this. Ordinarily historians strive to be rigorous in evaluating evidence and trying to assess what the evidence shows. That leads to a kind of scholarly caution. In Soviet studies the standards of evidence drop to a very low level for the anti-communist narrative which developed in the West and especially the United States. What Getty and others do is apply ordinary standards of historical caution to the evidence, and this riles those who have made their careers off of a narrative based on much weaker standards of evidence. Doesn't it seem likely that historical scholarship in the United States will be distorted by the cold war? We certainly could see some Soviet and Russian versions of history as similarly distorted by political agendas. Why not apply the same critical eye to the dominant narratives in what has been the world center of anti-communism.
    The phrase "left-wing deniers" is supposed to remind us of holocaust deniers. But there are literally thousands of eye-witnesses to parts of the holocaust, including Jews (Sonderkommandos 1005) whose task was to dig up the corpses of buried Jews and burn them to destroy evidence--sometimes finding the corpses of their own wives and children. They were determined to escape so that they could tell the story, and some did escape and that is how we know what happened.
    Nothing similar exists for the mass graves at Katyn; I am told by Grover Furr that it is still not resolved who is responsible for those deaths.
    Whatever the evidence conclusively shows, we should live with that. I am only suggesting caution. Furr, for examaple, has written of Stalin's little known role in advocating contested elections (non-party people contesting part candidates) in the 1930s. See his "Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform," which is available online (it appeared in Cultural Logic).

  6. Corday-
    I think that we do want the same thing for the University, and I certainly agree that CSU has had and continues to have some committees that do not truely contribute to decision making. But I am still wary of "prompt,severe inflexible justice," and I think that planning for healing is as important as planning for change.