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Governance, tenure, and such (#991)

Topics/tags: Academia, Grinnell, long, postscripted

I’ve been thinking a bit about staff governance of late. Governance and related issues are complicated matters, and I thought I might learn a bit by musing on those topics. As always, I thank those whose comments and discussions have helped form my thinking.

Let’s start with some background. Most U.S. institutions consider shared governance and tenure to be core aspects of their academic practice and their academic identity. I’ll also try to include some Grinnell-specific aspects of governance.

Shared Governance

Shared governance is the concept that the governance of an institution is shared between multiple groups: The Board of Trustees (or its equivalent), the Administrators, the Faculty, and, in some places, Students and Staff. I tend to approach shared governance from the perspective of a faculty member: Shared governance suggests that the faculty should have primary governance over the academic program and should have a voice or be consulted in decisions that affect the academic program. Now, this doesn’t mean that the faculty have complete governance over the academic program; for example, faculty do not usually get to determine how many positions there are at an institution nor how much is available for various budgets. But they have a voice in these issues and they generally get to decide on curricular requirements.

The American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP’s) statement on shared governance, from 1966 or so, says something similar, noting under preliminary considerations that,

The variety and complexity of the tasks performed by institutions of higher education produce an inescapable interdependence among governing board, administration, faculty, students, and others. The relationship calls for adequate communication among these components, and full opportunity for appropriate joint planning and effort.

Joint effort in an academic institution will take a variety of forms appropriate to the kinds of situations encountered. In some instances, an initial exploration or recommendation will be made by the president with consideration by the faculty at a later stage; in other instances, a first and essentially definitive recommendation will be made by the faculty, subject to the endorsement of the president and the governing board. In still others, a substantive contribution can be made when student leaders are responsibly involved in the process. Although the variety of such approaches may be wide, at least two general conclusions regarding joint effort seem clearly warranted: (1) important areas of action involve at one time or another the initiating capacity and decision-making participation of all the institutional components, and (2) differences in the weight of each voice, from one point to the next, should be determined by reference to the responsibility of each component for the particular matter at hand, as developed hereinafter.

The Association of Governing Boards’ 2017 white paper on shared governance begins,

Shared governance is one of the basic tenets of higher education, and yet there is considerable evidence that it is not generally well understood by its primary participants—faculty members, presidents, and members of boards of trustees.1 Shared governance policies, regardless of their clarity or familiarity to key constituents, are central to the operation of most American colleges and universities, and effective shared governance creates a healthy campus environment that can more easily act on needed change and emerging opportunity

The white paper then goes on to note,

Shared governance is the process by which various constituents (traditionally governing boards, senior administration, and faculty; possibly also staff, students, or others) contribute to decision making related to college or university policy and procedure. When done well, shared governance strengthens the quality of leadership and decision making at an institution, enhances its ability to achieve its vision and to meet strategic goals, and increases the odds that the very best thinking by all parties to shared governance is brought to bear on institutional challenges. When done well, shared governance engenders an institutional culture of collective ownership and accountability for the institution’s present and future. Further, when faculty, administrators, and boards are actively and collaboratively involved in decision-making processes, decisions are implemented more quickly and more effectively. But strong shared governance also takes effort to cultivate and maintain; it is a tradition unique to the higher education sector, but even senior administrators and faculty—let alone board members, who tend not to be academics5—usually lack formal training on the subject. Knowing how shared governance works, how it should work, or how it might work differently, is not second nature to any of the parties involved in it.

You’ve probably noted something about both statements. That is, they focus primarily on Boards, Faculty, and Administrators. The AAUP acknowledges students, but it’s a later addition. The AGB does note that staff and students can have a voice, but quickly return to the model of faculty, administrators, and boards.

I appreciate that the AAUP statement makes it clear that open communication is core to shared governance.

Effective planning demands that the broadest possible exchange of information and opinion should be the rule for communication among the components of a college or university. The channels of communication should be established and maintained by joint endeavor. Distinction should be observed between the institutional system of communication and the system of responsibility for the making of decisions.

It often feels to me like this is one of the areas of shared governance in which Grinnell is doing least well. We made some forward progress, particularly with Kate Walker’s enthusiasm for openly sharing information about the College finances, but we’ve backslid in recent years.

As I’ve noted before, another area in which Grinnell seems to be doing poorly is an attempt to interpret shared governance as representational governance. They are not the same thing. The Grinnell I started at would never have permitted so many decisions to be made by committees with no consultation of the broader faculty.

A third problematic area is the role of staff governance, an issue which I will revisit later in this musing.

Self Governance

At Grinnell, Self Governance (or self-gov) is the principle that our students should have the primary role in governing themselves, both individually and as a collective. I’ve mused about self-gov before, but consider it worth revisiting here.

I appreciate how one student explained an idealized version of the concept in a discussion group on the topic.

Consider, for example, the study rooms in the library. Some students attempt to reserve the study rooms by leaving their backpacks and books in the study rooms. Other students may get fed up and remove the backpacks and books. At many institutions, the way this issue would get resolved is to ask the library to come up with a policy. At Grinnell, we consider it our responsibility to work it out among ourselves [1].

Views of self-gov are not necessarily consistent. For example, I hold up the shared Grinnell Bikes as a case in which self-gov failed; students did not take good care of the bikes, and some had a practice of jumping off the bikes when they reached their destination, allowing them to crash wherever they landed. Others rode bikes that were clearly unsafe (e.g., without handlebars), putting not just themselves, but others in danger. But when I brought that up during the discussion of self-gov in new parent orientation [2], the discussant suggested that the Grinnell Bikes are evidence of the success of self-gov. I did not understand the argument, and will not attempt to replicate it.

I’ve heard from some alums that self-gov has not always been a big thing at Grinnell. But my understanding is the underlying principles of students govern themselves has been there since the late 1960s, even if the particular term falls into and out of favor.

And, as I’ve said before, I think our failed slogan of No Limits did some significant damage to the concept of self-governance because some students tied the two together, and came up with a variant in which self-gov meant there are no limits to how I choose to behave rather than I govern my behavior based on its impact on others and through shared decisions made with others, or something like that.


Tenure is a principle enshrined in the 1940 AAUP Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure but based on years of prior discussion and practice. In essence, after a faculty member has served for a period of time [3], academic institutions either commit to keeping that faculty member indefinitely or no longer retain that faculty member.

From my perspective, tenure serves three important purposes. First, it permits faculty to take on important research projects that may not succeed, that may take a lot of time, or that may create some controversy. Too often, academia is driven by What have you published lately? If your publishing determines whether or not your employment continues, you will not take on risky projects and you will choose projects that guarantee that you can publish regularly. But there are important projects that can take a decade or more to produce results, and it is not certain whether or not results will be there in the end. In astronomy, for example, it may take years of observations to gather a deeper understanding of some phenomenon. And those observations may not even lead to deeper understanding.

Second, tenure permits faculty to openly criticize the institution. Now, you may believe that employees should not criticize their employer [4]. But a core value of the academic endeavor is that we improve things, in part, by acknowledging flaws and looking for ways to resolve those flaws. If the faculty cannot speak their mind about the state of their institution, the quality of the institution will likely gradually deteriorate [5].

Third, tenure permits faculty to speak openly about issues that may have a political component. Why should faculty have this right? Arguably, faculty have deep training and spend a great deal of their career speaking about topics. Hence, they will likely have informed opinions. However, most topics have a political component, and there’s strong historical evidence that politicians will object to faculty speaking out in ways that contradict their perspectives, whether it be about systemic racism, climate change, militaristic approaches to diplomacy, or the role of computers in damaging the psyche.

Of course, tenure is not necessarily successful at protecting faculty in all instances. And some faculty have been known to abuse these protections. However, in general, they provide benefits to not only the institution and its students, but also society as a whole.

The context for tenure has also changed over the years. Believe it or not, but there was a time in which many jobs were considered jobs for life. That is, you took a position with a company and, by mutual unstated agreement, you stayed with the company and the company kept you on [6]. I think it’s horrible that this model has disappeared, for the most; it’s a model that I’d like to see us return to. Unfortunately, I seem to recall Congress or some other body deciding that the primary responsibility of most businesses is their shareholders rather than their employees or their communities.

Another way that the context for tenure has changed, or may have changed, has to do with compensation. Faculty members, by and large, earn much less than those in the other professions. An MD, a JD from a leading school, or an MBA would likely lead to higher earnings. In some fields, such as Economics or many of the sciences, industry also pays much better than academia. Tenure provides a bit of compensation for the more limited earning one gets from pursuing a career in academia. Of course, the freedoms associated with academia, such as the freedom to pursue your own choice of research, provide more benefit. But tenure preserves those, too.

Shared Governance and Staff

I will admit that for most of my time at Grinnell, I have not thought deeply [8] about the role of staff in shared governance. As the materials I’ve quoted above suggest, shared governance is traditionally thought of as a sharing between Trustees, Administrators, and Faculty. I suppose Administrators are a kind of staff, but it is, nonetheless, not a model that includes most staff. Should it? More precisely, This is how folks have always done it is not a reason to continue practices. It’s time to revisit the assumptions.

Let’s take a step back and reflect on the basic model of shared governance: Each group has primary authority over its own domain and a consultative role in domains that touch on its domain. Many staff members have their own domains, as it were. Should they not have some authority over those domains? If I try to put myself into the place of a staff member, I would feel some resentment that both students and faculty feel like they should have a consultative role in my domain, at least as it touches on their domains, but I do not receive the same respect. It might even feel like students and faculty act like they have more authority over my domain than I did. That’s awful.

I expect that there’s also a strong sense of a lack of authority over your own domain. Faculty make the general policies for faculty, such as the criteria for raises. Faculty vote on changes to the Faculty Handbook. Who has authority over general policies for staff and the Staff Handbook? HR. And, as I’ve mentioned in the past, HR seems tied to best practices that appear to be best for the institution, rather than best for our human resources [9].


Then there’s the matter of the committees that affect many aspects of Grinnell life, or at least Grinnell academic life. Let’s see. Executive Council has only faculty and selected administrators [10]. Since Council decisions touch on all aspects of the campus, should it also have an elected member of staff?

The Faculty Personnel Committee also has only the President, the Dean, and some faculty. But it makes sense, at least to me, that those are the only people who should look at issues of tenure and promotion. Similarly, the Faculty Salary Committee only has faculty representatives. That Committee does not set the pool for salaries, but it does get to set general policies and make individual decisions. Should a Staff Salary Committee, rather than HR, serve the same role for staff? There are fewer faculty than staff, so it might be difficult. But a committee could set broader principles.

The Curriculum Committee has the Dean of the College [11], four faculty, four students, and the Registrar. I would call the Registrar an Administrator, rather than a staff member. I admit that I think the CC membership is badly designed; since the Curriculum is the responsibility of the faculty, it should be majority faculty. I’ve heard that there have been some votes by the committee in which the faculty were outvoted. Perhaps cutting it to two students and adding a staff member would make sense. I’m going to add Figure out when this membership was designed to my list of research to do in the College archives.

The Faculty Organization Committee only has faculty members. Since their responsibilities primarily relate to faculty elections, faculty committees, and the Handbook, that makes sense. Should Staff Council have a separate organization committee? I don’t know enough about Staff Council to say for sure.

The Committee on Academic Standing has the Dean [12], five faculty members, a representative from Student Affairs, a representative from Academic Advising, the Registrar, and two students. That seems like a well-balanced committee. I’m not sure how the representative from Student Affairs and Academic Advising are chosen, but it strikes me that procedures could be put in place that they appropriately represent broad staff interests with regards to academic standing.

The Admission and Student Financial Aid Committee has the Dean, four faculty members, three students, the Director of Admission, the Director of Student Financial Aid, and the Dean of Admission and Financial Aid. Does this committee need staff beyond the administrators? I’m not sure. I’d like to hear arguments one way or the other.

The Instructional Support Committee has six faculty members, the Dean of the College [14], the Librarian of the College, the Director of Computer Services [15], and the Dean of College Services. Only the faculty vote. The committee also gets to invite a lot of other people to attend when appropriate, including representatives from the bookstore, audio-visual department, the faculty secretaries and other constituencies of the College […], when relevant issues are being discussed. I can see some value in making an ASA representative a regular member of that committee.

The Physical Education Committee consists of Chair of the Physical Education Department; Director of Athletics (non-voting consultant if not already a member of the committee); two elected faculty members from outside the Department of Physical Education; and two students, selected by the Student Government Association. I’m intrigued to see that no faculty in the PE department, other than the Chair, are permitted to serve. Would staff have a role on this committee? Here’s another case in which I’d like to see some arguments for and against.

The Public Events Committee has A chair elected by and from the faculty; two additional faculty members; three students, including the All Campus Events Programmer and two at-large members appointed by the Student Government Association; and the Director of the College’s Performing Arts Program. I see no reason that there should not be a staff representative on this committee to help ensure that our Public Events are also of interest to the staff. I’m also not sure who directs the College’s Performing Arts Program. Perhaps that’s the chair of Theatre and Dance.

The Teacher Education Committee has The Chair of the Department of Education; three faculty members, one from each of the three divisions of the College; and two students who are earning licensure for teaching (to be appointed by the Department of Education). I think that’s probably fine as it is.

The Committee for the Support of Faculty Scholarship has the Dean of the College [16] and four elected faculty. CSFS makes decisions on issues like funding for conference trips and resources for research. I don’t think others need a voice in those issues. However, I know that staff have access to some funds for professional development but I don’t know who gets to make the decisions about the use of those funds. I worry that it’s either done departmentally, which may lead to inequities between departments, or by HR, which may lead to other issues. I think a Committee for the Support of Staff Development, or something similar, would be a good addition.

The Committee on Diversity and Inclusion is our most recently formed committee, and it strikes me that it is a model of committee membership. Here’s the list, as taken from the Faculty Handbook.

Chief Diversity Officer (co-chair), Director of Intercultural Affairs or equivalent position (co-chair), the Chair of the Faculty or their designee from Executive Council, the Head of Human Resources, one representative elected from each of the three divisions (two year terms), one representative from Staff Council (two year term), one representative from the Student Government Association (one year term), and diversity professionals on campus. Co-chairs may recommend to the President in consultation with the Faculty Organization Committee the appointment of any additional members who are appropriate for the focus, direction, subject matter, or goals of the committee.

And that’s it for the committees that are explicitly mentioned in the Faculty Handbook. There are dozens more that do not appear in the Handbook. I have neither the time nor the energy to go through the broader list.

I must admit that I also don’t understand what it means to ask staff members to serve on these committees. Service requires time. They should be excused from some responsibilities to free that time. Would that really happen? I don’t know.

Tenure for Staff

The other day, I was discussing some of these issues [17] with a colleague and, as I was discussing the reasons we have tenure for faculty, I noted that The Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion likely needs as much protection for their ability to comment and criticize as faculty do [18,19]. That is, the right to speak truth to power belongs to many at the College and not just the faculty, who are protected by tenure, and the students, who seem relatively secure in their positions.

In contrast, staff members have to deal with the fact that Iowa is an at-will state. Here’s what Wikipedia says about at-will employment.

At-will employment is a term used in U.S. labor law for contractual relationships in which an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish just cause for termination), and without warning, as long as the reason is not illegal (e.g. firing because of the employee’s race or religion).

Isn’t that comforting? [20] Would you feel comfortable making public comments about Grinnell or Grinnell’s practices in such a milieu? I’m not sure I would. I’ve also heard from some staff members, including those I would classify as administrators, that at-will employment has led them to hold their comments on multiple occasions.

A form of tenure for staff would help address this issue. Of course, I have no idea what that would look like. Nonetheless, just as we have protections for faculty to speak openly [21], we need protections for staff to speak openly [22].

Concluding Thoughts

I realize that my choice to make comments and suggestions represents yet another instance of a faculty member inserting themselves in a domain outside of their expertise. Nonetheless, I find it useful to reflect on what I would see as some appropriate steps forward, beyond the necessary broader discussion of these issues. And, as someone with privilege, I likely have a responsibility to say something.

As I reflect on the bigger picture, I’d like to see the staff have a clear voice in staff governance, particularly in issues like the Staff Handbook and the policies for raises and such. I don’t know whether or not Staff Council already serves that role but my impression is that it does not yet have enough of a role.

It would be good to see staff members on a few of the primary committees I mentioned above. I see clear reasons to add a staff representative to Executive Council, Curriculum Committee, Instructional Support, and Public Events. I’m don’t think that staff members are needed on the committees that directly govern faculty, such as the Faculty Salary Committee. And there are many committees that I’m unsure about. I also don’t have the time or energy to explore all of the committees not explicitly mentioned in the handbook; however, I see the Convocation Committee as one natural committee which would benefit from a representative of the staff.

I think I noted above that I’d like to see some committees created to parallel Faculty committees. The most obvious ones are parallels to the Faculty Salary Committee, the Faculty Organization Committee, and the Committee for the Support of Faculty Scholarship. Again, those may already be roles that are covered by Staff Council or that could be undertaken by Staff Council.

I’m not sure how you provide clear protection to allow staff, particularly more experienced staff, to speak their minds. Staff tenure is an interesting concept, but I doubt that we would undertake such an endeavor. Nonetheless, there must be some contractual arrangement that the College could devise that gives staff rights beyond at-will employment. I believe that would also require that staff have contracts. I know that the state of faculty contracts is unclear [23]; I believe staff contracts are in even worse shape.

I wonder what other institutions are reflecting on issues of staff governance and what they are doing about it. Knowing that might help inform our discussions.

Let’s hope that our new President and Dean help the College move forward on those issues and perhaps even make us a leader in staff governance. I’m glad to see one clear step forward in that we have the Chair of Staff Council on the search committee for the new president.

Postscript: I see that the Association of Governing Boards has a publication entitled Shared Governance in Times of Change: A Practical Guide for Universities and Colleges. Grinnell is a member and thus entitled to a free copy of the PDF. I wonder how I get a copy.

Postscript: I would be remiss if I did not note that President Osgood used the AAUP Principles as a reason to disallow the promotion of Library Faculty to Full Professor. When Osgood arrived, the Faculty Handbook noted that Library Faculty received tenure upon promotion to full professor. Since most Library Faculty would have been at Grinnell for much longer than seven years before being eligible for promotion to full, Grinnell would not be in keeping with the standard probationary period in the Principles if we tenured our Library Faculty at that point.

Postscript: I suppose I would also be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the promotion policy for Library Faculty stemmed from an earlier College decision. As I understand it, a Grinnell President [7], or perhaps the Board of Trustees, decided that we had too many tenured faculty. Why was that a concern? because it was still a time at which Grinnell was having trouble paying the bills, as it were, and tenured faculty are hard to dismiss.

As a consequence of the concern, junior faculty in departments with a high percentage of faculty with tenure were told that it would not be possible for them to achieve tenure. Wouldn’t that suck?

Eventually, a compromise was reached: Physical Education Faculty would no longer be eligible for tenure and Library Faculty would only be eligible for tenure after reaching full professor. I don’t know what that did to the Library and PE faculty who already had tenure. But the compromise ensured that the Trustees could be confident that our obligations were reasonable.

Hmmm. Now that the College is on more stable financial footing, perhaps we can consider restoring the possibility of tenure for PE and Library faculty. However, that’s a subject for another musing.

Postscript: I look forward to the release of Joe Wall’s History of Grinnell in the 20th Century so that I can better understand the issues raised in the prior postscript. I believe I’ll also learn some things about the inclusion of students on committees.

Postscript: Sometime over the next few days, I’ll be ranting about something to do with staff. Please keep any positive feelings from this musing in mind when you read that rant.

Postscript: A dialog.

Wife: What are you doing?

Husband: Writing.

Wife: What are you writing?

Husband: A long musing.

Wife: Have you been writing the same musing for the whole time you’ve been at the computer?

Husband: Um, yeah.

Wife: I should warn you that I rarely get to the end of your longer musings. And don’t forget that you have homework to do for Tuesday [24].

Husband (much later): I wonder if she reached this postscript?

Postscript: I had not anticipated this musing becoming quite this long. I’m surprised to see that it’s even longer than my too-long reflections after preregistration for spring 2020. I expect this is among the last lazy Sundays that I will have to write long musings.

Postscript: I’m also not sure that this musing had to be this long. Okay, I’m pretty sure that it didn’t need to be this long. At times, I think I would benefit from a good editor. But there are also times that I manage to edit myself. This just isn’t one of those latter times.

Postscript: I used the tag postscripted to indicate that this musing had far beyond its fair share of postscripts. When I added that tag, I had one or two more that I then deleted.

[1] This quotation is approximate. I believe I heard it during a discussion of self-governance when we had the legendary Brandy Agerbeck ’96 back on campus to help diagram the conversations.

[2] Yes, I attended some of the New Parent Orientation sessions when my children started at Grinnell.

[3] These days, that period is typically seven years.

[4] If that’s the case, you probably dislike many of my musings.

[5] That is not a statement of fact. But it’s something I believe.

[6] How’s that for an optimistic view of the world?

[7] A. Richard Turner, I believe.

[8] Or at least not deeply enough.

[9] I assume that the members of HR who read this are probably thinking something like, There goes another faculty member thinking they understand our domain and feeling free to criticize us.

[10] The President and Dean.

[11] Or a designated representative.

[12] Or a designated representative.

[14] See prior footnotes.

[15] Do we still have one of those?

[16] In this case, the Handbook does not say or a designated representative. It seems the Dean’s Office has been violating the Handbook. I wonder if I should complain?

[17] Albeit in much less detail.

[18] In the comment, I identified them by name, rather than title.

[19] I do not know that our Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has particular comments that they feel unable to make. However, they have both knowledge and opinions on important areas in which Grinnell has clear flaws. Hence, they seemed like a good example for me to use as I was talking with my colleague.

[20] Did the sarcasm come through?

[21] At least in matters of their expertise.

[22] At least in matters of their expertise.

[23] I hope to hear an update on faculty contracts this semester.

[24] Can you believe I went on a side quest to find the original in Harper’s? Can you believe another side quest was to find out more about the books quoted in the article? And did you know that there are at least two versions of David Von Drehle’s Among the Lowest of the Dead with different subtitles, one that seems to be a tenth-anniversary rewriting [25]?

[25] Or at least that has a new tenth-anniversary preface.

Version 1.0 of 2020-01-19.