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Shared Governance

On Tuesday at lunch, I’m part of a small group of faculty who are meeting with President Kington, Dean Latham, and Faculty Chair Rietz to discuss issues of shared governance. I think this is one of those times that I need to write an essay to think through my position and my frustrations, and to try to keep myself articulate. I hope I don’t get myself in too much trouble.

Shared governance is a core aspect of higher education. Its basic premise should be simple: The faculty, staff, and administration (and, perhaps, the students) work together on the governance of the institution. That is, they make decisions collaboratively whenever possible, and they do so through open deliberation. At times, collaboration may take the form on consultation, in which the administration asks the faculty for feedback on an idea or project, or the faculty asks the administration.

Shared governance usually requires some form of representative governance. That is, because it is complicated to deliberate in large groups, the faculty should normally elect or appoint smaller groups of faculty to represent them in deliberation. Those representative groups then have a responsibility to represent the perspectives of the faculty with the similarly smaller group of administrators.

Successful shared governance is open governance. Representative groups cannot communicate the will of the faculty unless they can hear that will, the faculty cannot express their will unless they are able to hear what is happening. Whenever possible (and it’s not always possible), shared governance involves transparency in processes, policies, and procedures.

Admittedly, shared governance includes some acceptance that parts of governance belong to the faculty (e.g., the curriculum) and some parts of governance belong to the administration (e.g., investment policies). Ideally, in both case that ownership is still consultative.

I am concerned about the current status of shared governance at Grinnell. Why? First, we have had difficulties with transparency; too many decisions seem to be made without clear descriptions of how and why the decisions are made. We’ve had that problem for some time, and it doesn’t seem to be be getting much better. Second, and perhaps more importantly, decisions seem to be made without appropriately collaborative or consultative processes.

Why do I think that? It’s not because of the Posse decision [1], although I am frustrated by that decision and the way it was handled. It’s because of the slew of small and not so small ways in which I see our governance process ignored or subverted. Let’s consider some examples.

  • The Faculty Organization Committee (FOC) [2] is responsible for the creation of committees on campus. In the past few years, I’ve seen the administration create a wide number of committee-like structures without the input of FOC.

  • The Instructional Support Committee (ISC) is responsible for governance of academic and instructional resources on campus, including the campus Web site. But changes to the Web site were made without real input from ISC, and there was at least one attempt to significantly change our Web policies without any input from ISC.

  • ISC’s responsibilities are also supposed to include the bookstore and the ways in which it serves the campus community. In particular, ISC is supposed to raise issues of immediate concern and participate in long-range planning regarding the development and maintenance of facilities and services to support teaching, including those provided by the libraries, bookstore, audio-visual center, and computer center. [3] I do not know how much ISC was consulted about many bookstore changes (particularly since I haven’t heard much of any long-range planning for the bookstore). I do know that ISC was not consulted about recent personnel shifts that are likely to have significant impact on the the bookstore’s ability to support the intellectual life of the College.

  • It appears that the privacy rules governing the Pioneer One Card system were seriously altered by student affairs without the Pioneer One Card committee being aware of those changes. Those changes undermine privacy guidelines the faculty were promised when the Pioneer One Card system was introduced to campus [7].

  • It appears that Student Affairs decided to remove policies regarding Student Educational Policy Committees (SEPCs) without any consultation with any faculty group. (I’m actually not sure what group is appropriate; probably either FOC or Executive Council). While SEPCs are student organizations, they are also part of the faculty review process, so the faculty should have been consulted.

  • Although the Committee on Academic Standing discussed changes to our policy on credit limits, they did not approve any changes. Nonetheless, that policy changed between last year and this.

That’s just a sampling; there are certainly other instances in which the administration has failed to appropriately involve faculty.

It’s also clear to me that I have a very different view of shared governance than some administrators. This fall, Grinnell had a common reading for all incoming students [8]. From my perspective, a common reading is a curricular matter, and should be discussed by the faculty. When I discussed the issue with the associate dean who seemed to be taking the lead, someone I respect and admire, they said (approximately): I asked the Tutorial committee. They didn’t want to include it in Tutorial, so I’m just doing it separately. From my perspective, that’s not shared governance; if the faculty don’t think a common reading is appropriate, we shouldn’t have one [9].

So, where do we go from here? I don’t know. I’m hopeful that the meeting with President Kington is productive. I know that Dean Latham does think actively about making our educational program better. I’m thrilled to have Henry Rietz as faculty chair (just as I was thrilled to have Elaine Marzluff as our previous faculty chair). But I also worry that these kinds of situations are a symptom of a significantly different perspective on faculty governance [10].

[1] Although I think the public rationale for that decision was unacceptably shallow, I do not have enough information to judge the reasons for that decision, and I also accept that I should not have that all of that information, as it was not a decision that could readily be made transparently.

[2] I keep trying to convince them that their job is to organize, and that they should therefore be singing union songs, but no one else seems to agree.

[3] [4,5]

[4] I apologize that this document is not available to those of you without a GrinCo account. I’ve already ranted about that issues.

[5] I also apologize for the idiotic URL. Welcome to the wonders of SharePointless [6].

[6] Have I pushed that stupid comment too far? Probably.

[7] Expect a longer essay on this matter.

[8] Some of you may have seen middle son live Tweet his reading of that book.

[9] I do have at least one faculty colleague who says that they would make the same decision as my associate dean, so my view is not necessarily commonly held.

[10] Sorry, no hopeful ending here. I’m not feeling particularly hopeful right now. Perhaps we’ll explore other reasons why in a future essay.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-10-10.