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Shared governance, revisited

Some time ago, I wrote about shared governance in preparation for a small-group discussion with the president about the goals and state of shared governance at Grinnell. While I we had some good discussions, the discussions felt a bit undermined by the news that some major changes had been made at the bookstore with no consultation with the Instructional Support Committee, the elected faculty committee charged with providing some oversight of the store.

In any case, we’ve had one large faculty-meeting discussion about shared governance and a famous guest speaker give a Faculty Friday session about shared governance [1]. Today, we had another meeting that was intended to follow up on the faculty-meeting discussion and the presentation. We covered some interesting issues today and I wish more people had been there. I appreciate Faculty Chair Reitz’s efforts to get issues of shared governance out on the table. I also appreciate both President Kington’s and Dean Latham’s willingness to talk about these issues. Unfortunately, very few faculty members showed up and that makes me sad.

An optimist might say that few faculty showed up because the majority of faculty are satisfied with the state of shared governance at Grinnell. While I try to be an optimist, it’s hard to be optimistic about this issue. From my quick conversations with colleagues, people didn’t show up for this discussion because (a) they are too busy with other things [2]; (b) that had previous obligations, such as Spark Tank; (c) they are so frustrated with the state of shared governance that they see little hope in discussions; (d) they find the format of these discussions painful at best; or (e) some combination of those [3]. And yes, I heard each reason from at least one person I talked to.

As I noted a few paragraphs back, one positive is that President Kington and Dean Latham appear willing to talk about these issues and to look at ways to improve the state of faculty governance at Grinnell. I wish more people could have seen that willingness.

At the same time, I worry about some things that were discussed at the meeting as well as about others that were not discussed. For example, we’ve recently had three fairly significant changes to our benefits or staffing structure: We have better leave policies for parental leave [4]; we have better policies for adoption [5]; and we have new policies regarding background checks [6]. You would expect that at least the first two would have gone through the Benefits Committee, a committee that consists of faculty (elected representatives), staff, and administrators. But no, some administrator created a separate Policies Committee to review these policies. That committee has no faculty members on it. It was frustrating enough to hear that shared governance was violated in this case. It was even more frustrating to hear both President Kington and Dean Latham say that they did not know that we have a Benefits Committee.

Now, as I’ve noted in the past, Grinnell’s complexities are such that they are nearly impossible to master. So it’s somewhat understandable that a new Dean or President might now know about the Benefits Committee. However, Human Resources, which regularly interacts with the Benefits Committee, should certainly know about that committee, and should have informed the Dean and President that the committee exists.

So, why did HR [7] create a separate committee to consider these three policies? I have no idea. Two of the policies are positive enough that it’s clear that the Benefits Committee would have been supportive. The third, while painful, is necessary. And, as we saw in the full faculty discussion of background checks, there are many issues in faculty hiring that the people putting together the background check policy did not know or did not understand. Perhaps if they had had the appropriate committee help draft and review that policy, we would not have had to wait until the full faculty discussion to hear about the flaws.

We talked about many more issues than I could hope to cover in a short musing. So I’ll end with a reflection on one more problematic issue.

President Kington noted that he thought that one significant obstacle to shared governance at Grinnell was a lack of trust. He clearly feels that we have the same set of underlying goals for the College, that we should acknowledge that, and then argue about approaches rather than about motivation. Nonetheless, both he and Dean Latham find that their motivation for making decisions gets questioned much too frequently.

I do not doubt that we share a vision of a Grinnell that provides a strong liberal arts education to a diverse set of students irrespective of their ability to pay. I do not doubt that we differ somewhat in precisely what that means or in the methods we should use to accomplish that goal. However, given the breakdowns in shared governance, particularly in the failure to consult faculty on important issues, I worry whether we have a shared vision of shared governance. From our conversations, it seems likely that the Dean and the President value the same kind of shared governance that the faculty value. So why the breakdowns? Perhaps others in the administration either lack a vision of shared governance or have a very different vision.

What should we do about the difficulties of shared governance at Grinnell, particularly given that too few of the faculty seem willing to engage in active discussion of these issues? We should certainly acknowledge some of the successes. For example, it’s clear that many parts of the administration, such as Admissions, are working hard on collaborations with faculty. Grinnell also gives much more power to the faculty in salary and personnel matters than most institutions [8]. But we should also acknowledge problems and consider ways to resolve those problems. I know! Let’s create a Task Force on Shared Governance to address the matter [10].

[1] It was, unfortunately, a week that I was out of town.

[2] This is, after all, a day with too many events.

[3] There are likely other reasons, too.

[4] Yay!

[5] Yay!

[6] I suppose those are necessary.

[7] I don’t know that it was HR that created the committee. However, it seems like a natural assumption.

[8] At Grinnell, a faculty committee determines raises. I know that at some institutions, the Dean can create new tenure-line positions. At Grinnell, Executive Council must approve all such positions [9].

[9] Perhaps I should say normally, Executive Council ….

[10] One of the questions that someone who did not attend the meeting asked was Did you discuss the relationship of task forces to shared governance? Nonetheless, I am serious that having a small group of faculty and administrators (and maybe trustees) consider the the issue carefully could be a valuable endeavor. And task forces are not new to President Kington. I chaired a task force on voting more than a decade ago and participated in a task force on copyright at about the same time. I also served on the EKI [11] committee, which I don’t think was elected. And when I was on Council, I’m pretty sure we created a few task forces for tasks that needed to be dealt with in a relatively short time frame.

[11] Expanding Knowledge Initiative.

Version 1.0 of 2017-04-13.