A Call for Faculty Reengagement in Governance

Why faculty must resist the “don’t worry, be happy” approach to governance.
By Nalsey Tinberg

As a faculty member drawn into administrative service over the past decade, I have witnessed how economic and fiscal challenges have steadily eroded, if not entirely eliminated, the crucial tenets of shared faculty and institutional governance. I see this development as an academic form of the “shock doctrine” eloquently described by Naomi Klein: fiscal crises destabilize a college or university, instilling fear into loyal and dedicated campus constituents who have emotional ties to their institution that go beyond a typical employer-employee relationship. While these fears are understandable, they may escalate into concerns about the very viability of the institution, which is rarely at stake. This anxiety contributes to an environment where the reframing of decision making and governance, in ways that would ordinarily be rejected by the faculty, is presented as urgent and necessary. Under this pressure, decisions are often made quickly by a select few, behind closed doors and with little transparency. Sadly, for me, faculty members often accept and approve of these practices.

Large universities and community colleges, heavily dependent on state and federal budgets and often with unionized employees, are vastly more complicated places than the college where I teach. My perspective is that of a long-term faculty member at a selective liberal arts college that is dependent mainly on tuition and endowment income, where shared governance has always been a direct and highly interactive experience. Regardless of the type of institution, a crisis, financial or otherwise, is an opportunity for shared governance to succeed, bringing together all members of the campus community to reinforce the institution’s central mission. Administrative decision makers should value the participation of students, faculty, and staff, and these constituents should educate themselves about the workings of their institution and understand the pressures administrators face making tough decisions in trying times. Effective institutional governance during a time of crisis needs to address three key questions:

  1. How is the crisis being described to the community in the context of the college or university and its resources?
  2. How are viable proposals and solutions being gathered and discussed, and with whom?
  3. What happens in the aftermath of the crisis?

The Perfect Storm

In the mid-nineties, my college faced a perfect storm of three circumstances: a decline in endowment income, a decline in student enrollment and therefore tuition income, and a change in college and university accounting procedures that eliminated practices that had masked deficiencies. The college faced both urgent deferred maintenance expenses and an operating deficit of several million dollars. What to do? What I observed was a model of shared governance in a time of crisis.

The president was very forthright with the campus, communicating early and often about the challenges we faced. A successful campuswide strategic planning effort five years earlier had accustomed us to frank and straightforward discussion. A recurring budget process that involved all campus constituents was addressing some budgetary issues (through restructuring, outsourcing, eliminating positions, and other approaches), but the board of trustees demanded a much more dedicated effort to solve financial problems structurally and quickly.

The president convinced the board to enter into a process with representatives from the faculty and the administration that would result in a five-year plan answering the following questions: Should we (1) increase the size of our college, (2) maintain current levels of enrollment and staffing, or (3) reduce our size? What changes needed to be made to enhance revenue while maintaining the mission of the college in each case? An impressive group of faculty members, administrators, and trustees worked incredibly hard and quickly, poring over and assessing data and holding frank discussions. Members were divided into three teams, each of which explored the ramifications of one of the three possibilities. A sense of trust and concern for the common good prevailed. All three plans were exhaustively explored, and team members created financial projections for each. The process led to the conclusion that we would remain more or less the same in size and scope but that we would make a host of internal changes that would require sacrifice on all our parts in the short run. If all went well, we would enjoy modest revenue growth and be able to reinvest in the infrastructure over time.

A New President

What happened in the aftermath? The plan on which we had worked so hard was largely ignored after a new president arrived. Although some staff and administrative positions were eliminated (in accordance with the plan), other administrative areas grew and continue to grow to this day. The appointment of new tenure-track faculty came to a virtual standstill (not part of the plan), the numbers of contingent faculty increased, and ten years later we have not returned to the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty we had before the plan, although the number of students on campus has increased. Despite the cautious optimism inspired by the new president’s arrival, fear and uncertainty about our financial situation continued to permeate the campus. But these sentiments were coupled with fatigue and relief that the hard work was over. Institutional culture began to change. The new president brought a new philosophy and a different point of view. I refer to it as the “don’t worry, be happy” form of governance, in which faculty, staff, and students go their own ways and leave the governing to him. My faculty colleagues were glad of it. We were tired. We were frightened. We wanted to be taken care of. And so we were.

Talk of transparency was just talk. Information was scarce. Data were protected. Notions of community were portrayed as naive. Board members had virtually no contact with faculty. After all, some reasoned, members of the faculty are too important to spend their time on the affairs of the institution. Should they not be more concerned about their own research and teaching than the workings of their administration? Formulating policies for the greater good began to be replaced by the pursuit of individual patronage: faculty negotiated oneon- one with the dean and the president for salary, travel funds, or release time. Faculty drawn to governance saw college service as thankless and unrewarded, their efforts ignored. Academic planning and innovation suffered, although programs have continued under their own momentum for a long time. Planning and budget committees now have largely disappeared with the comings and goings of several other chief executives.

Younger faculty, uninterested in the  financial workings of the institution, remain blissfully ignorant that their salaries and benefits are a direct result of the strong faculty governance that preceded their arrival. Faculty voices are now rarely heard. Our meetings include lunch and Power- Point presentations, with little input from anyone. We have abdicated our role as faculty members in most aspects of institutional planning and governance, setting a poor example for other campus constituents, who once looked to us for leadership. We talk among ourselves about being central to the mission of the college and being its “heart and soul,” but we would be foolish to assume that others see us in this way. We continue to be unwilling to ask hard questions, even with all the protections our academic freedom allows, and we seem more eager to please than to offer respectful critique. Our faculty leaders continue to believe in their personal political ability to influence policy one-on-one with our senior administrative leaders, instead of insisting on an open, campuswide conversation.

Lost Commitment

In my view, we have lost much and gained very little in these past ten years. Some measures of institutional excellence and quality (for example, student-faculty ratio, endowment spending per student, percentage of budget allotted to instruction, and percentage of tenure-track faculty) have declined. Reversing these indicators will take a renewed commitment by faculty, many of whom are now accustomed to a three- or even a two-day teaching schedule and spend more of their time off the campus.

And what of the new financial realities that face us? Will the faculty take a leadership role? Take is the operative word, because it surely will not be offered to us. Faculty argue that we are not trained to be administrators, and that it is “their” job to manage the institution. A wise dean and former professor once told me that he always drafted his finest teachers to be his administrative colleagues because he believed that good administrators are people who listen, learn quickly, articulate issues, debate respectfully, and prize critical thinking and analysis, all attributes of an excellent teacher. Last time I checked faculty members are still trained to do all that.

Colleges are not democracies, but participatory decision making should remain one of our most important institutional values. Participation demands practice and ongoing attention, and we are sorely out of shape. Our muscles need flexing, and our hearts and souls need a little uplifting. We do not all have to participate, but we all have to respect the work of those of us who do. Traditionally, our great strength has been our institutional loyalty and longevity and our ability to put students first. We must remind ourselves that our relationships with students build the alumni base that is the key to the college’s long-term financial stability.

We are fortunate: despite current financial pressures we will experience a surge of incoming students thanks to the hard work of the admissions office, the excellent reputation of our faculty, and the achievements of our students. We have a new president at the college who seeks to bring a new energy to institutional planning. It does not hurt that the current president of the United States, Barack Obama, had the good fortune to spend two years of his undergraduate life at my college. Will faculty members step up and recapture our true role in the future of this institution and build on its mission of excellence and equity? Can we renew our commitment to institutional governance? “Yes, we can!”

Nalsey Tinberg is professor of mathematics, former president of the faculty, and associate dean at Occidental College. She is also a playwright and a consultant on assessment and accreditation.