The Disappointing (and Disappearing) General Faculty Meeting

Are we letting shared governance slide away?
By Arthur G. Jago

On one afternoon each fall and spring semester, as at many universities, the chancellor of the University of Missouri calls to order the “general meeting” of the campus faculty. Last October, as is typical here and, I suspect, at other institutions, the chair of the faculty council and the university’s chancellor each presented a half-hour slide show that was then followed by an opportunity for faculty questions and comments. Predictably, the chancellor suggested that the challenges the institution faces, if you look hard enough and use your imagination, are really opportunities. In the faculty council presentation, the chair identified the issues on its forthcoming agenda: prominent among them—as is often the case—was greater attention to inadequate, noncompetitive faculty salaries.

In the question and comment segment, the third speaker, a philosophy professor, expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the meeting: “I’m frustrated by the presentations at our general faculty meetings. I really want to focus on problems. What are the concrete problems that we are confronting? . . . The presentations [of] these big, general ideas may be liked by lots of people and they may find them useful. I don’t!” The comment was met with an enthusiastic—and quite exceptional—round of endorsing applause from the faculty audience and, with that, the chancellor promptly concluded the meeting.

The general faculty meeting has become both a disappointing and a disappearing ritual. These developments are related, although it is unclear if the meetings are becoming disappointing, perhaps irrelevant, because they are disappearing or if they are disappearing, perhaps abandoned, because they are disappointing. What is less ambiguous is that these trends signal the further marginalization of faculty in university governance. Often, general faculty meetings are what those of us who publish in the management literature call “pseudo‑participation.” This is the administrative practice of giving the appearance of openness and of providing employees with a false sense of influence in decision-making when, in fact, the overture is disingenuous, management firmly retains authority, and decisions may have been already made.

Deliberative and Informational Faculty Meetings

Meetings in formal organizations can be of two types, deliberative or informational. Deliberative meetings are those that consider potential alternatives to a decision. Sometimes these alternatives already exist; sometimes the purpose of the meeting is to identify or develop them. In either case, debate focuses on the merits of the alternatives and may include discussion of information acquired by the deliberative body.

We can further divide deliberative groups into two categories: decision-making groups and consultative (advisory) groups. Decision-making groups actually choose among alternatives using established procedures (for example, voting or consensus). Consulted groups provide a recommendation, again determined by established procedures, to a higher decision-making authority.

Under the widely adopted AAUP shared governance recommendations, “the faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspect of student life which relate to the educational process.”  These are areas in which faculty are to act as a deliberative, decision-making group.   Additionally, faculty may be a formal deliberative, consultative group in decisions about other issues such as budgets, personnel selection, and the academic calendar. In these cases, faculty make recommendations in their formal consultative role and submit them to a provost, chancellor, board of trustees or other authority. Additional ad hoc consultation, at the discretion of university administration, may also take place. For example, the University of Missouri recently charged a temporary committee with making recommendations for consolidating or closing programs to cope with an anticipated $60 million budget deficit.

Informational meetings are those in which decision makers describe decisions to stakeholders and others. If decisions have been made already, the purpose of the meeting may be to announce the decision and describe the roles of participants in implementation. Alternatively, a meeting may focus on the circumstances surrounding an impending, yet undecided, decision. In either case, deliberations do not take place. Meeting conveners may share information and ideas, or invite questions and comments. Informal consultation with attendees may occur, but it does not result in formal group recommendations.

Morphing Meetings of the Whole

As is the case at many institutions, faculty meetings at the University of Missouri have evolved from primarily deliberative events to primarily informational events.  However, the residual pageantry and rituals—such as posted agendas, quorum requirements, the call to order, meeting minutes, appointed parliamentarians, and formal adjournment— perpetuate the illusion that the faculty as a whole remains a deliberative body.

When I examined archived documents from fifty to sixty years ago, I found that Missouri general faculty meetings were always deliberative. By formal vote, faculty routinely recommended academic calendars and recipients for honorary degrees. Additionally, voting occurred with regard to a host of nonrecurring, nonroutine academic matters such as adopting policies governing student discipline, penalties for student (and faculty) absences, procedures regarding faculty misconduct or the revocation of tenure, availability of pass/fail grade courses, and a variety of other university issues.

However, in the minutes of more than fifty Missouri general faculty meetings that have occurred since 1993 I can find only four instances of votes taken regarding substantive resolutions. Meetings have become informational exchanges like the recent meeting described at the beginning of this essay. I have not conducted a formal content analysis of these meeting minutes. However, I did notice that (1) meeting attendance is declining (that is, recorded turnout is negatively correlated with advancing years) and (2) there were ten acknowledgments, by six different chancellors, of the noncompetitive nature of Missouri faculty salaries. (Again last year, in an apparent attempt to show empathy, the MU chancellor lamented that faculty “salaries have been frozen for so long, it’s quite a shame.”)

Missouri is most certainly not unique in the types of faculty meetings it conducts—that is, if a meeting with the faculty happens at all. Consider Purdue University’s purchase of the for-profit, and quite controversial, Kaplan University. Faculty learned of the surprise acquisition—or merger, depending upon your point of view—not in a meeting with administrators, or even in a campus-wide university email, but rather from a public Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) corporate filing that was federally required of Kaplan. Apparently, the agreement came after months of top-secret, top-level negotiations. Within a week of the SEC announcement, the faculty senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of rescinding the offer because faculty input was not sought and the action violated “respect for the Purdue faculty.” The Purdue administration ignored that vote.

General faculty meetings have been disappearing for some time now. The size of faculties and the complicated issues they encounter are often given as the reasons. By the late 1960s, for example, Stanford’s faculty “had become so large a body that it found itself unable to transact business conveniently and expeditiously, particularly at the time of the disorders arising from the war in Vietnam.” Stanford abandoned the deliberative general faculty meeting and created its faculty senate, although it retains an informational annual meeting. Similarly, the University of Missouri established a nine-member Faculty Council on University Policy in 1968 as an effort toward “faculty regaining its voice in University matters.” Missouri also retains its semiannual general faculty meeting.

I examined the policies regarding general faculty meetings of all sixty US members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and present the results in the accompanying table. Most universities have abandoned the regularly scheduled general faculty meeting, although private institutions are twice as likely to require such meetings as public institutions. Interestingly, the requirement of a meeting does not guarantee that they will occur. The University of Michigan requires an annual faculty meeting; however, for lack of a one-hundred-person quorum, only one official meeting of that faculty has occurred in the last eleven years. (Michigan, like Missouri and many universities, will proceed with a meeting in the absence of a quorum without conducting formal business and may, as in the case of Michigan, forgo keeping minutes.)

In lieu of required annual or semiannual meetings, some AAU institutions have provisions that a general faculty meeting may be convened by petition. For example, at Carnegie Mellon a request by only twenty faculty members can initiate a general faculty meeting. At the other extreme, the requirement is two hundred members at the University of California, Los Angeles. (Rather than having a fixed number, some institutions require a request by a percentage of voting-eligible faculty to trigger a meeting. Michigan State, with 20 percent, has the highest of such requirements.) Several representatives of institutions that have meetings only by petition volunteered to me that no one could remember the last occurrence of such a meeting. When such rare meetings could be recalled, they were typically for votes of “no confidence” in one or more senior administrators.

Of course, AAU universities are typically quite large, and smaller, nonmember institutions might be expected to have the capability for “convenient and expeditious business transactions” unattainable (or administratively undesirable) at Stanford, Missouri, and others. Indeed, Grinnell, the well-respected liberal arts college in Iowa, has twelve regularly scheduled general faculty meetings per year. Moreover, any twelve faculty members can petition to require additional “special issue” meetings.  

For the most part, however, institutions have essentially replaced the decision-making function of the general faculty with a representative faculty senate or faculty council. According to a recent survey, 93 percent of doctoral-granting institutions have such a body. A detailed analysis of the effectiveness of, and satisfaction with, such senates or councils must, however, remain the subjects of another essay. Suffice it to say here that administrators (and also many faculty members) agree with former university presidents William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin’s “fact of life” claim in their 2015 book Locus of Authority: “it is more and more difficult to persuade the ‘right’ faculty to serve on key committees as well as in faculty senates.” Often, neither administrators nor faculty members are entirely happy with the implementation of their representative governance models.

Concluding Thoughts

As a management style, pseudo‑participation is never sustainable. With continued use, its marginalization (at best) or manipulation (at worst) of participants becomes apparent and produces dissatisfaction, distrust, cynicism, disengagement, withdrawal behavior (such as declining voluntary attendance), and turnover.

Because of the historical associations attached to the term “faculty meeting,” the phrase should be reserved for the physical or electronic gathering of faculty for genuine back-and-forth deliberations, either actual decision-making or credible consultation. If the chancellor or president of the institution wishes merely to address the faculty, perhaps it should be called a “state of the university” message or an annual faculty assembly, forum, convocation, or town hall. An administrative address or informational presentation—even with a provision for feedback from faculty—should be called something that cannot be mistaken for robust, influential, and meaningful faculty involvement.  Simply because something might be called a “general faculty meeting” does not necessarily imply authentic shared institutional governance.

 

AAU Institutions Requiring Annual General Faculty Meetings

General Faculty Meetings

Association of American Universities (AAU)

All AAU

Public

Private

Annually Required

(one or more)

9 (26%)

16 (62%)

25 (42%)

Required by Faculty Petition 1

11 (32%)

3 (12%)

14 (23%)

None Required

14 (41%)

7 (27%)

21 (35%)

Total

34

26

60

Note: Canadian institutions are excluded. At some institutions, additional meetings can be called by the university president (or chancellor) or by the faculty senate.
1 Some schools having annually required meetings may also require additional meetings by petition. However, these are included only in the prior row.

Art Jago is a professor emeritus of management at the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business and has held a leadership position in the institution’s Faculty Council on University Policy. He has written extensively on managerial decision-making and is the author, with Victor H. Vroom, of The New Leadership: Managing Participation in Organizations (Prentice-Hall). Jago’s email address is jago@missouri.edu.

 

 

 

 

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