Hang Together or Hang Separately

The importance of participating in governance on small campuses.
By Afshan Jafar, Simon Feldman, and Joan C. Chrisler

Service. It’s a dirty word in academia. We faculty members learn from our first years in graduate school that it should be avoided as much as possible. If any graduate programs devote a seminar to the expectations (much less the rewards) of service, we haven’t heard of them. When we became faculty members, the most consistent advice we got from our mentors was how to avoid doing “too much” service—after all, our tenure and promotion cases would be based primarily on the quality of our teaching and scholarship.

As three faculty members at a small liberal arts college who have been involved in faculty governance—which is a significant component of service— from our initial years of employment, we can’t help seeing the value of these activities, especially at an institution like ours. We also see the dangers and disadvantages to individuals and institutions if the faculty do not participate in governance. Why, then, is service shunned by so many faculty members? At small liberal arts colleges specifically, there are many reasons why faculty may be hesitant about participating in service, or unable to do so.

It’s a Small World After All

At small institutions, where there may be only two hundred or so full-time faculty members, everyone knows everyone. It is not unusual for deans and provosts to rise from the ranks of the faculty instead of being hired from the outside. In such settings, there may be greater emphasis on collegiality and getting along. Because the work of academic governance can often involve conflict between faculty and administrators, this work can be especially difficult in such contexts, as it may be perceived as contrary to the ideal of collegiality. Rather than running the risk of conflict, of being labeled as “difficult” or “obstructionist” or not being seen as a “team player,” untenured faculty, especially, may be hesitant or even afraid to serve on major committees.

However, we encourage faculty to remember and repeat this short but effective motto: it’s not personal; it’s structural. Our structural positions as faculty leaders on committees require us to represent the faculty’s interests, which in turn sometimes requires taking to task administrators who make decisions based on their structural positions and goals. These are rarely personal battles. When the dean happens to be a colleague and friend of twenty years, we must remember this motto in order to be comfortable doing the work of governance.

Receiving, Advising, and Chairing! Oh My!

As at any other type of institution, faculty at liberal arts colleges face many demands on their time. Some demands, however, are unique to the small residential college environment. For example, whereas research universities may have faculty or staff who are paid to do undergraduate advising, most faculty at small colleges advise students. And they do not just advise students majoring in their disciplines; they often do premajor advising, too. There is also an increasing expectation that faculty will have more “face time” or “contact time” with students outside of the classroom. We have seen this demand play out through an emphasis on residential programming (informal talks, panel discussions, movie nights) for students, evening and weekend events, faculty advising of student clubs, and more intensive kinds of advising requirements (mandating a particular number of meetings each semester). Faculty are expected to be physically present on campus for more days of the week. We also face demands to participate in open houses; requests that we call or e-mail admitted students who have expressed an interest in our discipline; and, on some campuses, even the expectation that we will greet incoming students and their parents and help students move into their dorms.

Faculty members from underrepresented populations can face particularly intense demands on their time. Because people from racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities often make up a very small number of faculty at small liberal arts colleges, they sometimes find themselves serving as unofficial advisers to students who identify similarly, counseling administrators on issues related to their identity groups, or mitigating campus crises. The relative geographic isolation of many small colleges can further add to the burden that these faculty members face.

In addition, faculty members in small departments or programs face their own unique set of demands on their time. At our institution, Connecticut College, a big department has about a dozen full-time faculty members; most departments have between four and six, and some have three or fewer. Faculty in small departments must all be engaged in crucial departmental service—for example, everyone serves on search committees, and all tenured members serve on tenure committees. This service also includes chairing the department (sometimes even as an untenured faculty member); teaching a larger variety of courses than would be normal at a larger institution or in a larger department; investing personal time and energy to bring labs and equipment up to date; and, where the administrative assistant works for several small departments or programs or in the rare cases where no assistant is available, taking on more administrative work.

There are no easy solutions to the problems facing small departments; however, we must resist the demand for more and more service when it interferes with our ability to participate in governance activities that bear directly on our areas of primary responsibility.

Stuck in The Middle with You

Small liberal arts colleges have their ardent supporters, and the three of us are among them. However, we acknowledge that there is some truth to the common perception that faculty at such institutions are expected to excel at everything. Small liberal arts colleges face an identity crisis of sorts: they do not have the resources of research universities, but their tenure policies are influenced by the cultural hegemony of research universities. Those of us who work at liberal arts colleges thus find ourselves in a difficult and inconsistent position. We do not want to “water down” our tenure standards for research or be labeled a “teaching college,” yet we realize that the student experience at a liberal arts college has to be vastly different from what a big state university offers, especially given the difference in tuition. So, we tout intensive teaching and advising, close relationships with students, and creativity and innovation in the classroom but hold on to a high standard for faculty scholarship.

Of course, these commitments to students also require all kinds of faculty service work, but most of it is unacknowledged, uncompensated, and not rewarded during tenure and promotion reviews. Given that faculty feel the brunt of the high expectations of research and intensive teaching and undertake unacknowledged service in the interest of students, performing additional service that benefits the faculty, such as participation in college-wide governance, is less and less feasible for many of our colleagues. They simply lack the time.

Faculty can mitigate any perceived ambiguity in tenure and promotion standards by thoroughly reviewing their tenure and promotion criteria, clearly ranking the three areas in terms of importance, and identifying their particular institutional values and needs. Even when institutions have very clear standards, administrators and faculty need to ensure that they are not making contradictory demands on the day-to-day lives of faculty members. They should also acknowledge the varied service demands put on faculty in this particular institutional context and find ways to take that work into account during reviews.

Dazed and Confused About Governance

Ironically, one way that shared governance is weakened is by applying the term too widely. Many faculty, and even more administrators, do not seem to understand what shared governance means. On our own campus, and we suspect at other small liberal arts colleges, it seems to be common to think of shared governance as the idea that everyone participates in everything. The smallness of the institution makes this seem possible, but that doesn’t mean that it is desirable. Do faculty really need to serve on a parking ticket appeals committee? Should students serve on a study away committee? Should a dean serve on a curriculum committee? On the surface of it, this approach doesn’t seem detrimental. In fact, it coincides quite nicely with the expectations of collegiality on small campuses.

However, this approach can quickly result in faculty not having control over the areas that the AAUP’s 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities defines as our primary responsibility: “curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.” The presence of faculty on a plethora of committees that do not bear directly on areas of faculty primacy upholds the facade of strong shared governance even as it saps faculty members’ energy and directs their attention away from necessary governance work.

Once we understand that shared governance does not mean we have to do everything, service becomes far less overwhelming and a lot more purposeful. An understanding of the faculty’s appropriate role in academic governance can actually help faculty to play a more effective part in the institutional functions that matter most to us; moreover, this can actually free us up to do our work by making clear who is responsible for what and what kinds of tasks are not our responsibility. And, of course, exercising our expertise in the domains of our primary responsibility as faculty is the vital precondition for achieving the institution’s overarching mission to offer our students the best education we can.

Given the challenges to shared governance at small liberal arts colleges, why do we argue for faculty to be more involved in governance? Those who overcome the obstacles and challenges to shared governance at small colleges and engage in meaningful service can expect a variety of benefits.

With a Little Help from My Friends

Based on our own experiences, and many anecdotal experiences shared with us, we believe that faculty who are more involved in academic governance feel more connected to the institution, more supported by their colleagues, and generally have more positive feelings about their professional lives. Serving on committees allows people to develop a network of friends and colleagues outside their home departments. The importance of this point cannot be overstated for small colleges where departments of three or four people are not uncommon. Small departments can be stifling, even when you get along with your colleagues. Serving on college committees allows faculty members to expand their network of friends and mentors, get an institutional perspective beyond the department’s, and possibly connect to colleagues who open up interdisciplinary opportunities for teaching and research. It also helps immensely during tenure and promotion reviews, as faculty do not have to rely only on department colleagues to write letters and can gain additional (and perhaps more accurate) information about how the process really works and what members of the tenure and promotion committee value.

What’s A Sundial In The Shade?

When faculty participate in governance they learn skills that are often different from their disciplinary training: they gain organizational and administrative experience (for example, by learning how to run meetings effectively and how to develop an agenda); they develop mentoring skills as they expand their capacities to be attuned to the experiences and perspectives of others; they learn to work together to reach consensus through compromise, and they learn when to hold their ground; they practice negotiation and public speaking skills; and they learn the intricacies of parliamentary procedures, Robert’s rules of order, and how to write motions and argue effectively for them. All these skills are transferable to other contexts, such as leadership in professional or community organizations and administrative positions in academia. Beyond the personal and professional benefits of acquiring all these skills, broad participation in academic governance provides an opportunity for more faculty members to develop and teach these skills to others, which over time enhances the quality of work life for faculty and strengthens the institution and its educational mission.

An obvious but often overlooked point is that participation in governance must be intergenerational if it is to be successful and sustainable. It is too common for faculty on small campuses to rely on the “usual suspects” to do the work of governance. This approach not only puts an unfair burden on those individuals, but it also is ultimately doomed to fail, as no new generation of faculty will have been trained in the necessary skills or have the collective memory needed to do the work effectively. The consequences of such a failure would be devastating to faculty— especially at nonunionized institutions where a strong system of faculty governance is the only protection.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Not enough has been written about participation in academic governance as a form of faculty activism. It is perhaps no coincidence that all three of us identify as feminists. For us, being active in governance is a natural fit for our activist tendencies. It is surprising that this sentiment is not shared more widely. Of course, one need not identify specifically as a feminist to be an activist. For example, faculty who study the corporatization of the workplace should find a perfect home serving on major faculty committees on their campus. Faculty who study stratification and the erosion of workers’ rights would be very valuable in shared governance. Any faculty member interested in issues of equity, social justice, and the preservation of higher education has an important role to play in governance. Most academic training does not encourage us to use our insights, knowledge, and experience to understand or change academia. In fact, activism may be frowned upon in favor of maintaining the myth of the disinterested researcher and scholar. As if affected by Stockholm syndrome, we refuse to work in our own interest and instead uphold the logic, practices, and values that help to create and reinforce our subordinate position.

It’s unfortunate that the word service came to be used for the “third pillar” (after teaching and research) in academia. Service connotes subservience— as in being a servant—which might be taken to imply that serving is contradictory to the welfare of the person engaging in service. What if we had used the term governance or academic governance instead to refer to our third obligation? To take part in governance implies exerting control, having a certain amount of power over our work and professional lives—quite the opposite of what service connotes. To whom do we turn, if not to our faculty colleagues engaged in governance, when our academic freedom has been violated? To whom do we turn, if not to our faculty colleagues engaged in governance, when we need to appeal a tenure or promotion decision? To whom do we turn, if not to our faculty colleagues engaged in governance, when we have a grievance against an administrator?

The drawbacks of not participating in academic governance are many—especially at small private colleges where the 1980 Yeshiva decision has effectively prevented full-time faculty from unionizing. Faculty members undermine their own interests and worsen the conditions under which we all work by withdrawing from participation in governance. As the AAUP’s statement On the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom cautions, “Faculty members must be willing to participate in the decision-making processes over which a sound governance system gives them authority. . . . If they do not, authority will drift away from them, since someone must exercise it, and if members of the faculty do not, others will.”

In a small college setting with all the challenges, barriers to faculty participation in governance, and competing demands on our time that we have described, it is all too easy to allow authority to drift away from us. Let’s not let that happen without a fight. Let us raise our voices, embrace our responsibility, and, in so doing, reclaim our power, for that is what shared governance gives us.      

Afshan Jafar is associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College. She is vice president of the AAUP chapter and chair-elect of the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Simon Feldman is associate professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department at Connecticut College. He is president of the AAUP chapter and a member of the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee. His e-mail address is [email protected]. Joan C. Chrisler is The Class of ’43 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College. She is chair of the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee, a member at large of the AAUP chapter, and a past president of the Connecticut state conference of the AAUP. Her e-mail address is [email protected].