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SUNY Voices

A successful joint effort to institutionalize faculty governance.
By Nina Tamrowski, Tina Good, Peter Knuepfer, and Ken O’Brien

The State University of New York system, established in 1948, is the largest and most recently founded system of public higher education in the country. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, it encompassed sixty-four campuses, including the state’s thirty community colleges. Unlike in other public university systems, the research universities, comprehensive colleges, health science centers and medical schools, specialized colleges, contract colleges, and community colleges are all integral parts of the SUNY system. The different institutions have individual presidents or other presiding officers, but the system is governed by one chancellor and one board of trustees (the community colleges also have local boards of trustees as a part of their governance structure).

As with all systems of public higher education in the United States, SUNY has been affected by shifting views and values in the twenty-first century. The ever-changing national and state political climates, combined with constant upheaval at executive administrative levels, have led to a perpetual storm of mandates and policy changes.

Anchoring the ship has been SUNY’s faculty governance structure. There are two statewide faculty governance organizations within SUNY: the University Faculty Senate (UFS) and the Faculty Council of Community Colleges (FCCC). The UFS includes senators elected by faculty at the campuses that deliver baccalaureate and graduate academic programs. The FCCC consists of faculty delegates elected by the faculty from each of SUNY’s thirty community colleges that deliver associate degrees and certificates. The authors of this article have all served as presidents of these two organizations during the last decade and have had to work together to navigate through these changes using academic governance principles, values, and processes. We have learned some lessons along the way.

A Brief History of Recent Governance at SUNY   

The history of support for SUNY’s two governance bodies has spanned well over half a century. Campuses contribute funds and the SUNY system administration provides the two governance organizations with additional funding, office space, clerical support, transportation, and other vital support services to help us do our work. The presidents of the two organizations also have nonvoting trustee positions on the SUNY board and serve on the chancellor’s cabinet, thus ensuring the faculty’s role in governance at the system level.

Despite the history of SUNY’s support for a formal faculty role at the system level, the processes for policy making were not institutionalized. With each policy, we had to negotiate a process for the inclusion of faculty in governance. We, as the faculty leaders, constantly wondered how we could better institutionalize academic governance at SUNY. Our new chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, addressed this question in 2009, when she undertook a comprehensive strategic planning process.

Zimpher inherited a fragmented system whose recent history had been complicated by a series of chancellors who had short tenures and were often enmeshed in messy state politics in Albany. Typically, the solid Republican majority in the senate supported SUNY funding, and the equally solid Democratic majority in the assembly protected the City University of New York. The result was often budget crises, which further weakened any consistent leadership of the university system.

In December 1998, without direct consultation with the faculty governance organizations, the politically appointed board of trustees had enacted a mandated SUNY general education program. Faculty organizations both at the system level and on the campuses were outraged and passed a number of resolutions declaring their lack of confidence in the system’s leadership. The ill will engendered by this battle, and the deeper culture war that lay behind it, poisoned the relationship between the faculty and staff governance organizations, on the one hand, and the system administration, which was compelled to support the board, on the other.

In order to calm the choppy waters of SUNY’s recent past, Zimpher quickly embarked on a sixty-four-campus listening tour, traveling tens of thousands of miles across the state and taking copious notes along the way. The notes lay the groundwork for a new strategic plan that emerged through a process that would engage more than two hundred participants in six meetings. The three governance leaders served on the steering committee for this strategic planning process.

Toward a Sounder System of Academic Governance

The chancellor asked administrators, faculty, and students to think big throughout the strategic planning process. We were a big system that could achieve “big hairy audacious goals.” But in order to achieve those audacious goals, the chancellor recognized that internal processes and operational needs also had to be addressed. Meanwhile, the UFS and the FCCC were passing a resolution requesting the establishment of a SUNY working group on shared governance charged with conducting research and making recommendations to strengthen governance at the system level and to encourage sound academic governance at the campus level.

Our respective governance bodies did not pass this resolution in response to a crisis. Rather, the decision was the result of a decade’s worth of tectonic shifts in SUNY policies. Faculty leaders were exhausted from trying to maintain governance processes that allowed for adequate deliberation and feedback from our various constituents, who did not always agree themselves. Since the late 1990s, our faculty governance organizations had been doing their best to put makeshift processes together as we struggled with board-driven demands for systemwide general education requirements, standardized general education assessment, and transfer policy and practice reforms. While faculty leaders did all they could to adhere to principles of academic governance, none of the processes was ever codified. Our interactions with the system administration were determined more by changing personalities than by systematic and sustainable processes.

Faculty governance leaders at the campus level know what it is like to be presented with a policy for “feedback” a month or even a week before it goes to the board. On a campus, a faculty leader might be able to circulate a policy and educate members of the college community about it or perhaps even respond to the pending policy within such a timeframe, but it would be very difficult to do so. Within the SUNY system such an endeavor was impossible. The very best we could do in many cases was to have emergency phone conferences with our executive committees, quick calls with one another and with the provost or chancellor, and maybe some quick calls with board members before hastily issuing resolutions or position statements pertaining to the immediate issue at hand. Such a process cannot be considered a “best practice” in a sound governance system. The executive committees of the two governance bodies were exhausted and frustrated by this pattern of decision making, and this continued frustration helped us build a case for more sustainable governance processes in systemwide decision making. We proposed that such processes emulate the strategic planning process of inclusion that the chancellor had put forth.

Zimpher was receptive to a more systematic approach after we presented the joint UFS/FCCC resolution at a cabinet meeting, but there was no pathway for implementation. We decided, therefore, to drop our request to establish a working group and instead build an academic governance goal into the strategic plan. We were successful. Strengthening governance at the system level and on each of the campuses became a strategic goal, but fitting academic governance into a strategic plan was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Our previous strategies for strengthening governance simply did not fit into this new paradigm with its talk of branding, metrics, and report cards. Yet we knew that if governance did not get visibility in the strategic plan, it risked becoming invisible altogether. The chancellor had opened a pathway to making governance an articulated SUNY value. She even offered potentially increased funding for governance, if we could just figure out how to market it. In order to move this project forward, the FCCC and UFS executive committees, along with the SUNY strategic planning transformation group on governance, discussed ways to “brand” SUNY’s version of academic governance. The chancellor also expected us to come up with metrics that could demonstrate the success of governance on a SUNY report card and to develop a “business plan” for governance in order to justify how we would spend this newfound budget.

All the other groups working to transform the system during the strategic planning process were coming up with brands for their projects. System marketers declared that SUNY governance was just too boring as a brand! In thinking about the significance of communication in an effective governance structure, we came up with SUNY Voices as the brand for shared governance within SUNY. With the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities as our guide, we then began developing metrics and setting up a framework for assessment of SUNY’s governance system. The marketers, however, wanted something more countable, so another shift was necessary.

Rather than measure effective academic governance, we decided that SUNY should be a resource for strengthening it at our campuses. Then the metrics became much easier to count. How many campuses had formal governance systems? How many governance-related workshops did we conduct? Did we complete the governance leaders’ toolkit? How many campuses were administering campus climate surveys? How many were applying for our SUNY shared governance award? How many participants came to our governance conferences? How many books did we publish? How much operational support was academic governance getting at SUNY? We had fit the square peg into the round hole. We had developed a marketable strategic goal for strengthening governance with a way to assess its progress that people who knew nothing about academic governance could interpret. We did not do so without controversy, but we had achieved the visibility we were seeking, and the chancellor approved our five-year business plan, along with a generous budget line.

Increasing the Visibility of Academic Governance

The funding and overall commitment by the chancellor and system administration to the SUNY Voices project has allowed us to develop a number of continuing programs and events that strengthen faculty governance across SUNY and on our individual campuses.

The SUNY Voices projects that were funded, planned, and executed by the FCCC and UFS include

  • annual leadership training conferences for faculty and student governance leaders;
  • an annual shared governance award;
  • additional focused workshops for faculty and student governance leaders, such as one in 2016 on campus climate;
  • governance workshops held at community colleges;
  • the SUNY Voices website;
  • a campus governance leaders’ toolkit;
  • travel support for campus governance leaders to attend FCCC and UFS plenaries;
  • three academic conferences on shared governance (in 2014, 2015, and 2017); and
  • two edited volumes on governance that emanated from the shared governance conferences, with a third in the planning stages.

Each year, a SUNY Voices committee plans a series of professional development institutes and workshops. The annual leadership training institute, which we have held each year in late May or early June, was designed for faculty and student governance leaders from all sixty-four campuses. The institutes generally have combined discussions of issues of importance to both faculty and student leaders with how-to guides for effective campus leadership. Topics addressed in the latter have ranged from how to deal with administrators to how to run effective meetings. The institutes have been well attended.

Each fall SUNY holds a conference for community college governance leaders; these have frequently overlapped with meetings of the New York community college trustees, thus enabling faculty members, trustees, and presidents to hold a joint session on academic governance. These conferences have served the dual purpose of strengthening relationships between faculty leaders and their governance bodies and addressing issues of common concern to the community college faculty, such as threats to academic freedom and the distinction between faculty unions and governance structures.

The three shared governance conferences have accommodated academic paper presentations as well as panels and roundtables on themes related to governance. At each conference, more than twenty-five sessions were offered, some concurrently and some as featured presentations. Keynote speakers at the SUNY Voices conferences have included The Fall of the Faculty author Benjamin Ginsberg, Richard Legon of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, Augustana College president Steven Bahls, and University of Puget Sound president emerita Susan Resnick Pierce. While faculty within SUNY have delivered most of the papers and presentations, the contributions of these keynote speakers (representing faculty, administration, and governing board viewpoints), coupled with attendance and participation by senior administrators from many SUNY campuses and faculty from other universities (such as the City University of New York), have added to the breadth of viewpoints represented at the conferences.

The SUNY Voices project also led to the development of our systemwide award for governance. Any campus can apply through a joint nomination by the campus president and faculty governance leader. The awardee is recognized at the shared governance conference, where the winning campus can share its best practices or reasons for winning.

Our governance processes at SUNY have improved in some ways but not all. Now there is the expectation that faculty governance leaders will always be consulted as policy evolves, but decision making did not become more systematic and sustainable. We are still rushing around every time an urgent omnibus policy is announced. And we are still negotiating the policy review process every time.

But we did get a visible SUNY commitment to stronger academic governance and the values therein. That has spread to the campuses. Much as we were able to use AAUP guidelines to bolster our positions on shared governance, faculty are now able to use our SUNY Voices website, our shared governance award, our conferences and workshops, and our SUNY Voices publications as leverage to demonstrate the importance of academic governance.

Under the leadership of the FCCC and the UFS, we have built interconnections among our campuses and our SUNY-wide faculty governance bodies. We have developed better communication mechanisms for sharing information about SUNY’s plans and policy changes. We have finally begun to challenge that old and tired cliché that faculty governance is slow, plodding, obstructionist, and unnecessarily bureaucratic.

Simultaneously, the SUNY Voices initiative has increasingly included other stakeholder groups, such as the student assembly, the community college trustees, the board of trustees, and campus presidents. We have widened the circle of inclusion intentionally and thoughtfully as we deliver workshops, conferences, awards, and publications.

The Future of Governance at SUNY

The situation at SUNY is far from nirvana. Tensions between the system administration and the campuses resurface whenever the administration introduces major system policies. But SUNY Voices is one of those rare governance victories that faculty can claim and celebrate. The FCCC and UFS harnessed the strategic planning process and reimagined faculty governance as a metric. Clearly, the chancellor’s leadership made possible the launch and growth of this commitment. But faculty leadership in identifying campus and system needs has sustained the SUNY Voices initiative as we pursue ever-sounder academic governance across the system.

SUNY is in the midst of a leadership change, with Nancy Zimpher stepping down as chancellor at the end of June 2017, and a search for a new chancellor is under way at the time of this writing. As anchors do, the SUNY Voices initiative and the institutionalization of faculty governance will help us weather what is sure to be another storm of changes. But a good anchor also has to allow a little give so the ship can maintain its integrity as the currents and waves attempt to alter its path. Perhaps that has been our most important lesson: to use the tools of navigation such as strategic planning to keep the ship upright and moving in the direction we wish to go.

Nina Tamrowski has been president of the Faculty Council of Community Colleges and a member of the SUNY board of trustees since 2015. She is professor of political science at Onondaga Community College and past chair of the Social Sciences and Philosophy Department. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Tina Good is professor of English at Suffolk County Community College. Currently chair of the College Governance Council, she served as president of the faculty senate for five years and as president of the SUNY Faculty Council of Community Colleges for six years. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Peter Knuepfer has served as president of the University Faculty Senate and as a member of the SUNY board of trustees since 2013. He is associate professor of geology and environmental studies at Binghamton University and served as director of the environmental studies program for ten years. His e-mail address is [email protected]. Kenneth P. O’Brien is a faculty fellow in the SUNY provost’s office and past president of the University Faculty Senate. He has served as history department chair, director of the honors program, and as president of the senate at the SUNY College at Brockport. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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