Teach Governance

Graduate students and new faculty members will be helped in their careers by learning how their institutions work and how they can help shape policy, writes Terri Givens.

November 23, 2009

When I became vice provost in 2006, I got a crash course in faculty governance. It was my first year with tenure, and as I’ve noted in a previous column, I hadn’t expected to be moving into such a responsible position so early in my career. Not only was working on curriculum with the faculty council a part of my job, I was also tasked with filling the openings in Faculty Council standing committees, albeit from a list of nominees provided by the council's executive committee. In a short period of time, I had to learn about faculty members across campus, their level of involvement in governance structures, and the politics surrounding faculty governance.

What I learned over the next few months and years, was not only the importance of institutions like faculty councils or senates, but also the lack of interest in these entities, particularly among younger faculty. Faculty governance is essential under normal circumstances, but in an era of disappearing budgets and activist legislators who want more accountability, it is absolutely critical. Faculty need to have the tools to defend academic freedom and fight for the resources needed to maintain high quality education, but they also need to be open to changes that will make universities more efficient as we move into uncertain futures.

I should begin by noting that I have spent my entire academic career at large tier one research universities. I understand that the demands of service are often greater at smaller universities and liberal arts colleges. However, the demands of service exist at all types of institutions. What is important is that we begin giving future professors an idea of the importance of faculty governance long before they get tenure.

As I took on my first academic job and started to think about getting tenure, I had no idea how my tenure would be decided, who would be voting on it, and who the key players would be in the process. Over the years, I began to get a better sense of how these things worked, but I was also told to keep my head down, get my work done and avoid being on committees (the latter advice I studiously ignored). This is typical advice for assistant professors. The result is that we often get associate professors who have no interest in being involved in faculty leadership positions, or who have no idea how to get involved, even if they want to.

Understanding faculty governance needs to begin in graduate school. When I was a graduate student, I had a vague notion that faculty were on university-wide committees, or eventually became deans or presidents. I had no idea what these jobs entailed, or how much of an impact they could have on my personal career success.

We need to give graduate students a better idea of what it means to be a part of faculty governance. Graduate students should sit on appropriate faculty committees -- not just those focused on graduate student life, but also those focused on areas such as undergraduate curriculum, educational policy or research policy. They should observe relevant aspects of faculty recruitment so that they will have an idea of what they will face when they go on the job market and they should be made aware of tenure and promotion processes. For those who may be interested in future administrative careers, we should provide opportunities to learn what those kinds of jobs are about, and how they may want to position themselves in order to take advantage of opportunities in the future.

Part of the issue is how we value service. When it comes time for tenure or promotion, in most top-tier research universities the most important factor is research. In fact, some faculty members feel penalized for doing too much service. Unfortunately this is often a major issue for women and faculty of color who are called upon to take part in committees and task forces in order to add gender balance and diversity. I could write an entire column on this issue alone, but suffice it to say that we owe it to ourselves as faculty to give credit to those who manage to balance research, service and teaching and to encourage those who show the initiative to take on leadership positions. However, it is critical that we spread the load so that there’s less chance of faculty research agendas being hurt by service. With more people involved the burden can be spread across a larger number of faculty members, rather than falling on the few who are more willing than others to say yes.

When I was vice provost, one of the ongoing issues was how to get more faculty involved in the faculty council. When I was working on the standing committees, it was always the same cast of characters being nominated. We had long discussions on ways to increase faculty involvement. However, I think this is an area where deans and department chairs need to be more involved in encouraging faculty to consider service. I have had discussions with my own dean about identifying young faculty members who show an interest in leadership positions, providing them with mentors and possibly giving them course release time to be involved with committees or to learn more about what it means to be a department chair, dean, vice provost or even a provost.

I have been lucky to have found mentors who have helped me in my own path to leadership (as I wrote in a previous column), but faculty leaders can do more to provide mentoring structures, departments can do more to educate junior faculty and graduate students on faculty governance, and faculty can do more to educate themselves so that they can be more effective players in the budget battles and other issues that will be impacting universities in the next few years. I was unprepared and had a steep learning curve when I became an administrator – that can and should be avoided.

We are entering an era in which universities and colleges will be challenged to show that they are providing a valuable education to students and to demonstrate their impact on their local and state economies. Faculty need to be prepared to provide answers when parents and legislators question the value of a liberal education. The challenges for higher education will only continue to grow, regardless of the economic situation. One way to be better prepared for these challenges is to ensure that we are preparing the next cohort of faculty leaders.


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