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Taking a Precarious Stance

September 6, 2012

When an institution adopts a name like “National University,” it should be prepared to deal with the major issues affecting higher education institutions in this country.

And the topic du jour is shared governance, an issue that has dominated recent meetings of higher education institutions from public universities to private liberal arts colleges.

In mid-August, the university’s Faculty Senate submitted a letter to Jerry C. Lee, chancellor of the National University system, outlining a series of grievances about how administrators at the system’s main institution have circumvented established shared-governance policies outlined in board-approved documents when making academic and programmatic decisions over the past few years. The letter was not public, but was obtained by Inside Higher Ed.

“The number, nature, and severity of grievances have grown over the last year,” wrote Patrick C. Olson, chair of the National University Faculty Senate, in an Aug. 25 letter to the faculty. “At the recent Faculty Senate retreat, it became clear that, across all the represented schools, systemic problems with administrative processes and procedures, communication, faculty morale, promotion and reappointment practices, and workload continue to compromise National University's capacity to respond to the challenges ahead. The Faculty Senate has raised these issues repeatedly as reflected in the Senate minutes, to no avail.”

The faculty members’ complaints include the destruction of one school and creation of another without adequate faculty consultation, the presentation of a doctorate in nursing program to accreditors without proper faculty review or approval, the hiring of faculty members outside established hiring procedures, and the creation and change of various policies governing faculty work and welfare without faculty consultation required by board-approved faculty policy documents.

The Faculty Senate letter also states that faculty members believe the administration fosters an environment where creativity and freedom to ask questions and critique administrative policies are restricted, and resources and support for developing new ideas are unavailable.

Administrators declined to be interviewed by phone, but agreed to respond to e-mail questions. In her response, National University President Patricia E. Potter disputed the charges raised in the Faculty Senate letter, saying that proper faculty groups have been consulted for the changes in question. “All of the issues raised in the letter have been reviewed and continue to be discussed with the faculty leadership,” she wrote. “In some cases, the instances cited were situations that arose two or three years ago and were resolved with the previous Faculty Senate.”

She said the university’s administration is working with a task force on shared governance to address concerns and implement changes to the university’s governance structure.

Chancellor Lee responded to the faculty letter on Aug. 22. “I acknowledge that the concerns are serious. I will discuss these issues with representatives of the Faculty senate, National University administrators, and the Board of Trustees at its October meeting.” When contacted for comment, Lee’s office said questions should be directed to the university’s administration.

Faculty members were reluctant to speak about the issues for fear of reprisal. Several declined to comment on the matter and those who spoke only did so on the condition of anonymity. “Many faculty are afraid of retribution in multiple ways if they differ from the view or actions of the current administration, and of deans and chairs in some Schools,” the letter states. “Such retribution can take many forms, including fear of actions related to reappointment, promotion, and merit decisions, or being the target in a work environment that is oppressive, intimidating, and even hostile.”

Faculty members at National University do not have tenure, and most work on multiyear contracts. Deans and other mid-level administrative posts often have year-to-year contracts.

Who Has a Say?

National University is an unconventional institution in many ways. It enrolls more than 22,500 students at campuses throughout California and sites in several other states. Much of the university’s instruction is done online. While the institution is not-for-profit, administrators regularly cite the university’s fiscal discipline and financial success.

The conflict between the administration and faculty at National grows out of a challenge emerging at many tuition-driven universities – how to adapt to dramatic and rapid changes in the marketplace to continue to attract students and revenue.

In its mid-year report on higher education, analysts for Moody’s Investors Service summarized this tension over shared governance. “Traditional faculty-driven, decentralized governance model for U.S. higher education tends to promote operating stability, long-run planning capacity and consistency in quality of programs, but often serves as an obstacle to responding to change,” they wrote.

For years, National University was ahead of the curve on many innovations, particularly nontraditional, career-oriented academic programs and online education. But those fields are becoming increasingly crowded. Many of the concerns faculty members focus on in their letter are actions taken by National in response to that competition.

The Faculty Senate letter lays out several challenges the university will likely face in the next few years, such as increasing competition from for-profit institutions and traditional universities offering online education; developing new and relevant academic programs; measuring and ensuring student learning; and continuing to innovate the use of technology in educating students.

The faculty’s view, spelled out in the letter, is that the institution should foster innovation from the bottom-up by giving faculty members freedom to experiment.

Faculty members view the administration’s approach to governance as corporate and top-down. “The university requires an administration that understands the difference between a business model designed to run a corporation and the business model designed for a university,” Olson wrote in the Faculty Senate letter. “We do not believe that the current administration has such an understanding. The essential difference between these models is how shared governance works.”

“The Faculty Senate reluctantly reached the conclusion that we are at a stalemate with the administration,” the letter states. “We believe the administration has the best interests of National University at heart; but … we have a different view of how those interests are best served to achieve the results we all want.”

Violating Policies

The major complaints described in the faculty letter center on actions by the administration that faculty members say violated the "Faculty Policies" and "Graduate Policies," two documents approved by the university’s governing board that spell out how faculty members will be involved in academic decision making and any changes that affect “faculty work and welfare.”

The graduate policies require that any new graduate program be reviewed by the academic affairs committee of the school in which it is to be located and the graduate council. “In the case of the Doctorate of Nursing Practice, neither the School of Health and Human Services Academic Affairs Committee nor the Graduate Council reviewed or approved the program before it was submitted to [the Western Association of Schools and Colleges],” the letter states.

Potter said there is a documented record of faculty involvement in approving the doctorate program and that both the academic affairs committee of the School of Health and Human Services and the Graduate Council were consulted.

The letter also alleges that the administration has been hiring new faculty members without giving the faculty a say in the hiring process, despite a requirement in the Faculty Policies. “These faculty have been described by the administration as ‘contract faculty,’ hired for limited periods and without regular pay or rank,” the letter states. “They nevertheless fulfill full-time faculty roles.”

Potter said the university does not hire “contract faculty.” “We have full-time, associate and adjunct faculty,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, the term ‘contract faculty’ was the name a former administrator in the School of Education used to describe adjuncts who were given separate consulting service contracts to perform duties such as community outreach.”

The Faculty Policies require that “[t]he administration will engage in substantive discussions with the Faculty Senate regarding the development and implementation of policies that affect faculty work and welfare.” The faculty letter lists several issues that they believe fall under that qualification on which faculty were never consulted, including:

  • Revision of the process for submitting and reviewing faculty merit salary increases.
  • Reassignment of faculty work spaces.
  • Change in the health insurance provider.

The letter also alleges that the university disbanded the School of Media and Communication in 2011 without consulting the school’s faculty and administration. The Faculty Policies require that “[t]he president and the provost will engage in substantive discussion with the school dean, the school’s faculty, the Faculty Senate, and the undergraduate and graduate councils before making a recommendation to the Board of Trustees about the creation or disbandment of a school.”

Potter said the administration consulted with the prior administration of elected Faculty Senate officers, two of whom were faculty members in the School of Media and Communication. She said the school’s dean and the undergraduate and graduate councils were consulted.

Faculty members who used to be part of the school said the first time they were made aware that the school would be shut down was at a meeting in the spring of 2011. They were not given a chance to discuss the closure.

Atmosphere of Fear?

Over the past decade, the college has worked to establish sound shared governance procedures despite having a high number of part-time faculty members and no tenured faculty members. In 2002, the university brought in officials from the American Association of University Professors to gauge faculty sentiment and establish good governance procedures.

Current and former faculty members who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that beginning with the appointment of Potter as interim president the university’s administration has fostered an atmosphere where dissent and criticism among faculty are discouraged.

“There are conditions that must exist in the academic environment for allow creativity to flourish, including freedom to ask questions without fear, freedom to offer constructive criticism without fear, freedom and time to discuss ideas with colleagues, availability of adequate resources to support the implementation of ideas, and time for research to develop ideas,” the letter states. “It is our experience that these conditions do not sufficiently exist in the current university environment.”

Potter disputed this characterization. “In the past four years, the administration has closed one program and eliminated a single faculty position,” she wrote. “There have been no adverse actions against any faculty whose opinions differ from the administration.”

Potter pointed to a presentation by former leaders of the Faculty Senate on shared governance from a June 2011 meeting of the American Association of University Professors that was positive in its assessment of the institution. Among those presenting was Olson, the current Faculty Senate chair and author of the critical letter distributed last month. Olson did not reply to requests for comment.

 

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