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Missed Opportunities

Missed Opportunities

August 20, 2010

William Buckley famously said he’d “rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the dons of Harvard.” In my 14 years as president of a leading liberal arts college, I grew weary of overworked jokes that likened leading a faculty to herding cats or kangaroos. Looking back, I recognize in them a bit of bravado masking an awkward misalignment. Faculty are proudly autonomous, defiantly so, independent thinkers who give each other as much trouble as they give the administration when one or another of them raises a head above the herd in a gesture of leadership. Faculty are socialized as individuals, not as members of a group; taking a broader view runs against the grain for many of them, in the ways and for the reasons Hugh Heclo enumerates in his insightful book, On Thinking Institutionally. And yet the principle of “shared governance” requires a faculty capable of effective self-governance in partnership with professional administrators and a voluntary governing board.

The institution I was privileged to lead and others with which I’ve been affiliated have wonderful faculty – exceptionally engaged, responsible, and responsive in virtually every respect. Yet from the day I arrived on campus as a new president, I was schooled in a cultural norm that the better part of valor was to tiptoe around the faculty. It was as though "the faculty" as a whole was a hibernating bear no one dared disturb for fear of being mauled. I could see all the ways in which the faculty as a body – a "constituency" in academic parlance – was being watched, coddled, and handled with enormous investments of energy and studied restraint. Over time, as I became adept at reading the emotional force fields on campus, I realized that this strenuous effort was thinly masking an undercurrent of fear. And this, I have come to learn, is true to one degree or another through much of the academy.

The fear arises out of an intellectual culture that is awash in competition and critique, in picking ideas apart and taking no prisoners. Critical thinking and skepticism are the coins of the realm. But skepticism can devolve to cynicism, and criticism to contempt, an acrid brew of belligerence and disengagement that can poison morale and yield a system of self-governance far better suited to obstruction than construction. This is a pity because it matters, both educationally and strategically.

Educationally, students pay close attention to how the "grown ups" on campus behave. The academy remains arguably one of the last major sectors in American society still making a good-faith effort to both uphold and enact the view that in a healthy democracy we have obligations to one another. This includes the obligation to resolve differences by enabling the majority to form its collective judgment through meaningful discourse in which all relevant positions are fully aired. "A democracy needs citizens who can think for themselves rather than simply deferring to authority, who can reason together about their choices rather than just trading claims and counterclaims," Martha Nussbaum wrote in Cultivating Humanity.

Strategically, faculty governance bodies have pressing work to do in this era of shrinking resources and accelerating global competition. If they once routinely fostered authentic and serious public debate about real educational problems, discussion too often deteriorates, now, into something even less informative than a clash of competing claims, a spectacle more akin to disconnected “serial oratory.” At my own institution, and others I knew well, it was mystifying to see faculty members we revered for their pedagogic virtuosity – faculty who were creating in their private classrooms exquisitely hospitable venues for courageous exploration of controversial ideas – so stuck in old and unsatisfying habits when trying to resolve conflicts in the academic calendar, or come to terms with grade inflation, or revise the curriculum.

These discussions moved painfully slowly and unpredictably. Often a lone, loud voice or a mobilized minority faction would hijack the conversation in the eleventh hour. I couldn’t help but wonder, at these times, whether this would be happening if the faculty as a whole were more vividly experiencing itself weighing evidence and making wise choices on matters of curricular or educational consequence and then feeling bound to one another by their collective decisions.

Many faculty are increasingly conscious of imbalances within their own ranks, frustrations they discuss privately with deans or presidents hoping for a simple solution from on high. Rarely do they come together to explore their mutual accountabilities: to one another, to their departments, to their disciplines, and to students other than those they see directly in their own classes, offices, studios or labs. Some carry a disproportionate load for their institution as a whole, while others seem to ride more or less free. Disparities of this kind seem to be widening.

When one or another faculty member would bring an injustice or a dispute to the administration for adjudication, I often felt tempted to weigh in with what looked like decisiveness. I learned, though, that only the faculty had the power to resolve differences among themselves. The impulse that flows from perceived inequities is to tighten central controls. But that only exacerbates the problem. People who feel under surveillance resist authority, or withdraw, or both, feeding a vicious cycle: more controls, less commitment. Rather than acquiesce in the imposition of more central controls, faculty themselves would do well to shore up their own systems of citizenship, taking account of the increasing complexity of faculty work, while recognizing that the institution’s continued success will require ever greater interdependence.

In some schools, the economic downturn has brought faculty into new relationships with the administration and the trustees on budgetary decision-making, strengthening their roles in shared governance, at least for a time; in others, the reverse has occurred. As financial and competitive pressures continue to bear down on all institutions of higher learning, the incremental changes many have been making to ride out the recession – draining reserve accounts, deferring maintenance, making across-the-board budget reductions, reducing staff, relying more on contingent faculty – are likely to shift more work onto faculty shoulders and erode the quality of their work lives. If budgets have to be trimmed further, it’s hard to imagine finding additional economies without reconsidering the organization of the educational enterprise itself and the assumptions behind it: how students learn, how faculty teach, the nature of the curriculum, how everyone uses time.

I worry that the professoriate may be standing at the threshold of a shake-down as disruptive as was the restructuring of medical work that began in the 1970s when health care costs began to spiral out of control, the process that Paul Starr analyzed with such foresight in The Social Transformation of American Medicine. And I worry that colleges and universities with strong faculty – brilliant scholars, devoted teachers, radical individualists, and stubborn skeptics who treasure autonomy, resist authority, distrust power, and who love their institutions as they have known them – may find it especially difficult to bring faculty together, bring departments together and make timely, wise, informed and realistic choices about a future worth having.

Over the next decade, colleges and universities are likely to need greater flexibility, organizational resilience and openness to new ideas, and, at the same time, stronger internal systems of shared responsibility, accountability, collaboration and communication. They will need to become more fluid learning organizations, better positioned to capitalize on the forces of change, and better able to make and defend potentially divisive choices, while remaining true to the purposes that will ensure continued success.

Faculty will need to be clearer about those purposes and about the essential ingredients of the education they want their students to expect and receive – an integrative education that prepares new generations to take their places in a world of mounting complexity, interdependency, inequality ... urgency. They will need to do a better job of modeling the serious engagement of their own differences that integrative learning clearly implies and that enlightened organizational stewardship absolutely necessitates.

Bio

Diana Chapman Walsh served as president of Wellesley College from 1993 to 2007.

 

 

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