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The state just passed a law capping the number of credits for an associate degree at 60, down from 66, effective in Fall of 2019. (It includes some very limited exceptions for programs with external accreditations, like certain allied health programs, but that’s all.) The idea, I assume, is to reduce the cost for students and make it likelier that students will complete degrees in a timely way. Which is great, as far as it goes.

Getting there is the tricky part.

Like most colleges, we have a deliberate, inclusive, slow process for considering curricular changes. Based on the notion of “shared governance,” the idea is that curriculum is central to faculty expertise, and central to the mission of the college, so it’s important to ensure that any changes are vetted from multiple angles. In practice, it functions as a cross between quality control, which is good, and turf protection, which is annoying but probably inevitable.

Now, with a state mandate and a relatively tight deadline, we’re looking at enlisting the mechanisms of shared governance quickly, and at scale, in the name of compliance to a preordained outcome. Given the “turf protection” function of shared governance, conflict is inevitable. (Alexandra Logue wrote a brilliant, if maddening, book called Pathways to Reform detailing the years-long process of implementing guided pathways at CUNY. If you ever wondered just how ugly academic politics can get, it’s a vivid field guide.) We’ll have to run entire batches of programs through the mill in a hurry, with the understanding that “yes” votes are effectively mandatory.  Which raises the question of what “voting” means.

Conceptually, it’s a bit of a mess.

Theoretically, one could distinguish between parameters and details, and argue that the state is setting parameters, but we’re free to figure out the details.  In other words, they set the goal, and we figure out how to meet it. Which might be okay if the state didn’t already dictate the content of 45 of those credits through a gen ed framework. Between that and the requirements of transfer institutions, or of employers, the scope of control for campuses is being reduced to a remnant.

There’s an argument to be made that legislative mandates represent an expansion of shared governance to include the public at large, through the medium of its elected representatives. What looks like intrusion, from a campus perspective, could be seen as inclusion. (Fans of E.E. Schattschneider will recognize the idea of “socializing the conflict.”) And there are valid reasons to want that.  Just yesterday, I suggested putting pressure on four-year colleges to accept more community college credits in transfer; practically speaking, that may require external intervention. So I get the appeal.

But it would require redefining shared governance and the expectations around it. Culturally, on most campuses, that hasn’t happened yet. We’re still applying a model based on the idea of a campus as self-contained (Goffman’s “total institution”) to a world that doesn’t think so anymore.  

Which puts administrators in an awkward position.  We have to mediate between an outside world that doesn’t understand the details and internal politics among people who feel put-upon from the outset.  Even worse, some of those people are likely to vote “no” simply out of spite, or just to assert a sense of agency. (See “Brexit”) If enough people do that, then the administration faces a Hobson’s choice: either comply with the local vote and run afoul of the law, or comply with the law at the expense of overturning the local vote.  

I can see arguments for deference to campus-based expertise, and I can see arguments for a more democratic, if less expert, form of shared governance that extends to elections.  But it’s hard to run both at the same time.

We can’t be the first college to face this sort of dilemma.  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen this sort of thing handled especially well? If so, how?

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