It’s a Tough Job, but Somebody’s Got to Do It

Neither Penn State nor Johns Hopkins’s Peabody Institute enjoyed particularly strong shared governance within the last decade. Recent reform efforts hold promise.

November 3, 2017
 
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Shared governance is an issue that generally attracts attention when faculties and administrations are at odds. But a sense of mutual trust and responsibility between professors, administrators and trustees can make a big difference in meeting institutional goals and carrying out campus missions at points of calm and at points of tension.

Knowing that, two institutions with rocky pasts in terms of shared governance -- Pennsylvania State University and the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University -- are working toward structural reforms in that area.

Penn State

“Trust” is not a word that anyone would have used to describe faculty-administrative relations at Penn State within the last decade or so. There was the seemingly never-ending fallout over the university’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child rape case, which included the conviction earlier this year of former President Graham Spanier for child endangerment. The Penn State faculty also staged a revolt against a new health-insurance policy, now suspended, that would have required annual tests of body mass index and questions about sexual health of all employees; the proposed penalty for missing such tests was $100 per month.

Things are changing, now, though. Spanier is out and so is his successor, Rodney Erickson, who retired in 2014. Penn State’s new president, Eric J. Barron, and Nicholas P. Jones, the new provost, appear to have the backing of the faculty. Sandusky is in prison and the health-insurance fiasco has been resolved. And in what’s been perceived as a sign of administrative goodwill, Penn State has stopped skimming off the top of its permanent fund for tenure-track faculty hires to invest elsewhere -- including in more non-tenure-track faculty hires. 

The systemwide University Faculty Senate has consequently been able to refocus its attentions on actual governance, with significant results. A new general education curriculum is in place. And within the last two years, the senate created new paths to promotion, professorial titles and multiyear contracts for full-time faculty members off the tenure track. Teaching faculty members with terminal degrees may start out as assistant teaching professors and can advance to associate teaching professors and then teaching professors, for example. A researcher is someone who is actively pursuing a terminal degree, while an assistant research professor should have a terminal degree or a master’s and have demonstrated ability as a researcher and shown evidence of professional growth and scholarship. Colleges have their own guidelines of distinguishing between ranks but there is a recommended period of at least five years in rank prior to promotion. Those promotions should be accompanied by a raise.

“You need a high level of cooperation on an issue that is so controversial,” Matthew Woessner, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Penn State’s Harrisburg campus and president of the Faculty Senate, said of the new fixed-term faculty system. “That’s evidence of how far we’ve come.”

Woessner and colleagues want to take the Senate farther: this year, among other changes, they’re proposing two new bylaws that could make the body stronger. The first proposal involves allowing only elected members of the Senate to vote in leadership elections; currently, about 10 percent of faculty senators are appointed by the administration. 

The other proposal involves making the Senate chair eligible for re-election to increase stability -- and hopefully effectiveness -- in leadership. Both changes already have been introduced, and if the Senate approves the latter, a rules committee will be asked to replace the one-year term limit with a term of up to four years.

“Faculty senates only work well if they play a really important role in university governance,” Woessner said, asserting there’s ironically little study of shared governance among scholars across academe -- though Penn State did just host a conference on shared governance within Big Ten institutions. (Woessner is, admittedly, a bit of a shared governance wonk. He has a forthcoming paper in PS: Political Science and Politics on faculty senate constitutions, which found that more representative senates are associated with faculty influence and that -- interestingly -- senates chaired by an administrator feel more “influential” to the professors they represent than do senates chaired by a faculty member.)

“Senators have to be in the position to wave their hands and say, ‘This is a bad idea,’” Woessner added. “If the Senate is independent and bold enough to be brutally honest, it can really provide a candid window through which the university sees itself.”

Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State’s main campus in State College and the Faculty Senate’s president-elect, called past administrations “autocratic" and some of the behavior of past senates “supine.” He attributed much of the improved governance climate to Barron and Jones, the president and provost.

The past year did see some tense moments, including one sparked by a new policy against direct or indirect participation in political campaigns. “Faculty were puzzled,” thinking, ‘Is this about my I’m With Her sticker?’” Bérubé said. As it turned out, the policy was a pretty boilerplate directive about complying with federal tax laws for nonprofits -- something cleared up with faculty representatives in a relatively simple meeting (the details are still being ironed out). But under a previous administration -- one less committed to communication and shared governance -- it might have become something bigger.

“The point is that it was a very productive meeting -- and that the legal staff, apparently, now understand why it's important to consult with the Faculty Senate before issuing a policy,” Bérubé said. 

So far, he added, “we don't always agree about the outcomes of these discussions, but we are in on them, early, and substantially, in ways that we weren't five years ago.”

Barron said he couldn’t quite gauge improvements in shared governance because he’s only been president there since 2014. But he said it seems “we have a strong sense of the value of shared governance, and have a well-defined relationship that aids that understanding and actions.”

There exist, too, “excellent lines of communication, which I believe is key,” Barron said. “What is important is a strong understanding of our roles as partners and of the critical role of faculty in the oversight of academic programs.”

Asked what the most significant changes to shared governance have been, from an administrative perspective, Kathleen Bieschke, vice provost for faculty affairs, mentioned the “meaningful changes” in policy for fixed-term faculty members. She said the reform process was defined by “communication and a commitment to shared goals,” which continue even now, as policies are being put into place.

Larry Catá Backer, professor of law, served as Faculty Senate president in 2012-13, at the height of faculty distrust in the administration. Backer in an interview applauded his colleagues’ efforts at smoothing out faculty-administration relations. At the same time, he wondered if it was possible to oil the machine too well, risking sacrificing the Senate’s accountability function to the new spirit of collaboration.

Woessner said he agreed that on-campus relations could take a nosedive again in the future, in the face of some new test or under different leaders. That’s why it’s important to consider changes that could make the Senate even more independent and powerful now, he said.

“I’m a political scientist, and political scientists think of everything in terms of balance of power,” he said. “Faculty and administrators have very different perspectives on how things should be done. Faculty are obsessed with the educational mission, and administration is concerned with budgets and things like that … Shared governance at its best is the fusion of these two functions.”

Peabody Institute

Shared governance at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins couldn’t ever really be called strained -- the institute just didn't have much shared governance at all. The music conservatory was incorporated into the university some 40 years ago, and its policies -- or lack thereof -- concerning governance screamed for an upgrade by the time Fred Bronstein became dean in 2014. Hopkins wanted more faculty say in institution affairs, and so did he.

“It needed work,” Bronstein said. “There was a lack of clarity and a lack of communication and a lack of ownership.”

A majority-faculty task force worked for 18 months to rewrite the faculty bylaws from scratch. Priorities included turning department chairs into actual department leaders with decision-making authority, not just coordinators. Two new committees were introduced: the curriculum and assessment committee and a promotion and evaluation committee. A committee governing doctoral studies existed previously and will continue to meet.

Also new is a dean’s advisory group, a five-member faculty body elected by the department chairs committee. The advisory committee will meet monthly for two-year terms, up to two consecutive terms, and advise the dean on issues of concern. Department chairs may not serve on the committee. The dean’s committee must call a full meeting of the faculty at least once a semester, and the full faculty has the ability to call a meeting of the dean’s committee.

The committee of department chairs, meanwhile, will meet monthly to review policies and discuss and make recommendations on schoolwide matters. Examples include admission and student musical performance. Those chairs will elect four to five members to represent them on a smaller academic council; the council existed previously but now has more members. Chairs of departments are appointed by the dean.

Seven full-time, senior professors will serve on the promotion and evaluation committee, appointed by the dean. Their primary job will be to establish policies and procedures surrounding faculty evaluations (Peabody hasn't had any, beyond student evaluations of teaching) and help the institution move to multiyear contracts from single-year ones.

“If you don’t have effective chairs, every decision has to come up to the dean’s office,” Bronstein said. “That’s not an effective way to run a school. You don’t get ownership that way.”

He added, “I’m sure we’ll tweak some things as we go along, but there is a lot of goodwill and commitment and great leadership from the faculty.”

The bylaw changes were approved by overwhelming majority of the faculty last academic year. Robert Muckenfuss, chair of vocal studies at Peabody and past faculty assembly chair, said shared governance worked relatively well for the first three decades after the conservatory associated with Johns Hopkins.

Yet within the past decade, he said, “it was apparent that the governance structure was not fitting the needs of the administration and the faculty. New curriculum, needs of the students and faculty have changed considerably.”

Muckenfuss described the process as “very collegial” and thorough, with town hall-style meetings to update faculty members and get their feedback. He said the establishment of the promotion committee is the most significant change in the long term, since it will lead to ranks, multiyear contracts and more in-depth evaluations.

In general, he said, “I believe that we had the backing of the faculty. We certainly had an overwhelming vote of approval and endorsement when the vote was taken.”

Michael Kannen, Sidney M. Friedberg Chair of Chamber Music at Peabody, said that although the shared governance changes weren’t necessarily initiated by the faculty, “most of us recognized that they would be valuable, especially as we move toward restructuring the way our contracts work … The faculty aren’t that interested in governance in and of itself but we know it has to be done.”

Asked about how to achieve successful governance reform, Bronstein said to do it “thoughtfully. Do it inclusively and take your time. Do it very transparently -- those things are really important.”

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