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.
Diana Chapman Walsh
Diana Chapman Walsh served as president of Wellesley College from 1993 to 2007.
I’d like to nominate the term "faculty-driven" as a candidate for disinvestment and elimination.
After serving as a director of composition and as the coordinator of a general education program at universities in the Midwest, I am beginning my second year as department head here at a university in West Texas. At our first all-faculty meeting of the year, it was announced that we are on the verge of two major academic initiatives that will require a substantial commitment of institutional time and energy. The first is a program review process, and the second is a quality enhancement project required by our accreditor.
Both of these efforts are necessary and, I suspect, will result in needed improvements. I have faith in the best practices upon which we will model our efforts. I also believe in the goodwill and good intentions of our academic leadership.
I just wish our administrative team would stop saying these efforts will be "faculty-driven." It’s a term that has little, if any, persuasive power. It may in fact, for many faculty, have the opposite effect. Rather than sweetening the pot, it may just as likely leave a bitter taste.
It's possible academic leaders inside higher ed believe that "faculty-driven" is synonymous with “shared governance” (another term I’d nominate for the trash bin) or "grassroots consensus-building." However, these terms only mask how power actually circulates in academe.
Let me be clear: I’m not opposed to how power functions in colleges and universities. I think the decision-making hierarchy in my university is appropriate and benefits faculty, staff, and students. And it’s quite evident who has authority and who doesn’t. Our operational policies tell the story of power and process quite well, and our organizational chart clearly illustrates the verticality of institutional authority.
I'm only saying that academic leaders should be more careful about how they talk about what we do. Faculty don’t drive processes that come down from accrediting agencies or the administration. They execute them. That’s why a better term is "faculty-executed."
Faculty members are directed to execute program review. Faculty are directed to execute a quality enhancement process. Faculty are directed to develop and assess student learning outcomes. Faculty are directed to appear at convocation and commencement. It may be that faculty don’t like to follow and execute these directives, but that’s really beside the point .
Let me share with you to the last two stanzas of a poem I like very much by William Stafford called “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.”
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider -- lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give -- yes or no, or maybe -- should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
We may fool each other even when it’s not our intention. So we should take as much care as we can. We should use language that clearly depicts institutional power and its supporting policies and processes. And "faculty-driven" is a smudge.
If faculty drive anything, it’s student learning — the central ritual of any academic enterprise. Certainly, there's many an institutional directive that drive faculty away from that focus. But what drives faculty to distraction even more is language that misses the opportunity to do good work.
My preference is that academic leadership should talk straight about the parade of our mutual life. Leaders should tell faculty what they want faculty to do and, just as importantly, they should tell them why. And tell them often. Not fly-by mission statements and core values on overhead slides. But in public and in person, boots on the ground. Follow me. This way. Here we go.
I would also urge faculty to remind themselves of our larger enterprise more frequently. We can all make the easy case of how overworked we are. But we’re not running backhoes or bouncing along on the back of garbage trucks. We’re lucky enough to work in fields of our own choosing.
From my perspective, program review and enhancement projects offer us the opportunity to make the case for values and valuing, a chance not only to remind ourselves of why we do what we do, but also to remind others — especially those above us in the vertical leap — of our unique and vital contributions to the knowledge pie.
(And we should be beating that drum in our classrooms, too!)
Many faculty think they are undervalued or have no voice in the scheme of things. Why then would we resist a directive to tell our story? Otherwise, the line that threads through all we do may become loose, unravel, or, worse yet, break.
I believe very good and persuasive reasons often exist for why faculty should execute what we are directed to do. But there’s a difference between giving directives and giving directions. The first is a means; the second, an end. But they can be easily confused. And frequently are. When directives become ends in themselves, we lose our way in the dark.
Please take out the directions and read them again.
Laurence Musgrove is a professor and chair of English at Angelo State University, in San Angelo, Texas, where he teaches composition, literature, creative writing, graphic narrative, and visual thinking. His work has previously appeared in Inside Higher Ed, Southern Indiana Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Concho River Review and Journal for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. He blogs at www.theillustratedprofessor.com.
Last Friday, I attended a meeting of progressive faculty and also started reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. In raving about the book to friends, I keep calling it Waiting for the Goon Squad by accident, apparently mixing it up with Waiting for Godot and with my identity as a progressive faculty member always waiting for the goon squad to show up -- the goon squad being that vague and shadowy watching cloud that we fear may out us as real people.
The meeting itself wandered into a conversation about our online identities. Someone mentioned the recent case of the provost candidate at Kennesaw State University who was driven away from the job he had accepted by the local paper in Marietta, Georgia — about four hours’ drive northwest from where we were meeting in Statesboro, Georgia. The candidate didn’t out himself as a Marxist on Facebook; he merely cited a source, and the criticism of blacklisting someone based on a cited scholarly source has been well covered elsewhere. But this surveillance of our scholarship quickly and inevitably descended, in our case, into faculty fears that if we let anything slip about ourselves in a public forum in Georgia or elsewhere, someone might see us for who we really are.
In other faculty meetings and professional gatherings, I’ve heard a sort of competitive edge to the fear-driven conversations about what we post and whom we friend online. We have rules: no students; only students who have graduated; maintain two profiles; keep it utterly neutral. Since I began my career in higher education, I’ve learned that faculty members who survive — like other employees in the corporate world and its wannabe stepchildren — are those who embody a poker-faced restraint. This is why I assumed I wouldn’t last long. My poker face is more of a bingo face. And it’s assumed among faculty in general that anything can and will be used against us in a future Horowitz-driven witch hunt or a future round of budget cuts that accidentally happens to target outspoken faculty members.
This larger theme of fear of the cloud ties in nicely with Egan’s book. The "goon squad" in her book could be time itself, or it could be taken to be the cloud of consumer data and its market-driven aims of manipulation. One of the inadvertent heroes of the book — who ends up a superstar by giving in to the cloud — kept himself pure by remaining completely offline. Egan’s super-smart book may be saying that this idle hope is not the way to safety, or she may be saying something else. Her version of electronic communication is sales- and surveillance-oriented, and she’s got fantastic points.
But my version of the cloud also includes the strange and meandering civic functions the cloud provides. People do still occasionally hook up with political causes and learn about social issues through the Internet. And there are people like me — untenured and naked — who occasionally nevertheless post something about their political thoughts or personal experiences online.
In my own case, I have to admit this is driven by the contrarian streak that made me a memoirist. I like telling things that other people seem to feel are embarrassing. I don’t like secrets — they make me edgy; they make me clench my teeth and get depressed. And most of what I believe and have done is already out there in paper form, so I’m done for no matter what goon squad shows up.
I have never eaten a baby or knocked down an elderly person, but I have several things in my life that are bothersome and that I will not write about. Being "open" does not equate to having no discretion, shame, or concern for other people. I have pretty much the same filter wherever I go, and I like to believe that my online person roughly matches what I would say to you face to face. That’s my goal: to make the two identities match up.
Even on Facebook, I friend lots of people. I post links to articles that interest me. This doesn’t mean that I live a particularly fascinating or racy life, or that I post pictures of myself drinking with my students. That’s an image of someone who doesn’t care about their position as an adult working with young people.
Anyway, I don’t have those pictures to post. And I want to be a good role model. Often, I fail — just like every other adult. But I think being "out there" online is part of being a good role model. I want to suggest an alternative to the cautionary, circumspect, and reactive common faculty response to our own personalities. What if being ourselves online is part of our civic responsibility?
In other words, if we only put the neutral stuff online, our students see us as people who are interested in coffee, walks in the park, and the occasional splurge at a bookstore, and nothing else. Maybe we let slip what music we like, as long as it's not the Dead Kennedys or Ani DiFranco. In that version of our online selves, the "goon squad" of Egan's novel wins. The orientation toward private and consumer concerns is what is left when we strip away anything that might be used against us down the road. Either students see us as cowed and impersonal, or they can’t find us at all online, and they lose an opportunity to see what it’s like to live an adult life as one particular person who happens to care about civic issues.
There are two responses to the fear of online surveillance. One is to manage your data so carefully that when they come for the Marx-reading or Marx-citing, they can’t find you.
And then when they come for the Friere-citing, you’re nowhere to be found. The other response is for everyone to say, "I’m Spartacus," to "like" Spartacus on Facebook if you like him in real life, and to push back against the tactic of combing someone’s online identity to search for the objectionable material by being a bit more human online. If we try to compete against each other in a race to the bottom, the winners are those that succeed in being completely impersonal and private and apolitical, focusing on their own private square of safety (with a window) as the world goes to hell.
As wild as your personal beliefs are, we really only have one public sphere, and the Internet is part of it. Engaging in public conversation does mean ultimately that you will be searchable, and that’s important, because public conversations always involve risk, but these small risks are what change the world and what support other people to take larger risks and be themselves.
At least if you’re a professor concerned about your rating on RateMyProfessors.com. James Felton, a professor of finance and law at Central Michigan University, and colleagues looked at ratings for nearly 7,000 faculty members from 370 institutions in the United States and Canada, and his verdict is: the hotter and easier professors are, the more likely they’ll get rated as a good teacher.