Current Issues

Governance as hindrance and solution

Posted on June 23, 2009

I was in DC yesterday for a one-day think tank discussion on “thinking big in a crisis,” an event I mentioned in an earlier post.   One question asked of each of us was: “What has been the biggest hurdle to driving change and what has been the biggest assist in overcoming that hurdle?”

As was reported in today’s Chronicle (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/06/23/crisis) , my answer to both was “Faculty governance.”

In the ecology of academia, faculty culture and governance is almost always the slowest to embrace change (Question: How many faculty members does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: Change that light bulb?  But we’ve always had that light bulb!”).  This isn’t because of any shortcoming in the faculty.  Faculty members are trained to carefully think through serious questions, to look at issue from all vantage points, to ask hard questions, and to take language seriously.  In a world where ideas matter, new ideas demand careful scrutiny.

In a post-modern world we are not as comfortable with Truth in a capital “T” sense of the word, but nevertheless, faculties have in many ways the charge to hold onto essential truths and to let go of them or change them only with great care and usually through consensus.  So faculty culture and governance moves more slowly and it’s not a good thing or a bad thing — it just is.  Thus my answer to the first question.

On the other hand, those very same qualities force us to think through change and what we produce.  The Chronicle article only mentioned one part of my answer, the idea of finding champions within the faculty.   My more complete response was to describe the work we have been doing to address capacity and expand non-traditional programs.  I shared that there had been many questions and challenges to what we have underway and hours of conversation with various faculty groups and that the result is we are emerging from those conversations with a better plan.

Slow doesn’t always mean better, but in work of this complexity the process of slowing down and talking through the issues has definitely meant a better outcome.  At the highest level, we want to compete head to head with the for-profits in terms of operations, but the second half of the equation I always emphasize is our goal of continuing to offer far better quality.  The ongoing conversation with faculty is an important part of attaining the goal.

As I’ve said at a number of meetings, I need and want the faculty’s support for what we are trying to accomplish.  With rare exception, my sense of the faculty is that they want to be supportive and will be if we can demonstrate to them the ways we will ensure quality and honor their stewardship role of the curriculum.

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