Penn State: Shared Governance Only When Faculty Comply

Larry Backer is a named law professor at Penn State and a former chair of the Faculty Senate. These credentials matter, because when he attacks the faux system of shared governance at Penn State, as he does in this blog post, it might get taken seriously.

The piece is a long discussion of a recent issue in which the administration rejected Faculty Senate recommendations. It’s a well-sourced piece, with links to many important pieces about the failures of Faculty Governance, and I recommend you read it. Here are a few quotes worth highlighting:

The administration had taken the decisions it announced at the meeting well beforehand, and had taken the time to craft a carefully constructed explanation, neither the decision nor a copy of the remarks were made available to Senate leadership before thew [sic] actual presentation.

That’s faux-shared-governance. It’s announced at the Faculty Senate, but decided in closed meetings long before. The Senate becomes a place where decisions are read at Faculty.

The role of the Senate appears increasingly to receive information rather than engage with it in the context of policy making (discussed here).

This is not shared governance, but the Faculty senate as a human email list, where memos are distributed.

Shared governance increasingly appears to mean the forms through which selected faculty chosen for their technical proficiency or other attributes, are appointed to committees directed by and for the attainment of administrative objectives. Short comment opportunities may be afforded the institutional voice of the faculty, but the understanding is that the policy has been chosen and only technical corrections will be entertained. Policy is beyond the reach of the faculty (Discussed here).

This is my concern about the task-force model that my university is increasingly using. It frequently involves un-elected faculty being appointed to consider important things (for no compensation/time off). It’s a model that dodges shared governance. At Penn State, a “large and complex” institution, these issues are even more acute. Talented faculty – and PSU has lots of them – are plucked out to run various things or lend their expertise, but there’s no real governance.

And speaking of “large and complex…”

The phrase “this is a large and complex institution” is not meant as a description of an institution, it is meant as a barrier to effective engagement. Administration is now the domain of specialists who, through their intense and superior knowledge, have become the high priests of the cult religion of university operation.

Nothing to add here. Or here [his emphasis]:

Policy is for the administrative apparatus–for the faculty there is only an opportunity to engage in technical review. The mechanics of power nicely masks its objective–to produce an optics of complicity in policy formation stripped of any authority to actually contribute to policy.

Finally, on a note of non-optimism:

 Penn State, of course, is neither exceptional nor notable for these changes.  It represents merely one illustration of a much more profound development in the organization and operation of academic institutions….It is unlikely that, except at the margins, the process is either reversible or likely to change course.  

It is important, I think, to recognize the lack of shared governance lying behind overt principles of shared governance, to call them out for what they are, and to try to work at the margins as best as one can.


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