Saturday, November 04, 2006

What Now, Gallaudet (part I)?

Jane FernandesThis week, the trustees of the nation’s top university for the deaf, Gallaudet University, capitulated to a weeks-long, vociferous protest by faculty, students, alumni (and others not directly affiliated with the university) regarding the hiring of Jane Fernandes as Gallaudet’s next president. Mind you, Dr. Fernandes had not yet taken office as president. These protests were in anticipation of her taking office. They were, in effect, a preemptory protest.

Depending on which faction you favor, either Dr. Fernandes failed to respect the special culture of those who grew up speaking sign language or she was victimized for endorsing a diversity of methods for deaf communication, including lip-reading and cochlear implants. A third account, published in an op-ed in the New York Times, suggested that protesters were upset about the selection process that Gallaudet used to choose Dr. Fernandes. We’ll never get to know what Dr. Fernandes would have done in her role as Gallaudet’s president, because Gallaudet’s trustees decided that her presidency would never be given a fair chance for success. True enough. Dr. Fernandes didn’t even get to enjoy a minute’s worth of a honeymoon period, and the trustees wisely decided that the presidential search needed to start from scratch.

But what does this mean for the next president of Gallaudet or for presidents of other universities? How likely is it that Gallaudet’s trustees are going to find someone who will be brave enough serve as the president of such a contentious institution, especially after the protesters have learned that, if they scream long enough and hard enough, they’ll win?

I have my suspicions about the motives of some of the protesters. It’s possible that not all of the protesters were concerned about the appropriate educational philosophy for a university that serves the deaf. Many of the protesters pointed out that Dr. Fernandes was not a popular provost at Gallaudet. Provosts, like all university leaders, make enemies: sometimes because they’re inept, and sometimes because they’re malicious. But sometimes provosts (and presidents) make enemies because they’re pushing for change at their institutions, and those who don’t want those changes push back—hard.

Universities don’t run the way that businesses do. Although universities have nominal hierarchies in place—the president and provost are responsible for the university as a whole, deans are responsible for their colleges and schools, and department heads are responsible for their departments—those hierarchies aren’t true hierarchies. Universities are run by a system of shared governance, with the faculty having significant power in making certain core decisions.

Here’s an abbreviated version of shared governance: it’s designed to make sure that those with responsibility for carrying out certain functions have the opportunity to set the policy for those functions. Therefore, the faculty of a university sets the direction for its curriculum, chooses what characteristics it wants to see in its admitted students, and establishes the criteria for faculty hiring, promotion and tenure, and post-tenure review. The administration of a university or of its academic units is supposed to facilitate the faculty’s decisions and ensure that actions on behalf of the faculty’s policies are carried out with the appropriate due process. The trustees of a university, then, are supposed to look at the university’s policies and goals from a bird's-eye view and set the general direction—but not to micromanage the institution or its leaders. Shared governance asks the administration and faculty to invest in the long-term success of the university by taking an active role in running it.

In part II (tomorrow), I’ll posit a theory of why the protests at Gallaudet worked so well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have questions, not comments.

As you're thinking about the issues of shared governance in a universities, it would be helpful to know why certain constituencies within a university should be able to set certain policies. For example, why should faculty set policies related to tenure and curriculum? Why should administrators set policies related to budgetary issues? If the answers relate to the quality of the decisions, why do we think one constituency will make it a better decision than the other? What does it mean for the decision to be "better?"

11/04/2006 12:59 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Bob, you raise very important questions about shared governance. I used to assume that shared governance was a "given" at universities, and I tried to spend some time thinking about how to improve it. But now I'm not as sure....

To answer your questions, though, here's a first take: if we want to be skeptical about the good faith of the various actors (and we probably should, on the basis that we should have governance that survives bad-faith actors), then let's assume that we have an administrator who has never been an academic in charge of an academic unit. Let's also assume that the administrator has done some managerial tasks in his prior job, including some HR and some budgeting experience.

Teaching is a lot harder than it looks to the outside world, and I'd want some checks and balances on an adminstrator's ability to say, e.g., "I like measurable outcomes, so I'm setting the standard for tenure at 3 articles of at least 50 pages each. Once the professor has written three such articles, she gets tenure." I'd want some nuance on the articles requirement, including some measure of the articles' quality as well as quantity.

On the other hand, a smart non-academic administrator could set a quality component by requiring external reviews as well. So maybe tenure isn't a slam-dunk for faculty-side governance. My INSTINCT says that it is, but I don't have a completely comfortable theory for why (yet).

Curriculum's even harder. I often worry that the faculty doesn't spend time listening to what lawyers say is missing from the curriculum. Unless some senior members of the faculty spend time thinking about the changes in the practice of law, or the intersection of the study of law with the study of related fields (like business), perhaps there's no definitive reason for having curriculum vested in the faculty.

Re administrative areas such as budget, I think that the issue is more one of who has the time to spend thinking about all of the interrelated issues that the budget affects than it is about expertise. Administration is challenging (that's why I did it for so long), but it's not rocket science--after all, most associate deans and directors had to learn this stuff when they took on their administrative roles. So if a professor wanted to spend time thinking about all of the things that "budget" and "HR" affect, there's nothing in shared governance that prohibits the professor from taking on the role.

Maybe shared governance really is more about devoting time to the study of something related to governance than it is about which constituency has an automatically better perspective on an issue. Administration takes an enormous amount of time, when it's done right. So does teaching. So does research. It's really, really difficult keeping up to date on everything. (At least that's my excuse for why I taught less and wrote shorter--and maybe less good--articles when I was a dean.)

Looking forward to more discussion about this issue....

11/04/2006 8:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

And I wish I could've edited the comment above, but I can't, so sorry for the fact that it's a bit disjointed. For example, I meant to add to the paragraph beginning "Teaching is a lot harder" a line about research. Ah, well....

11/04/2006 8:17 PM  

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