Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Why Faculty Governance? (Teresa Sullivan and U.Va. Redux)

    On Thursday, the American Association of University Professors, a national faculty union, released its report on last summer's debacle at the University of Virginia, where, if you recall, the Board of Visitors fired the UVa's President, Teresa A. Sullivan, only two years into Sullivan's term, without even holding a meeting about the firing first. After a major outcry from faculty, alumni, students, and donors, three metric tons of bad press for the University, and serious egg on the faces of the Board and its Rector, Helen Dragas, Sullivan got her job back.

    It's never been clear what Dragas and the Board were thinking, and the team who wrote the report concludes that, after much careful study and hours of personal interviews, they have no idea what Dragas and the Board could have been thinking:

    The breakdown in governance at the University of Virginia documented here was only partly a result of structural failure; indeed, the board ignored its own recently adopted guidelines on presidential evaluation. In much greater measure it was a failure by those charged with institutional oversight to understand the institution over which they presided and to engage with the administration and the faculty in an effort to be well informed. It was a failure of judgment and, alas, of common sense.

    Even so, Dragas and company have defenders. After all, such people say, doesn't the Board have the right to fire whoever it wants, for whatever reason? Why should the faculty think they have a say?

    Because no one knows enough to govern a modern university on their own. Not the trustees. Not the administration. Not the faculty. Nobody. No one person or group is actually capable of understanding the whole enterprise. That's not metaphor or metaphysics. I'm talking about adequate minimal comprehension.

    Since no one has a grasp on the whole picture, universities have evolved a system called shared governance, which involves multiple parties collaborating and filling different management roles. Part of this involves faculty governance, which means letting the faculty, as a group, take the lead in decisions about the actual educational nuts and bolts. This is not something that should be done because it's a tradition, or because it's been done this way before. This is something that needs to be done to keep the university working well on a practical, day-to-day level.

    The academic side of the university is dedicated to specialized knowledge, in dozens of separate branches. And the level of specialized expertise involved in teaching these subjects (not to mention in conducting original research) is so high that it takes another expert to evaluate whether it's done being properly or not. I don't mean that professors are smarter than other people, or above being judged by them. I mean that even a professor in one field is out of her or his depth when dealing with another field. I am a professor. I have no idea what should be going on in the chemistry department, or the economics department, or the sociology department, except that those departments should be teaching chemistry, sociology, and economics. What that means, exactly, I have to leave to my colleagues in those departments.

    And when I say "don't know enough," I mean don't know enough on a practical, nuts and bolts level. I'm not talking about lacking some subtle philosophical appreciation for the subject matter. I'm talking about not knowing how subjects other than my own should be taught, or even knowing how to tell if they're being taught well or poorly. How much chemistry should students learn in each course? How many courses do they need? In what order? Which courses should be required for every single chemistry major, and which should be electives? Beats me. All I know is that our students should learn at least as much as students learn at other places and that nothing should explode.

    Could I learn enough about chemistry to know how a good degree program is structured? Yes, but it would take me about ten years, and at the end of that time I would be a trained professional chemist. Same thing for sociology, economics, engineering, philosophy, and every other field that the university teaches. So neither I nor anybody else is ever going to know enough to really know what's going on in more than one or maybe two departments.

    I also don't know enough to evaluate a job candidate in any field but my own. If I go over to the History or Philosophy Department, neither so far from my own, and listen to a job applicant give a talk about her research, I'm going to be able to follow the content of the talk. But I'm not going to be able to tell if the speaker is doing something really new or recycling someone else's ideas from ten years back. I'm not going to be able to know if their methods are cutting-edge or square, reliable or unsound. I'm going to have to rely on experts.

    Does this mean that you just let every department in a university do whatever it wants? No. Of course not. It does mean that you let them take the lead in making the decisions that require their specific expertise. You need them, most of all, to take the lead in decisions about curriculum and learning outcomes, because they know a particular set of things that you don't. You don't free them from all oversight; the faculty-committee system, which is often criticized as unwieldy, is basically a way to try to subordinate individual faculty agendas to wider professional norms. (I don't get to decide that classes I happen to want to teach should be required. A committee that I sometimes serve on works out what courses the students need.) And you keep your faculty honest by consulting with faculty from outside your own university, through peer review, periodic department review by visitors, regional and national accrediting agencies.

    Should faculty decide everything? My answer, as a faculty member myself, is: obviously not. There does need to be a set of full-time administrators, who take the lead in questions of scheduling, budget allocation, and so on. There also needs to be an outside board of trustees charged with the overall health, particularly the fiscal health, of the university. (These boards evolved first at private universities as overseers of the university's endowment. At Virginia, they're essentially a bunch of political donors to the state governor.) In a healthy university, these three groups (faculty, administration, and board) each take the lead in their own natural sphere, each listen to the others, and each solicit input from other groups, especially students and alumni.

    When one group starts to take over another's proper tasks, the place starts to run badly. For example, if the administration runs wild without the board noticing, they start to run up excessive debt for things like building projects, or to spend too much of the annual return from endowment funds. If the board micromanages the administration, suddenly nothing gets done.

    And when faculty governance breaks down, and the administration or board begins to ignore the faculty's advice about things the faculty knows, the bad results don't become visible outside the university right away. But by the time those mistakes become apparent to everybody, they take years to undo. Managers who ignore faculty input can make serious personnel mistakes; one common example is attempting to identify "star" faculty but picking the wrong stars, overpaying people whose careers never really pan out and driving away other people who become very successful somewhere else. By the time you notice you've done that, it's too late. Professor Kind-of-a-Big-Deal has already locked in a salary well over his market value and the Star-Who-Got-Away isn't coming back. That's simply bad management. But much worse are the mistakes that affect the students.

    If a university neglects, or worse overrides, its faculty's advice about how to teach their subjects, the students don't get taught as well. You won't notice it in this year's graduating seniors; most of their education is already finished. But over a few years you start to see more students struggling in their advanced classes, either because the lower-level classes no longer fully prepare them or because the way the major is organized no longer builds the skills they need. That turns into higher failure rates, lower graduation rates, and longer time-to-degree. A really top-down administration can paper over the problem by forcing lower standards and more grade inflation. But graduating ill-prepared students is the worst thing any college can do, either for the students or itself. If you're turning out too many chemistry BSs who can't hack a graduate program in chemistry, or too many English BAs who flunk the state teacher-licensing test, or too many graduates that employers regret hiring, your school will get a reputation that hurts all of your graduates, talented or not.

    And by the time that happens, it takes at least ten years to fix. Your graduating seniors have already been educated in your broken system; even if you fixed that system in a single day (and you can't), the first students to get the full benefit will be the ones who start next year. And you have to count on it taking at least five years for people to start noticing that you're turning out better-prepared alumni; bad reputations are hard to overcome. The only efficient way to fix a major curricular mistake is not to make that mistake in the first place. And the only reliable way to avoid such mistakes is to listen to the advice of people who teach these subjects for a living. Faculty governance isn't a professional perk. It's indispensable professional advice.

    At Virginia, things degenerated to the point where Dragas, a short-term political appointee, was trying to micromanage what got taught in freshman comp. That isn't wrong because it's a violation of academic tradition. It's wrong because it's a violation of common sense. Dragas was ignoring the people who actually oversee freshman comp and enforce appropriate standards as part of their job, and Dragas herself has no idea how to teach that subject. If you're on the Board of Trustees for a hospital, you don't walk into the operating room and start telling the surgeons where to cut. If you're on the board of a computer hardware company, you don't go into the engineers' workspace and tell them to change the motherboard design. If you did, you could not expect good results. The same bad results emerge when a university ignores its faculty's professional advice. It just takes longer to see the bleeding.


    This is well and eloquently put, and for the most part I agree.  However, I do not agree with the automatic yielding of authority over a field to its practitioners: there does need to be outside oversight.  I have seen several schools where Iranian donors are funding Persian studies programs, sometimes to good effect, but sometimes to push given ideologies at the expense of scholarly rigor.  Composition and rhetoric departments can become some immersed in their own theories of classroom equity that their definition of success in teaching writing veers wildly from the institution's, a point they are clearer on in their scholarship than in their appeals to the administration for more faculty lines.  There can be ideological or cultural divides in history or foreign language departments based on language and region that are best moderated by outsiders.  In other words, I do think it is essential to force experts in a field to justify themselves and their endeavors to people outside the field -- but equally, as your post proves, it is essential for those outside the field to listen to those within it.


    Thanks for your comment. I agree that there should not be an "automatic yielding of authority" to practitioners, or that the faculty should have sole or unchallenged authority. I think I took pains to make that clear. This is why I said that faculty should take the lead on the subjects they know best, not that they should decide. Shared governance works best when each party takes a leading role in its proper sphere but also listens to the other parties.

    And both of the specific examples you give are classic examples of places where faculty governance does work. In the first-year writing example, programs do have to be reviewed by wider faculty governance bodies, and make sure that what they're teaching students fits with the wider faculty curriculum. If first-year writing isn't giving students the skills they need to write papers for other classes, it's typical for other faculty bodies to step in. But there again it is about knowing professional norms and knowing what's actually happening in the university's classrooms.

    As for the Iranian donors: faculty governance exists especially to resist such inappropriate pressures by donors or other financial sponsors. In fact, our modern faculty governance system partly evolved to resist exactly these pressures. (Endowing a chair in the History department does not allow the donor to decide what history says.) And for donors to be involved with decisions about what gets taught, or decisions about who gets hired to teach, is a gross violation of appropriate faculty governance.

    And yet Dragas kept her position after all. She spent big UVA bucks on an advertising firm to manage the crisis once it began.  She kept her position -- she still has power, but her reputation is very stained.  There are very few people here in C'Ville who would cross the street to help her if she fell on the sidewalk. 

    Well, I can't advise you what to do if that happens. You'll have to use your own judgment.

    Although she got reappointed and re-elected, she won't be around five or six years from now. Terms for Rectors and for board members at UVa are pretty short.

    Nonsense. There are several of us in C'ville with bad enough eyesight that we'd have to cross the street before we could figure out that it was her. wink

    This post is a very timely one for me, personally, though I know it's prompted by many other things. My university president is meeting with the faculty tomorrow, less than a week after I went to a couple meetings and became totally demoralized by faculty governance as it exists at my institution. I don't know how things got the way they are, but it seems pretty likely that there are administrators leading all the faculty committees and driving the agenda. Faculty governance only really works where there aren't outcomes expected from on high. 

    I can never tell how bad my institution is compared to others, of course...a few years back we were on one of those Chronicle "Best Places to Work" lists, with faculty governance and clarity of tenure process cited as particular virtues. 

    Thanks for the comment, E_H. It's certainly true that there's pressure on faculty governance at many schools, and a more top-down managerial style is in vogue.

    The more cunning administrators try to preserve the appearance of faculty governance while turning it into a rubber stamp, as one of your recent blog posts put it. But

    That looks like a great success on administrators' vitas, with lots of their little bullet-point achievements. The proof of course is in the pudding, and since administrators only average five or so years in each job, they're long gone years before anyone notices the pudding is inedible.


    This post is a very timely one for me, personally, though I know it's prompted by many other things. My university president is meeting with the faculty tomorrow, less than a week after I went to a couple meetings and became totally demoralized by faculty governance as it exists at my institution. I don't know how things got the way they are, but it seems pretty likely that there are administrators leading all the faculty committees and driving the agenda. Faculty governance only really works where there aren't outcomes expected from on high. 

    I can never tell how bad my institution is compared to others, of course...a few years back we were on one of those Chronicle "Best Places to Work" lists, with faculty governance and clarity of tenure process cited as particular virtues. 

    Latest Comments