Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Academic Myths and the Presidents Who Perpetuate Them

A Call for Real Shared Governance

[Twitter: added later in the day:

wbgleason RT @presidentgee Met today with faculty leaders. They are true partners—-visionary teachers and scholars. }Pres Bruininks? #UMN #Minnesota

At least one BigTen president gets it...]

From the Chronicle

(by Steven Bahls, President of Augustana College, Rock Island)

As president of Augustana College, I live in two worlds: that of higher education, and that of the "outside world" beyond campus borders. For decades I have listened to alumni, parents, local residents, and even complete strangers express their opinions about academe—often while reciting certain derogatory myths regarding college professors. On occasion, I even hear my presidential colleagues doing the same. Popular complaints include:

Managing professors is like herding cats.

When it comes to making tough decisions, faculty members want merely to be asked to be included in the process, but have no desire to actually participate.

There's really only one way to work with the faculty: Find the path of least resistance and proceed accordingly.

Faculty members are professional contrarians, and the academy rewards them for it by giving them tenure.

When you finally give in to the contrarians, they can't take "yes" for an answer.
Such myths are as dangerous as they are demeaning, as caustic as they are comical, and can be as incendiary as they are inaccurate. The worst of them may be the notion that faculty members are irrepressible contrarians: Not only is that view disparaging, but it ignores the time-tested benefits of shared faculty governance, an essential institution at today's colleges and universities that is badly misunderstood by the outside world.
Professors must be empowered to participate in and shape the outcomes of policies, procedures, and long-term decisions, for a very pragmatic reason: Faculty members often are the ones who have to carry them out.
When institutions fail, it is often because they have strayed from their values. Think of the financial institutions that have failed recently because they strayed from their traditional role of sound stewardship to one of reckless speculation. What if AIG had had a few more contrarians in the governance process?
It is our tenured faculty members, most of whom have made life-long commitments to our institutions, who are the first to remind us of those institutions' values. It is those values that sustain our commitment to quality in good times and bad. Because shared governance in the academy has historically led to thoughtful decisions consistent with long-held institutional values, our colleges and universities are among the oldest institutions in the nation.

And the economic downturn has made our focus on faculty governance all the more important,
as the traditional domains of their responsibility include faculty salary policies, involvement in academic budgeting, and strategic planning. For that reason faculty members have a place at the table when difficult topics arise. We aren't bringing the opinions of professional contrarians into the fold; we are bringing our best minds and strongest resources to bear in our decision making during the most challenging time for higher education since World War II.
Presidents and board chairs must work aggressively with board members to better communicate just how important faculty members are to their work in governance. We must motivate and engage our faculty members—not simply manage them—in our strategic-planning processes. Trustees can affirm the value of professors through their actions in the boardroom and through the policies they establish on their campuses.

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