ISU administration showing complete disregard for facultyAppeared in the Idaho State Journal 10/18/2009
By Leonard Hitchcock
Idaho State University Provost Gary Olson now writes a regular column for the ISJ. In his columns, he has told us much about research activities in various academic departments. What Dr. Olson has not yet told us — though he could — is why there’s such trouble at the university.
The public is now aware of a series of incidents in which the ISU administration has taken actions that were clumsy, ill-advised and often embarrassing to the institution. It dismissed several long-time employees in the Idaho Museum of Natural History without good cause, and restructured that institution in such a way that it’s now unclear whether or not it will be able to carry out its official mission. It half-heartedly went through the motions of consulting with faculty about a new workload policy, then enacted its own very different policy, without seeking the faculty’s consent. It dismissed a physics professor from his department chair post, alleging that he had put the university in legal danger, when there is clear evidence that he had consulted with the administration and been given a go-ahead for his actions. It is now attempting to fire an engineering professor because he was insufficiently deferential when criticizing administrative actions and policies, and has actually barred him from campus. It has imposed upon the university a development plan that emphasizes research and threatens to degrade the instructional excellence that has distinguished ISU among its peers.
Incidents such as these, taken individually, might be written off as no more than typical managerial mistakes, of the kind that employees in any bureaucracy are well acquainted with. But in this case, there is more going on. A public university is a peculiar institution. Its core work force is made up of professionals (the faculty). In that respect it’s a bit like a hospital. But it’s also like a corporation in that its management has final authority regarding most policy and operational matters. In the world of academia, the tradition is that universities engage in what’s called “shared governance.” That means that there is a division of authority within the institution: Roughly speaking, things that have to do with the academic functions of the university, e.g. teaching, research, scheduling classes, hiring and evaluating faculty, are under the control of the faculty, whereas things having to do with the “business” side of the operation, e.g. facilities, maintenance, finances, student services, etc. are controlled by the administration.
Shared governance gives the faculty an important role in decision-making, and that’s as it should be. They, and they alone, provide the services that are the raison d’être of the university. They alone possess the subject knowledge and the teaching and research skills that bring clients to the institution. They alone interact with that clientele on a daily basis. Hence, just as patients’ interests are better served when physicians participate in administrative decision-making in hospitals, so students are benefited when their professors have a role in governing the university.
It must be recognized, however, that throughout the history of higher education there has been hostility between faculties and administrations. That is in large part because a university administration, like any managerial body, believes implicitly in its own wisdom, and would prefer to operate without interference from its employees. To counteract this inclination, and make shared governance possible, there must be rules that create a balance of power between the administration and the faculty. That’s why faculty have traditionally been given certain rights, most importantly tenure and “academic freedom,” and mechanisms by which they are assured of participation in university governance, such as, in ISU’s case, a faculty senate.
But such measures are often insufficient. The intrinsic power of an administration is so great that, ultimately, shared governance will exist only if the administration wants it to. At ISU, that does not seem to be the case. Over the past six months, this administration has significantly eroded faculty authority and expanded its own control of the institution. To do so, it has threatened the careers of critics, used its power over finances, including salaries, to intimidate faculty, and turned department chairpersons, who are meant to be mediators between faculty and administration, into agents of the administration. It has largely ignored the Faculty Senate’s official channel for policy input, the Faculty Senate Advisory Council, and created an alternative consultative group, the Provost’s Advisory Council, with a faculty membership chosen by the administration. And it has instituted oversight processes, financial and editorial, that have unnecessarily restricted the independence of departments and other units on campus.
The financial difficulties facing higher education in Idaho have been used to both justify and conceal the expansion of administrative power. The State Board of Education recently backed away from proposals purportedly addressing those difficulties that would have empowered administrations to abrogate faculty contracts even when no official “financial exigency” had been declared. But it didn’t reject expanding administrative authority in principle; it merely said that the proposals “needed work” (ISJ, 10/14/09). In other words, the faculty have dodged one bullet. That doesn’t mean the fight is over.
(Reprinted with the permission of the author)