Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Quick Note on Shared Governance & Cost in Higher Ed

This morning's Chronicle report will, I have no doubt, generate a lot of talk in higher ed circles for a while. The report centers around a working paper by a couple of economists who wanted to look at the impact of the ratio between administrators and faculty on the cost of running a university. Briefly, does having too many administrators drive up the cost of higher ed?

The short answer, according to the paper, is "yes". You can download the paper yourself here; I have, but I haven't read it yet, so I'll refrain from commenting on it until I've read it in detail. The headline claim of an optimal 3:1 (faculty:administrators) ratio is an interesting one, but I'll have to read the analysis to see if it makes sense.

One thing did strike me, however, especially in light of a conversation I had with a faculty colleague about staffing faculty committees. One of the standard conclusions that arguments like this draw is that universities need more "shared governance" - that is, more faculty say in priorities and how resources are spent. As a friend of mine put it, faculty don't hire administrators, administrators hire faculty - which is why we have too many administrators and not enough faculty.

I'm all for more shared governance. I think faculty should have a significant say in how universities are run and what they do with their resources - although in my experience many faculty, even when given the opportunity, decline to participate. Not for nothing is "Service" considered the least interesting part of the standard Teaching/Research/Service promotion & tenure triad - a great many faculty will avoid as much of it as they can.

But here's where things get interesting. If the answer is shared governance, what stands in the way of that? Some administrations certainly do resist sharing power, it's true - but not all. A colleague of mine pointed out that part of the problem may be faculty themselves - in particular, the politics within faculty of different ranks.

In the standard tenure-and-promotion system, assistant professors aspire to tenure & promotion while associates aspire to promotion to full. These processes invariably run through committees of other faculty of higher rank - meaning that faculty on the lower and middle rungs must be careful about what service they take on and how they perform it, lest they annoy or anger some higher-ranking colleague who may one day sit in judgment of their dossier. Only full professors really have the run of the place, because there's not much danger that any of their colleagues will derail their careers.

My colleague and I were discussing staffing committees for program review, but the logic holds for pretty much any committee of significant service. If it's dangerous to put junior and mid-level faculty on committees that might pass judgment on other programs, it is surely equally as dangerous to put them on committees that make decisions about budgets and resource allocations.

So herein lies the rub. We hear lots of cries of "more shared governance!" But if I am not yet a full professor, what is to guarantee that if I participate in that shared governance process I won't tick off some more senior faculty somewhere in ways that come back to bite me? As Sayre's Law reminds us, academic politics are bitter precisely because the stakes are so low.

I don't know that there's an easy solution to this. But I do know that the standard "blame the administration/stick it to the man" narrative that many faculty cling proudly to doesn't tell the whole story. The tenure and promotion system creates a lot of incentive for faculty to avoid precisely the kinds of difficult conversations that real shared governance demands. There aren't nearly enough full professors to carry the load by themselves. If you want better shared governance, therefore, look for ways to protect the faculty willing to give it a try - or else most of them will not.

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