Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fun With Academic Politics: The Kabuki Theater of Faculty No-Confidence Votes

As I have been reading the headlines of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, I've been noticing a lot of faculty no-confidence votes directed at university presidents in the last year or so. I started to wonder whether or not this might be a trend, or at least an increase. Sure enough, Inside Higher Ed has published an article on the subject confirming the trendiness of the no-confidence vote.

The article points out that these votes have little impact. That's not surprising; it's hard to find cases where a no-confidence vote, in and of itself, has had significant impact. It is just what the name implies: a statement that a faculty (or, as the article above points out, part of the faculty) don't have confidence in the leadership of a particular president. Given that presidents are hired and fired by governing boards, on its face this doesn't really matter much.

While there are occasions when such a vote contributes to a presidential firing - some credit the 2005 vote by the Harvard faculty for helping to oust Larry Summers - cases of "success" usually come at the end of a string of problems in which support for the president has already eroded among multiple constituents. If the faculty don't like the president but everybody else (students, trustees, alumni, donors) does, the faculty just look petulant in picking on someone whom everyone else thinks is swell.

This is true in large part because a no-confidence vote, while a great way to get headlines, is an extremely blunt instrument. It doesn't signify a willingness to talk, and it often doesn't do a very good job of explaining what the problem is to non-academics. Yet a no-confidence vote is, like any other attempt to influence organizational outcomes, a political act. And faculty, by and large, don't understand politics very well (even, in my experience, political scientists).

Good political analysis starts with understanding the goal (get the president fired? change certain policy decisions? alter the process to have more input?), the players (administration, trustees, students, alumni, donors, others), and who controls or influences what (who's got what power). The truth is that, on many matters, faculty are often largely powerless unless they can develop what Joseph Nye called "soft power" - the ability to influence and persuade without carrots and sticks. If you don't have much power yourself, you need to figure out who does and how to convince them to use their power in the service of your goals.

This is Politics 101, but too often faculty and administrators both ignore it. Faculty do wield tremendous power over some things, especially the curriculum and its delivery - which is the basic "product" of the university. No administration will get much done if the faculty simply refuse to cooperate on building new programs or expanding existing ones. Yet faculty rarely create issue linkages that would exploit that power.

It would be optimistic, but probably wrong, to suspect that faculties will learn to stop doing something that is mostly useless emotional catharsis. But smart faculty leaders would do well to apply the analytical skills we learn in our disciplines to this particular problem, and figure out better ways to influence their universities than holding no-confidence votes.

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