Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Good Faculty Governance: The Power of the Policy Wonk

My last blog post, "In Defense of the Dark Side," set off a lot of good conversation among friends across academia. One common refrain: there are indeed terrible administrators who make poor (usually unilateral) decisions that have seriously bad consequences for the faculty, and (more importantly) for the universities where they work and the students they serve.

This led to other side conversations about the selection processes that go into picking administrators, the benefits of "cross-cultural marriages" (faculty married to administrators), and other such things. This is what happens when you get a lot of well-educated people talking about stuff they care about.

One question that occurred to me as I read through the various threads: given the common occurrence of "bad administration", what can faculty do about it? "Shared governance" is supposed to provide a bulwark against excesses of power, but it often doesn't. Besides complaining (or snarking) on the internet, what can be done?

In answer, I want to trumpet the value of the often-underappreciated oddball: the policy wonk. A true policy wonk is someone who doesn't just care about the policy outcomes; they immerse themselves in the rich details of how policies are made. Unlike most, they really do want to see (in Bismark's words) how the sausage is made.

Why do policy wonks matter? Because the chief problem that faculty everywhere are trying to solve is, How do we hold administrators accountable? The reason why this is so difficult to do most of the time is that there is no good answer for the question, accountable for what?

Usually, faculty want to hold an administrator accountable after the fact for a decision they feel was a bad one - that is, for a policy outcome. But whether decisions are truly good or bad in their effects is often not known until significantly later. Prior to that, people can express opinions but it's hard to hold someone accountable because they have an opinion different from yours.

Much better if you can hold administrators accountable for how decisions are made - that is, for the process rather than the outcome. The reason why this is a more promising field is that process can be agreed upon ahead of time. We can't necessarily agree with the Dean on what decisions she will make next year, because we don't know what those decisions will be or even what they will entail. But we can agree on the rules by which those decisions will get made.

This is where the policy wonk comes in. Policy wonks love process, and in particular they love to codify process in policies and procedures. They are the folks who will delve into the details of your university's policy manual (which no one else ever reads).

The keys to accountability are simple: agree ahead of time on the process by which decisions will be made, and write those agreements down. That seems really boring when you're doing it, but it comes in great handy later on.

Take an example one of my friends brought up: a senior administrator decides to break a College of Arts & Sciences up into multiple units (a College of Science and one or more Colleges of Other not-Science Stuff). If there is no policy written down about how such a decision should be made, then the administrator is unconstrained. You may not like the idea of breaking up the college, but how do you hold someone accountable just because you disagree?

This was actually a problem for my current employer in the past. Colleges were broken up, renamed, and recombined with astonishing rapidity. The running joke was that you had to check in every morning to see who you were working for that day. Faculty, unsurprisingly, were not amused, especially because they were often not consulted.

In response, we (the administration and faculty together) wrote a policy that guides decisions about recreating or changing academic units - everything from renaming an academic department to restructuring colleges. The policy provides for thorough consultation at every level, including all affected faculty as well as all relevant administrators. This consultation has to proceed in order, starting with the faculty in the affected department(s). Only when all of the steps of the process have been followed can a proposal move forward.

It's not a perfect policy - a Provost determined to cram change down the faculty's throats could still do so. But she would first have to listen to everyone's objections, and document them. You can't walk in tomorrow to find you're in a different college or department without knowing about it. And if the process isn't followed, faculty have a set of rules in writing - rules which the administration agreed to - to which administrators can be held accountable.

It's not necessary that all faculty become policy wonks. But they should identify, and value, the wonks among their number, and use their wonk powers in the service of accountability. A reasonable administration will welcome such an effort. And if the administration resists, you will at least have shifted the conflict to a far more important set of questions.

Go forth and wonk!

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