In the last week we’ve seen three campuses. The typical visits begin with the provost, continue through meetings with faculty leadership, student government, and student affairs, and then close with a meeting with the president, where we share initial reactions, then within a week follow up with a two-page letter.
Four of us from the system office go, including our Executive Vice Chancellor, effectively the provost for the whole CSU. Between the travel, the day on campus, and the follow up, it takes a chunk out of our lives. A friend of mine in the faculty senate wondered if the visits were worth such an investment, especially up to such high ranks in the office. They are, of course, and only in part because of what they do to focus campus effort.
They help us keep the CSU roughly coordinated as a system, because we share what we learn from one campus with the others. And they tell us in the system office what we should be working on, which efforts would benefit from collective action, in a way we’d never get otherwise. Information comes at us so fast, and in such high quality, that it can feel like several hours of late-stage Tetris. It’s exhausting.
But really, you don’t want to blink. For one, the university has gone to a lot of effort to make the day happen, and we owe it to our hosts to respect that. For another, it’s been a crash course in what makes students — and universities — successful. As hard as these days are, and despite the considerable toll on the rest of our work, I attend with some wonder at my ringside seat.
My lesson for this week has been that we need faculty senates. One university we saw has strong governance, the other hardly any. At the first, the engine is firing on all its cylinders; at the second they’re not even under the same hood.
Now, faculty governance often gets a bad rap in higher ed, many of the most vivid aspersions originating in my building. From a distance it can look like meetings and talking without consequence: administrators usually have the policy authority and spending discretion, counterbalanced as often by faculty unions as faculty senates. At the system level, where I work, a senate can seem downright irrelevant: most of our academic decisions are left to individual campuses, which have senates of their own. So what, exactly, do these people do? Look for tangible output and all you see is resolutions.
But so help me, faculty governance is good for us. Research, teaching, creative work, and advising — the day to day work of professors — is usually conducted with students, or solitary. As administrators, our cat herding job amounts to making freelancers feel connected, and we can’t do that if our colleagues don’t talk to each other, come to agreement, and then tell us what they want. In my own corner of the world I rely on the senate to tell me where to take the curriculum, but I’ll admit that makes me an exception. My point is that everyone else in the Office of the Chancellor needs the senate, too, even if their dependence is less visible than mine. Otherwise we can’t hope to live in a state of continuous improvement, to move the culture forward.
I’ll go so far as to say this is why a recent study reiterated the connection between the proportion of full-time faculty and rates of student success and completion. Reactions to the study came to the defense of adjunct instructors, and I agree with the critics that we shouldn’t conclude that part-time faculty are less effective teachers. (At least I hope not, since I still adjunct-teach screenwriting from time to time.) I think instead the point is, believe it or not, that part-time faulty don’t usually serve on committees. Yep, committee work, the bane of faculty everywhere. Who knew that would be our salvation?
This week’s campus visits have taught me they’re not only useful; they may be the minimum requirement to our educational effectiveness. If you don’t have discipline-savvy, classroom-relevant, often lone-wolf antisocial faculty participating in decisions about enrollment, budget, advising, even housing and campus safety, then you risk institutional incoherence. And the students leave.
Okay, say for the sake of argument you agree with me and believe we need faculty connected to their universities, and even — curiously — to their big public state systems. Say you even think committee work and formal governance structures go along with that.
Here’s the problem: among the younger faculty I see little desire for that connection. Even those who are full time and tenured really don’t see themselves wedded to a single institution. In that sense they’re exactly like their counterparts in the rest of the economy: we are all becoming micropreneurs, mobile, restless, disloyal.
If I’m right, then going forward we’re going to see a shrinking benefit to having full-time faculty teach our students, and we’re going to need a unit of organization other than the university, as we try to deliver a coherent education.