Yes, it really is good for us.

In January the CSU Graduation Initiative is visiting our quarter-calendar campuses.  Campuses on semesters aren’t back in session until February.

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.

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One thought on “Yes, it really is good for us.

  1. Ken’s “good for us” argument comes true when agreements among faculty on “what they want” exist and have force in the campus culture. When we know what we want as a faculty (e.g. undergraduates who can think creatively a la Long Beach [see Dec 21 post]), we can make better decisions. In Ken’s terms, systemic improvement—read: widespread improvement in huge problem areas like the swirling student phenomenon—can’t happen without system support, e.g., people like him doing what he is doing to promote active communication and large-scale collaboration. System support can’t happen without clarity of vision.

    Do we want GE organized by Areas? Do we want it organized by outcomes? Do we want some combination that makes sense? This decision permeates every part of the issue of the swirling student. Yes, good governance would be good for us—and for our students.

    I wonder what the role of the Senate at Long Beach has been in the growth of the arts program Ken talked about in the December 21 post “wanted: ideas.” In that post Ken tried to sell the virtues of creativity as a highly valued learning outcome. Jayme’s comment in response about the unfortunate reality of disciplinary (or even interdisciplinary) hegemony when it comes to certain outcomes (e.g. creativity is for the Arts only? C’mon…) made me laugh. It can be very difficult to convince faculty in certain disciplines that, say, information literacy is important.

    An aside: I wonder what the relationship has been between the Washington State Critical Thinking Rubric and the Senate? Jayme lifts the curtain briefly on this important bit of local academic history in a way that quickens the respiration of the ethnographer in me.

    Senate governance is crucial to the coherent functioning of academic affairs on a campus. The practice of periodic self studies and program reviews, for one thing, holds stakeholders accountable to themselves for what they do. Gary Galuzzo once called coherence a “rebellious angel” in an address he made at an NCATE conference I attended long ago. Jayme’s reminder that the disciplinary spirit might also be a rebellious one is noteworthy. Of course, the fact that faculty have strong feelings about their disciplinary identities is central to the discussion of what is “good for us” in governance.

    How do we decide whether creativity is an outcome for the arts and not engineering? Whether critical thinking means what we say it means in our rubric? These questions are separate from administrative ones like where do we put our resources—in the College of Arts or in Engineering?—but they are central to the work of the senate.

    Building an identity at the doctoral level in a disciplinary academic community is a painstaking process not for the faint hearted, one that steeps the learner in the discourses and practices of deeply rooted epistemological traditions. Isn’t it more likely that a studio art professor might think more about teaching creativity than a biology professor?

    Recently, I worked with three biology professors and a student assistant during a scoring session for a Ten Word test on the ‘conceptual ecology of genetic expression.’ As customary in such assessments, we discussed student responses regarding the ten concepts on the test in an attempt to “calibrate” the judgments of the professors and student assistant (we used Flashlight to collect data!). Besides learning some things about genetic expression (Do you know how it is that identical twins with identical genetic makeup can have differences? It’s all there in epigenetics…), I saw firsthand the complexities involved in observing and charting the ecology of ten biological concepts situated deep in the communal mind of biologists. I watched them dissect student responses and lay bare misconceptions and wrong turns even in responses qualifying for the highest score on the rubric. “If only she had left out one word,” a professor said. “Or not put one word in,” came the reply.

    I mentioned to one of the biology professors my interest in working with our librarians to build a Ten Word test for Information Literacy. “What exactly is that?” he asked. I gave him the short version and he replied: “Ok. Anytime I hear somebody say something about literacy, I’m immediately suspicious. How many kinds of literacy are there anyway?”

    There clearly is a senate literacy (and oracy). In many ways, faculty senates might be thought of as Iowa caucuses with representatives from particular academic discourse communities, aka disciplines, who either find ways to stand shoulder to shoulder on common ground or splinter apart into factions. Ken describes it well when he writes: “At the first, the engine is firing on all its cylinders; at the second they’re not even under the same hood.” The consequences are important for people who structure macro-organizational improvement strategies at the system level and beyond. Over time—especially with the work of people like Ken—as the system pushes for solutions to large-scale problems like swirling students or retention, more senates might come to govern better and be “good for us.” The first step is acknowledging the core relevance of senates in higher education reform–the lesson Ken brings to us in this post.

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