Faculty Representation in Governance

Voting Machine Bumpersticker

Perhaps this will sound familiar from your campus: Some appalling, or just bizarre/confusing, initiative will come down the pike, and faced with faculty protests, the administration will say, “But there were faculty on the committee–this was vetted by the faculty.” In such events, it invariably turns out, a few faculty members had in fact been appointed to the committee, typically chosen by an administrator, usually (if ironically) in the name of faculty governance.

Why ironically? Because the mere presence of some faculty members doesn’t constitute representation. The administrative selection of congenial faculty for certain committees is just a form of governance-washing (cf.): You pick faculty members who you can be reasonably confident will go along with something, regardless of whether they have any particular constituency on campus or any particular expertise. (A colleague elsewhere describes this, a little unkindly, as the sycophant pool.) Presto: you’ve insulated yourself from faculty criticism, comfortable in the notion that you did the right thing by appointing some professors.

For the faculty to be represented on a committee or in governance, then they need to have chosen their representatives. Sometimes this means by direct election, either by the faculty as a whole or by a governance body such as a senate.

It’s inconvenient to run elections all the time, however, and doubtless there is a legitimate need for occasional ad hoc committees. Here, I would suggest that appointments to committees take one of two forms. One way to do it is for the selection of faculty to the committee to be made by the senate president (or, where applicable, the union president). In addition to providing at least some independence, this also helps underscore the principle that said representative should be reporting regularly to the faculty about what’s going on. The (related) alternative is to go to the standing committees of the faculty and ask their chairs for help. For example, if there’s a committee on some technology-related initiative, then the chair of your campus’s information technology committee, or her designee, ought to be on the committee. The same idea holds here: The faculty have elected the members of that committee already, plus there’s a built-in mechanism for regular reporting.

(And, by the way: to my mind this principle holds, regardless of tenure status. A committee about contingent faculty issues made up entirely of tenure-line professors, or of pre-selected contingent professors, risks further marginalizing voices already heard too little.)

When faculty are randomly appointed to committees, even when there is sincere interest in hearing from the faculty, then there’s a real risk that information won’t flow to and from the committee and the faculty at large in an effective way–hence the howls of surprise at the committee’s results. For governance to work the way it ought, then the faculty have to own the responsibility for choosing their representatives.

There’s no particular trick or hack to achieving better governance processes, except for explaining, as many times as necessary, the basic idea that political representation implies some input into choosing the representative.

Photo “Voting Machine Bumpersticker” by Flickr user grafixtek / Creative Commons licensed BY-ND-2.0

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