Monday, March 28, 2011


Part of what attracted me to higher education in the first place and still attracts me is the shared governance environment.  Economics was the discipline that excited me, and higher education was the environment where I felt most comfortable and most productive. And from my experience shared governance works well in most places and in most cases.  My first experiences were in the area of curriculum, beginning with the department’s efforts to fine tune the economics major and subsequently extending to the committee that reviewed the undergraduate curriculum.  On the department level and on the university level, the process went well.  Faculty working with department chairs or deans scrutinized the curriculum, updated courses and reviewed requirements.

If you look at curriculum, if you look at standards, if you look at much of what happens in the academic area, we have a model for highly educated and highly intelligent individuals working together.  But the shared governance process isn’t perfect and there are areas where the process is significantly less effective.  Perhaps the area of greatest weakness is faculty evaluating other faculty.  More than a few faculty are uncomfortable making any negative comments – even when fully justified and reflective of the faculty member’s opinion—about other faculty.  In one of the first personnel cases that I had to deal with as dean, a department personnel committee chair said to me that he and his committee had only recommended positively on a personnel matter (and made only positive statements) because the committee knew that I would recommend against.  They wanted to be the “good” person and they were more than comfortable with the dean being the “bad” person.  And when the person I had just recommended against came in to see me, his first point was how could I have found fault with his record when all his colleagues in the department and in the same field had recommended positively. Not a comfortable moment.

More than a few times, faculty have come to see me to alert me that so and so is a “problem”  for  x reason and should not be (fill in the blank ) reappointed, tenured, promoted, selected as chair, etc.  But the individuals talking to me are also candid in saying that they do not want their opinion made public because they have to work closely with that person, or have the office next door, or that person will be reviewing them next year, etc.  I always indicate to the person talking to me that it is much much harder to follow up on a concern when the person raising the issue doesn’t want in any way to be identified. (In certain cases—such as allegations of sexual harassment—I also indicate that I need to report the allegation and cannot agree to not identifying the person who has brought the matter to my attention.)

In the vast majority of cases, the personnel process works well.  Where it doesn’t, everyone is done a disservice.  We are not providing the person being evaluated with the objective feedback necessary to resolve outstanding issues which can interfere with that person’s success.  We are not providing the university with the complete accurate picture that will allow uncompromised merit based decision making in areas where the consequences of bad decisions are often long term.  In this era of expanding outcomes assessment regarding curricular matters, we need to also undertake an outcomes assessment of shared governance and the evaluation process.  Overall, I am sure we will get high marks, but I am equally sure there is substantial room for improvement.

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