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Thinking Strategically About Governance: What Might We Learn from “SUNY Voices”

Published by the national office of the AAUP, the journal Academe “explores a wide range of….critical issues facing higher education.” While full access to the journal requires an AAUP membership, the organization makes some content available online. It’s worth reading for the thoughtful consideration authors give to the topics they write about, many of which are directly relevant to our professional lives at Nassau Community College. (Academe Blog, which the AAUP calls “an extension” of the magazine is also worth following.) Academe’s most recent issue took on the subject of governance, which has, of course, been a fraught topic of discussion and debate at NCC for at least the past academic year. “SUNY Voices: A Successful Joint Effort to Institutionalize Faculty Governance,” one of the articles in the current issue, raises issues that seem to us worth thinking about.

Written by Nina Tamrowski, Tina Good, Peter Knuepfer, and Ken O’Brien—each of whom has served as president of one of the two statewide faculty governance bodies within SUNY, either the University Faculty Senate (UFS) or the Faculty Council of Community Colleges (FCCC)—the article recounts how the leaders of those two groups have tried to maintain the integrity of shared governance in the face of the “shifting views and values [related to higher education] in the twenty-first century.” The authors frame their approach to this issue like this:

Despite the history of SUNY’s support for a formal faculty role at the system level, the processes for policy making were not institutionalized. With each policy, we had to negotiate a process for the inclusion of faculty in governance. We, as the faculty leaders, constantly wondered how we could better institutionalize academic governance at SUNY. (Emphasis added.)

Epitomizing this problem, the authors state, was the 1998 SUNY general education mandate, enacted by “the politically appointed board of trustees” without any “direct consultation with the faculty governance organizations.” Not only the UFS and FCCC, but also campus-level governance organizations were furious, and those of us who were around back then may remember the flurry of resolutions passed throughout SUNY declaring a lack of confidence in the SUNY system’s leadership. “The ill will engendered by [that] battle,” the article’s authors assert, “poisoned the relationship between the faculty and staff governance organizations, on the one hand, and the system administration, which was compelled to support the board, on the other.”

This state of affairs motivated “a sixty-four-campus listening tour” on the part of SUNY Chancellor Zimpher, which laid “the groundwork for a new strategic plan that would engage more than two hundred participants” from across the SUNY system. At the same time, “the UFS and FCCC were passing a resolution requesting the establishment of a SUNY working group on shared governance [which eventually] proposed that [governance] processes should emulate the strategic planning process of inclusion that the chancellor had put forth.” Finding no “pathway to implementation” for this proposal, the leaders of the UFS and FCCC “decided…to build an academic governance goal into the strategic plan,” essentially baking governance into SUNY’s institutional structure and processes in a way that it had not been before. The rest of the article details some of the challenges the UFS and FCCC confronted in operationalizing this goal, which is represented system-wide by the SUNY Voices brand.

Our situation at NCC, of course, is, in one crucial aspect at least, very different from that of the UFS and FCCC. Because the Academic Senate is defined within our contract, its existence and adequate functioning is backed by the force of law. At the same time, however, if we have learned anything from our experience over the past six years—culminating in our probationary Middle States status—it is that having the Senate in our contract is no guarantee of an efficient, collegial, smoothly functioning system of governance. Nor does it provide for a shared vocabulary—not within the faculty and not among faculty and administrators—with which to assess the strengths and weaknesses of our governance process or to articulate strategies for growth and improvement.

According to the authors of the Academe article, the creation—or at least recognition of the value—of such a vocabulary was one positive result of incorporating governance into SUNY’s strategic plan, as was the development of metrics to measure whether or not the institution is meeting the governance goals it has set for itself. We think it’s worth asking whether incorporating governance goals into NCC’s strategic plan would be useful in similar ways. How might that change the conversation between faculty and the administration about the role of the Academic Senate? How would we—faculty and administration working together—characterize the strengths and weaknesses of our governance system? What priorities would we set in improving that system? How would we measure our successes and failures? What would we do with that data? What measures would be necessary to maintain the integrity of Section 20 of our contract?

We think these are important questions to ask, not just because of our Middle States probationary status, but also because, whether we like it or not, higher education is changing—both within itself and in response to changes in the culture at large. We need to be able to adapt to those changes without violating the integrity of our mission as a liberal arts institution or our contract, and the article in Academe about SUNY Voices suggested to us that this implies thinking strategically about how governance works at our institution in the same way that we think strategically about adopting new technologies, or distance learning, or workforce development, or any of the other components of the college that are part of our strategic plan.

We take no position on what the result of this thinking ought to be, but we do think it’s a meaningful way to continue the discussion about governance on our campus that we’ve been having.

One Response

  1. Actually the failure to have an efficient, collegial, smoothly functioning system of governance at NCC is a direct result of the antagonism towards shared governance that began with the Astrab administration. Prior to this the Academic Senate along with its committees were a testament to how a college can thrive when faculty, administrators and students work together towards a common goal.
    The facultys’ vote to pass or not pass the by-law amendments is an excellent example of democracy at work and another testament to the value of shared governance.
    Let us hope that the NCCFT is listening to the voices of its members and brings our voices to the negotiations this summer. Although the union embraced the by-law amendments, the majority of faculty did not. The notion that changing times requires us to change our AS by-laws and procedures may be true but may also carry with it a Trojan Horse with unanticipated consequences.
    I am also glad to see that the NCCFT is acknowledging the wisdom and experience of the AAUP in these matters. The focus of NYSUT on K-12 education and its lack of support in our Middle States issues seems to demonstrate an “ivory tower” attitude towards college unions.
    As a final comment I would like to see a detailed description what exactly the arbitration issue is that the union is pursuing. This would allow all members to be well informed of the issue prior to the ratification vote for our new contract.

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