Governance as Activism

By Holly Hassel

Hassel_Photo_TSAIn his 2015 essay that led to the concept of this blog, the Teacher-Scholar-Activist, Pat Sullivan (building on the work of Jeff Andelora) argues that “community college students–often the most marginalized, least affluent, and least politically connected members of our communities–depend on our advocacy efforts. We must continue to speak for those who have no real voice and no real power” (329). In this blog post, I want to argue for the value of participating in representative governance as a structural avenue for activism. In many university and college systems, shared governance is the operational term. Steve Bahls defines it as an organizational practice that “align[s] the faculty, board, and administration in common directions for decision-making regarding institutional direction, supported by a system of checks and balances for non-directional decisions” (Bahls). I am in my third and final year as chair of the Faculty Council and Senate in my university and want to draw from that experience to argue for the value of participation in shared governance as a strategy for advocacy. In particular, governance work can produce policies, practices, and procedures that support equity, transparency and social justice. I would like to use this space to call upon faculty colleagues–and any institutional employee who is represented within the governance unit in their institution–to turn their activism to the internal landscape of the institution.

Faculty may find the idea of participating in governance as activism surprising, in part because–from conversations I overhear, observe, or have–there is often a sense of dispirited disappointment around the work of faculty/university senates. For example, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “A Common Plea of Professors: Why Can’t My Faculty Senate Pull more Weight?” notes, “Professors have long complained about faculty-senate lethargy, and they have questioned how much the governing bodies are able to accomplish. But as tensions between administrators, faculty, and students have increased over the past few years — particularly over issues like free speech — more professors say they are seeing the consequences of weak faculty governance” (Chan). In what most would agree is an increasingly consumer-mentality, neoliberal university, it’s more important than ever that shared governance and faculty oversight of key elements of the work of the university–including curriculum, instruction, personnel evaluation, organization (or consolidation or dissolution) of departments and programs, and principles of due process, appeals, or grievances–are generally the province of academic senates. And yet, as the Chronicle article observes, “Leadership veterans describe something of a vicious cycle: If faculty members are not engaged in the senate and voicing their concerns, the senate itself is limited in what it can accomplish. Before long, the senate can acquire a reputation that it’s not powerful or effective. Once that reputation has taken root, faculty members may not view the senate as a meaningful place to spend their time, leaving a body of disengaged senators” (Chan).

At the same time, Inside Higher Ed recently published an advice column from mentoring scholar Kerry Ann Rockquemore calls faculty out by pressing them to consider the role of tenured faculty: “You have power, you cannot be fired, and — because you are one of a shrinking number of faculty with tenure — you are a leader on your campus.” Though certainly governance isn’t–and shouldn’t–just be the role or responsibility of tenured faculty, that increasingly shrinking employment class has a moral obligation, I would argue, to contribute to the organization in specific ways. It’s true that fewer and fewer of us have tenure protections–and those who do may find themselves under increasing legislative efforts to diminish those protections (see here and here). And it’s also true that even though these positions may feel less secure than they were historically, they are still the most secure positions in academia. As a result, and because of the centrality of governance work to the working conditions (and teaching and learning conditions) of students and teachers, there should be no more exigent place for tenured faculty to contribute their time and talents and yet, as the Chronicle  article asserts, it’s fairly easy for governance work to spiral into disengagement. Why?

Governance is service work, and service work can feel like a bad investment no matter what kind of place you work. For folks at R1 institutions where the reward system values research and publication, service can feel like a poor commitment of time since the value attached to it in the evaluation process is largely checking a box to indicate whether someone has served on a committee–with little to no attention paid to quality of contribution or workload associated with the activity. In a two-year college, full-time faculty with 5/5 teaching loads may find governance (if it is even part of the college culture) takes back seat to service obligations that are more time-sensitive, or have immediate payoff (advising students, curriculum development work, personnel committees, mentoring of junior colleagues, and any other array of departmental types of work). At any rate, between service to one’s campus, perhaps to the profession in the form of organizational leadership or disciplinary committees, and in some places, community service, the prospect of governance work can seem just one more unrewarding committee responsibility to take on or yet more meetings to attend without the tangible outcomes that other types of service provide.

Further, policy work is not glamorous. It often involves wading deep into weeds that many faculty are not trained to fully understand or think through despite our advanced training and for folks in the humanities and social sciences, deep engagement with complex texts. Lastly, and most frustrating, can be the sense that a governance unit or bargaining unit has no real authority, doesn’t do any work, or just puppets the view and desires of the administration. I would be lying if I said this wasn’t true in many places or that I have not seen this myself. That being said, I want to argue for participation on senates or other governance groups.

First, representative governance is the way to have a voice. In some states, this function is handled by a union, or an AAUP chapter, but in many institutions, this is a faculty senate (or combined body of staff, students, and/or faculty). It serves a democratic function, representing the interests and needs of the people in the organization to a body who governs policies and practices–and who has a special kind of obligation to telegraph those in a formal way to the powers that be, typically the administration who has at the very least the power to approve or veto the work of the senate and at the most, carte blanche fiat to ignore the will of the governance bodies.

Second, many accrediting bodies vet institutions through standards that explicitly or implicitly acknowledge the legitimacy, authority, and jurisdiction of governance groups or policies. Institutions regularly use the existence and practices of senate as support for reaccreditation reports. In this way, governance groups hold a specific type of value for university administration and senates can and should leverage this value. For example, in my own institution’s most recent accreditation report letter from the site team, the responsibilities, oversight, and work of the faculty senate (or a senate-supervised committee) was used as evidence to demonstrate fulfillment of criteria and core components related to mission and integrity; ethical conduct; quality resources and support for teaching and learning; evaluation and improvement of teaching and learning; and resources, planning, and institutional effectiveness, with the specific core component “Administration, faculty, staff, and students are involved in setting academic requirements, policy, and processes through effective structures for contribution and collaborative effort.” While certainly most documents give chancellors or provosts the ultimate right to overturn or veto almost any decision by a governance body, it is almost never in their interest to do so if it can be avoided, and governance groups can make it easier for administrators to support their activities through careful, thorough, and evidence-based policy recommendations that reflect institutional values and are tuned in to the expectations of accreditors.

Third, governance is the work of the university. In many institutions, senate policies or documents govern the process for approving curriculum, for admitting students, for appealing or filing a grievance in the case of unfair treatment; for evaluating instruction, for allocating resources. This work is core to what we do, and it is through governance that we have a voice when the values that are core to higher education are threatened, whether from internal or external forces. A well-run, competent, and active senate can be a unified and collaborative voice for constituents who can best reflect the ‘on the ground’ experience of those who are served by and who serve the institution.

Last, let me also make a compelling argument for policy work. Since becoming involved in my institution’s governance body, I have mentally committed to the refrain “better living through policy.” This is because policies that are explicit, thorough, and clear have the capacity to substantially clarify and codify institutional expectations, particularly those that are unwritten or unstated but still used. Historically, academia has been an organizationally conservative and masculinist culture, driven by competition for resources, funds, or publication credit; with argument, reason, and logic privileged above collaboration, empathy, and multiple perspectives; senates are associated with the rigidly controlled structures of parliamentary procedure and a smartypants culture. However, as Kristi Cole, Eileen Schell and I have argued in  “Remodeling Shared Governance: Feminist Decision-Making and Resistance to Academic Neoliberalism,” there is room for collaboration in governance if attention is paid toward achieving it, just as the work of policy making can be essential to creating clear, transparent expectations that apply to everyone. This reduces reliance on some of the unwritten rules that may govern departments or schools and spells out criteria that can then be transparently applied to decision-making, whether that is evaluating an instructor’s performance, reviewing a curriculum proposal, or making a recommendation on a tenure dossier.

In other words, don’t give up on your faculty senate, or on governance. Service work is institutional citizenship. It cultivates a deeper understanding of campus structures which subsequently makes it easier to get things done. It is a place in which university and college workers can have their voice heard. If yours is not working, fix it. We have work to do.

Holly Hassel is Professor of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, one of 14 two-year campuses that make up the UW Colleges. She is in her third year of serving as chair of the UW Colleges Senate Steering Committee and Faculty Council. Most recently, she is the co-editor of Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership (Routledge, 2017) with Kirsti Cole. She currently serves as editor of the journal Teaching English in the Two-Year College.

Works Cited

Bahls, Steve. “What Is Shared Governance.” Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Chan, J, Clara. “A Common Plea of Professors: Why Can’t My Faculty Senate Pull More Weight?” Chronicle of Higher Education. 06 July 2017.

Cole, Kirsti, Holly Hassel, and Eileen Schell. “Remodeling Shared Governance: Feminist Decision-Making and Resistance to Academic Neoliberalism.” Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership. Routledge, 2017

Rockquemore, Kerry Ann. “Who Do You Think You Are?” Inside Higher Ed. 6 September 2017.

Sullivan, Patrick. “The Two-Year College Teacher-Scholar-Activist.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 42, no. 4, May 2015, pp. 327-350.

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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