Larry Catá Backer
Remarks to the Senate April 23, 2013
I am very grateful for the opportunity to address you today for the last time as chair of this marvelous organization. Your commitment and willingness to serve, even under conditions of stress, has made me both humble in my service to you and more committed to try to serve you better. I am proud to have been able to contribute in some small way to the work of this body.It has been something of a tradition for these farewell addresses to devolve to a comfortable and easily forgettable pattern of rapidly listing accomplishments with respect to which you are either fully aware or which you could care less about as irrelevant to your own work. To my taste, neither approach seems useful. So rather than stand here like some sort of middle level Soviet apparatchik reporting on the glories of the many ways in which my bureau has met its production quotas under the last five year plan—5,000 bushels of wheat here, 3000 Lada Riva autos there—I will briefly highlight my view of this year’s triumphs and failures, and then suggest the important lessons this year ought to have taught us, not just for the Senate but throughout the management architecture of this university. I offer this with the hope, however slight, that we might profit from both in the coming year.
This was something of an unusual year. My top priority was governance, and especially the governance role of the Senate in a changing environment. I was particularly concerned that the Senate was becoming a dinosaur, increasingly irrelevant as the functional realities of administration and governance changed around us. I poked and prodded in ways that many of you were not used to, that some of you found refreshing and useful, and that a number of you found very much not to your taste. Many acted accordingly. But the fact that raising questions or the possibility of raising questions, could itself be viewed as threatening, and that a person in even a quite modest position of authority raising these questions in the most benign ways might produce alarm in some quarters—within the Senate and outside of it—exposed for me the very real challenge of our governance culture here; and, as my CIC colleagues on other Senates reminded me, not just at this university but at major universities in this country. This posture going into the 2012-13 academic year set the tone and guided choices throughout the year.
What did the Senate do, and do fairly well?
First, the Senate developed what I hope will be governance enhancing long-term relationships. Attendance at ALC meetings is one important new inter connection between faculty and administrators at the operational level that will likely pay great dividends in the future. Faculty participation in key committees of the board of trustees is also new and important. This may go a long way toward creating cultures of collaborative governance that can only inure to the benefit of the institution. The old model, where faculty leaders served as pretty props well placed at a table in which they could not speak during the official portion of the Board of Trustees meetings never worked well; at least it never worked well for us. The Faculty Advisory Committee is working well and I hope it survives Rod Erickson’s Presidency. Deepening our ability to talk to each other before positions are hardened and before policy is determined is still very much a work in progress—at both the university and operational unit level.
We appear to be moving, if slowly, in the right direction. Whether this movement will survive our transition to a new provost and president, individuals who may come form another governance sharing tradition, remains to be seen. What is particularly troubling is that the nature and scope of governance may be so dependent on the personality of the administrative leadership of the university. That is a recipe for the sort of arbitrariness that when practiced by government would suggest a weakness in the rule of law architecture of the institution. I hope that the Senate and our administrators and board can work collaboratively to work toward deepening the structural legitimacy of shared governance, including the adoption of clear university policies protecting contingent and contract faculty in their governance related activities, and adding clear language in the university organizational documents describing and preserving the role of the Senate in the governance life of the university.
Second, the Senate actually produced a number of reports touching on the uncountable details necessary for the smooth and fair operation of this institution. Senate members were good soldiers, considering everything from the care and handling of our student athletes to the operation of courses and programs. Next year I have no doubt but that there will be much more of that work considered and implemented.
But the Senate also produced three reports that are worth special mention, reports that should make us all proud. The first of these was the Report of the Special Senate Board of Trustees Committee. Under the able leadership of John Nichols this committee worked hard for almost a year to produce one of the finest analyses of the governance organization of university boards of trustees. Their well researched and reasoned report and recommendations will likely influence the discussion of board organization, if not at Penn State then certainly in other universities around the nation.
The second was the report produced by the Committee on University Planning touching on administrative bloat at the operational level of the university—that is at the level of deans and chancellors. I was hoping to include the work of our Student Honor Code Special Committee, but the efforts of that body remain very much a work in progress, one prodded eventually by the more efficient work of the university’s Freeh Group Implementation Committee. I commend them for their thoughtfulness and hope that under new, and perhaps more agreeable leadership from my successor, they are able to produce a simple, easy to understand set of rules that an 18-year-old freshman eager to do right can read and understand.
The last, of which I am most proud, especially given the extent of the subterranean opposition to the project within the Senate itself, was the report and recommendations of the Senate Self Study Committee. The work of this Committee ought to serve as a model for the way Senate Committees ought to work. They were transparent, open and engaged. They worked hard to ensure that all voices were heard and that as many people as possible could contribute to the consideration of their task. They listened. Rather than work in secret, leadership cronies putting together something that is then foisted on the body of the Senate which is then expected to vote their gratitude for the leadership, they were committed to the hard work of transparent democratic governance. For that alone, Mohamad Ansari and the committee ought to be commended.
But for all the successes, I failed you as well. We as a Senate can learn as much by what I consider my failures as what I trumpet as our success this past year. We did not do a good job of working through the Freeh Group Report recommendations. We missed an opportunity to contribute as a faculty to the implementation of these recommendations. And we missed this opportunity even as the highest administrative officials extended an invitation to coordinate their activities with ours.
We also failed to tackle issues of assessment. This Senate continues to view assessment as some sort of ministerial task, not fit for their sustained consideration. Yet assessment increasingly tends define the substantive parameters of academic work. We are how we are assessed. And assessment is increasingly the method by which both university officials, government and accrediting agencies tend to understand what faculty do and what and how they ought to be doing it. Our failure to tale a stronger hand in the development of the premises from which assessment is developed will come back to haunt us in ways that may be detrimental to us and that could constitute a means of eroding, whoever unconsciously, the effective basis of academic freedom. n
We failed also as well to tackle issues touching on fixed term faculty. Soon to be our largest constituency we continue to indulge a fantasy grounded in the idea of the tenured faculty member producing a constant stream of scholarship (and in some departments the grants to purchase research time) and protected in her service activities to the university. Many of our colleagues are much less privileged. As the university struggles to reach an equitable position balancing the needs for flexibility against the needs to retain a global class faculty (whatever their employment status), it will be necessary to consider fixed term faculty as something other than exploitable and cheap(er) labor. That this Senate, and this university, continues to avoid the issue only postpones the moment of crisis when the room for creative and fair forward movement may be much more circumscribed in uncomfortable ways.
I failed to institutionalize a more robust use of the Senate Council as the central element of democratic leadership within the Senate. Deeper governance and a move away from control by a small cabal of so-called faculty leaders, including as an important part of that an unelected member of this organization is necessary to reduce the corrosive effects of personality driven governance. We should find of way of including a representative of the Alumni Council and of the Board of Trustees within Senate Council. We should develop closer working relationships between the so-called Senate leadership and the Council so that it becomes more a partner in leadership activities as a better representative of the will of the faculty as a whole, through its elected members.
What are the lessons we might take from this year’s Senate related activities? I would like to spend the remainder of my time speaking to some of the institutional lessons we ought to have learned this year, and some that I will carry forward
First, don’t be afraid of transparency. The Senate is not the Central Intelligence Agency. We do not, for the most part, deal either in State secrets or in issues of personal privacy. Yet we tend to structure our work as if the security of the nation itself depends on our ability to keep people out of those spaces where we deliberate. That is a shame.
Informational transparency is coming whether we like it our not. Even if the “right to Know” law is not extended to Penn State this year, it or some form of it is likely to eventually become law in this state. This should serve as a guide to our own approach to sharing information. Our meetings should be open to everyone, except in those rare cases and with those rare matters that are sensitive because of issues of personal privacy or because they involve matters of negotiation. Our web site is a mess. It is almost designed to hide rather than provide information in an accessible way. It serves only those who maintain it.
Second, don’t be afraid of broad engagement and consultation. Engagement transparency is also essential to maintain the legitimacy of this institution going forward. Again the work of the Self Study Committee should be a model. We do a terrible job of sharing our work with our constituents—especially our unit governance leaders in the colleges and campuses. We should work harder to get input from our constituents before any of our reports are finalized. To those who say that this reduces our efficiency or lengthens the time to production of work, I can only say that the Senate is not a factory, nor is it in the business of subverting the function of democratic governance by observing its forms and corrupting its practice. Greater efforts to engage our faculty in our work will bring greater buy in and more compliance at the back end, even if it slows things down at the beginning of the process.
Third, Do be afraid of cronyism. I have spoken to this issue before. The corruption inherent in the tendency to constantly turn to the same set fo people meeting usually in private to develop policy and approaches–and to suggest that this small group then represents us all, produces the sort of erosion of democratic governance that contributes to the irrelevance of the institution of the Senate. Indeed, cultures of cronyism might well have contributed to the sort of insularity that mnight have produced the stress events of the last several years.
Fourth, don’t try so hard to manage people and opinion. We, especially in the Senate, tedn to fear open and robust debate. We prefer our options pre-defined and pre-determnined, That makes fo refficient operation but corrupts the essence of democratic participation that is at the foundation of the operational premises of the Senate. It is not always necessary to script everything or to ensure a pre determined conclusion to discussion or debate, especially debate leading to Senate action.
Fifth, acknowledge the way that shared governance is changing even as the university is changing and modify operations accordingly. The principal consequence of this is to abandon any fear either to monitor and assess or to be monitored and assed. This applies as much to unit administrators as it does for our senior administrators and board of trustees. The fearlessness with which we monitor faculty and staff should provide the model with which we monitor all sectors of the university’s operations. This certainly is nothing that would surprise administrators and managers in business, yet it sends chills through the hallways of administration at the university and the board. However the day is quickly coming when if we do not undertake this in a spirit of collegial working toward common goals, someone else, someone outside the university facility will likely impose this on us. And thus imposed, it will be less useful.
Seventh, do reach out to more constituencies. We build on the work undertaken this year to be more inclusive and to cultivate collegial rather than adversarial relationships. We should consider alumni and board members for our Senate Council. We should consider opening all of our meeting to the campus community, the press and perhaps even the general public. We should consider more robust interactions with students.
I am done. And you are likely done with me. In the future, as I take my place back in the body of this organization I hope to continue to practice what I preach. I will continue blogging; I will monitor our work—and do so without pulling punches. I hope each of you do the same in your own way, and all for the good of this institution.
I wish all of you well as my successors take on the mantle and burdens of leadership. You make this institution the place we should all be proud to contribute to. I am grateful for your trust and tolerance and I expect that the future will bring many good things to this organization and our university.