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Oct 16, 2009

Empowerment and discontent

All democratic systems of governance share a paradox. If you hold strong beliefs, you will be surprised and upset when your particular view does not emerge victorious. A fallacy is at work here: if I live in a democracy, things should go my way. But this is not true, of course. Democracy is about sharing the space with other people, who may also have strong beliefs, different from yours, and whose opinion may prevail.

It is the same with faculty governance at universities, only complicated by having a specific power-sharing agreement between faculty and administration. When things are not going your way, you may think this is because the administration is usurping faculty's power. However, administrators intervene in decision-making for different reasons: sometimes, they just want to pursue larger interest of the organization, and sometimes, they interfere against one group of faculty on behalf of another group. There may also be a selfish or egotistical interest of an administrator at work. The difficulty is to figure out which is which, considering that we normally cannot read each others' minds.

Here is my story: last spring, I ventured to revise the annual evaluation guidelines, mainly because of request by different faculty to clarify certain things. I was also concerned that there seems to be a lack of reliability in our evaluations. When I proposed the revision to the whole faculty, members of the Evaluations Committee asked to take the feedback from the faculty and prepare the proposal for the vote. However, they disagreed with the entire proposal, with the exception of one clause. So far so good, no harm done, and we have always found a way to disagree without any animosity. The committee said what it felt, with best of intentions. However, I became worrying about the integrity of the process. Intuitively, it did not felt right, because the proposal was meant for the whole faculty, and yet it got considered by a very small group. I started checking with the Robert's rules, and found that yes, indeed, a pending proposal cannot be amended without the proposer's consent. That makes sense, doesn't it?

In other words, this is not about my proposal – which is, I must say, represents a fairly minor change of a very minor part of our work. The change itself does not merit much airtime. This is about the integrity of faculty governance process. We cannot decide things by consensus at all times, although we should when possible. We cannot allow some of us to have the implied veto power over our decisions, even if it is presented (and honestly thought of) as consensus-seeking. We cannot act because of "anonymous faculty concerns," because it is not clear what the concerns are and how many people have them. Short of an actual vote, we would never know that.

Of course, the conditions of the voting process itself are also important, which is why Robert's rules have all of these subsidiary motions that allow an assembly not only to make decisions, but also decide how each decision will be made. We would really be better off if everyone knew at least the basic rules. That would put us all into a more equitable position, and allow people to argue for or against certain ideas, without the democratic discontent. The dictatorship of mutually agreed rules is the only alternative to a dictatorship of individuals.

1 comment:

  1. In my family and diversity course, we have been discussing how important it is to develop a classroom community where each child understands her basic rights and the responsibilities that go with them. This should begin as early as kindergarten and talked about openly as decisions are made and remade. Children then grow through the years thinking of their and others rights and responsibilities. And, we would hope this would lead to becoming good global citizens.

    Rules and policies protect individuals. In education, there is much grey, because it is a social science. People see things differently, react emotionally to issues and ideas, and many want to control how things go for themselves and others. This is why it is very important that some documents are specific and detailed so that there are common understandings of what is to be expected and accepted within a community.

    So, yes, Sasha, we need to follow procedures, and our policies need to guide us to excellence in the future, with clearly defined expectations for our individual and collective work - in this case the stated and fair evaluation of ourselves and our peers.