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Nov 10, 2011

On Federalism

The RIC/AFT Agreement was developed some time ago, under the assumption that each Department operates more or less independently on all things academic and personnel. This was the time-honored tradition of liberal education, with its respect for academic freedom and faculty governance. However, things have changed. As a professional school, we now have some serious accreditation, public relations, and assessment needs. In many respects, we need to operate as one unit. For example, we absolutely need to have a Unit-wide assessment system. It would really be nice (although not critical) if course evaluations became a part of that system. We need to speak with one voice on the issues of educational reform and policy. The power is in synergy and common resources. It is simply more efficient to have centralized data storage solutions. We would save time and effort by doing less manual work. It is also very important to develop a common response to the challenges and demands of our respective communities of practitioners. For example, we are expected to modernize our curriculum, to establish common admission and graduation policies, etc, etc.

So we’ve got to set up some long-term agreement amongst ourselves. This does not mean we overrule or contradict the Agreement. No, it has to be a strictly voluntary decision of every department to delegate part of its authority to the School (not to the Dean’s office). In essence, it is the federalism debate on a smaller scale.

There are two cases that brought the issue to the surface. We tried two relatively minor things: to develop a common course evaluation instrument, and to revise the Governance Document. Both areas are explicitly within the scope of authority of departments. Inalienable rights, so to speak. Perhaps naively, I thought we can just develop some drafts with participation of all departments, and then ask each department to vote to accept, and voila. Well, it did not quite work so well. Of course, departments cannot participate in their entirety in development of the drafts. Their “delegates” do not have the explicit authority to negotiate on behalf of all. The timelines are not identical. For example, three departments have adopted the course evaluation instrument, one has small editorial suggestions, and one more has developed an alternative proposal. But we cannot really take the proposals back to the departments that already approved them, and ask to vote on amended drafts. Where the documents were approved, faculty were not perfectly happy, they just decided to compromise and try it out. If you ask to reconsider, they will remember that they, too, had suggestions at the time. And if another department can introduce its corrections, why cannot we? This would create an endless cycle of revisions and counter-revisions. In fact, nothing would be accomplished at all, because faculty from one department are unable to talk directly to all other faculty. The reasoning and the rationale gets lost and misinterpreted. Basically, we have a system where each state has a veto power over any law, no matter how fundamental or trivial.

Should we write 85 papers, or can we just read the Federalist Papers? I mean, the American democracy is a mess, but it has been functioning for a very long time, and almost always better than any other mess out there. Maybe the challenge is not as difficult?

The DLC decided to develop the Charter simply because the existing governance document was a bit out of date. Earlier drafts of the Charter had some more radical ideas; they are all gone in the latest draft. If anything, it is perhaps a document that is a little thin on substance. But perhaps the real issue it needs to address is federalism within FSEHD. We do need a constitution. Some issues should still remain in the exclusive jurisdiction of departments. For other issues, we need to figure out a way of making deliberate decisions, but in a timely manner, and not paralyzed by vetoes. We need a process where people can participate and express their professional and personal opinion, and yet a process that has a beginning and an end. Perhaps we need a congress of some sort, or maybe DLC can be trusted to fulfill that role. I don’t know; this is a call for founding fathers and founding mothers. I do know that without the agreement on how to deal with disagreements, we are divided and weak, and our capacity for change is limited.

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