This week, faculty members at University of Massachusetts Boston shut down the chancellor search with vocal criticisms of the finalists that led all three to withdraw. Votes of no confidence are on the rise, and though they often don’t amount to much (although in some cases, they bring accreditors knocking to check into the fiduciary affairs of the institution), the trend is indicative of a bigger issue in higher education.
In Boston, faculty members claim they were pretty much shut out of the process of selecting a new president. Two of the 15 spots on the search committee went to faculty, and they say they were not given sufficient notice of campus visits or time to provide online feedback. Attempts to appeal to the system president, Martin Meehan, to talk were ignored, they say.
Many universities are wrestling with the idea of shared governance — most visibly Wisconsin, where professors have battled with system and state leaders over what some are have suggested is a near dismantling of shared governance on campus. And much of this is likely related to the changing business model around professors and adjunct instructors on campus as much as a desire to increase efficiency and move change faster.
According to the American Association of University Professors, non-tenure track positions members make up 70% of instructional staff in higher education, but these instructors are often excluded from membership in the faculty senate and not consulted on decisions impacting the college. As institutions rely more on a contingent workforce to cut costs and save money, those with direct contact with students and most responsible for their success are left out of the decision-making process.
But it isn’t just the contingent faculty; tenured and tenure-track faculty are also feeling left out of the process. As one UMass Boston professor said in a message, as faculty members are increasing left out of important decisions surrounding their institutions, they feel it is their duty to fight back on behalf of students as much as themselves.
It can be difficult to balance the idea of an institution being a “student-focused, not faculty-focused” enterprise as one leader has emphasized with the idea that professors are typically most directly responsible for student success. Similarly, balancing the need to focus on hiring individuals with solid pedagogy rather than simply going for the top subject matter expert to propel perceptions of elitism is a shift many institutions are still making. One salient point in the 2017 American Association of Community Colleges annual meeting was that professors are hired to teach, but few are ever taught how.
Focus on faculty members first
Focusing more intently on faculty — whether that’s professional development, bias training or simply consulting them on major decisions — is going to be critical to the success of any leader in higher ed. At the same time, there is a recognized need for higher ed as an industry to change — and quickly — to meet the needs of students and society, and it can be difficult to do that with large, representative committees assembled for every decision.
Taking the pulse of faculty members and students throughout the year is one way to achieve both. If the only time leaders are engaging with faculty members, if at all, is when it’s time to make huge decisions, then the battle has already been lost. Instructors, like students, know how to leverage social and traditional media to get a message out quickly, and if institution leaders are not at least aware of what those grumblings may be, it can mean unwanted attention for the institution.
Spending time walking the campus and listening to conversations, having lunch with faculty members or popping into their after-hours hang out spots is about more than just making sure folks feel you are accessible; these practices help leadership to stay in the know about student and faculty member sentiments and can help curtail the idea that leaders are wholly out of touch with campus affairs. This means hiring smart people in other areas of campus, empowering them against the mission and getting out of their way to do their jobs so that the institutional leadership can focus more on interpersonal interactions and less on meetings.
Active engagement on social media is another way to make campus stakeholders feel connected to leadership, and it promotes a sense that leaders are human and can be touched with the challenges students and faculty members are facing.
Though specific strategies will vary based on the campus climate and the personality of the leaders, one thing is clear: Administrators can no longer afford to be blind to student or faculty affairs, and though other job functions like advocacy and fundraising are at the top of the priority list, true success means focusing on the people.