Convocation Remarks of the Faculty President

Date Published: 
September 8, 2015

Convocation Remarks

By Dr. Jeffrey B. Leak, Professor

Department of English

 

Good morning and thank you, Chancellor Dubois, for your kind words. When last we gathered, our now past-president, Gregory Starrett, implored us to “put down that donkey”! You know, the donkey of assessment, rubrics, efficiencies and all sorts of administratease. I know that Lisa Walker (our president-elect) and I, along with most of you, feel like we're still lugging that donkey up that hill.

But the good news is Greg has indeed put that donkey down. Well done sir, your respite is well-deserved.

 

As we begin a new year, both nationally and in our own state, the state of the faculty, depending on where you are, is in varying degrees of decline. In fact, Benjamin Ginsberg sums it up in the title of his book: The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011). I recommend it highly.  First, the schools he cites as examples of egregious administrative ineffectiveness and needless bureaucracy make us look real good; second, for faculty, administrators, and those of us who straddle both worlds, his perspective is worth considering, even if you don't embrace all aspects of his argument.

What will the universities of the future look like? Will they continue to have fewer tenure-line faculty--thus depending more and more on contingent faculty? Will they continue to swell the number of administrators and what he calls "deanlets," at the expense of faculty lines, student programming or curricular enhancement? These are but a few of the questions he raises.

 

But front and center in this provocative book is the issue of shared governance, that interdependent relationship between faculty and administrators, one that, if not cultivated, can lead us to treacherous terrain .Of course in order for this concept to work, both parties must commit to the process, knowing there will be times when neither may be fully satisfied. In Ginsberg's view the best administrators are faculty who serve for a period and return to the rank and file; following a close second are leadership teams—chancellor’s, provosts, deans and other administrators who take faculty input seriously.

 

One example of how our chancellor has listened to the concerns of faculty is that the faculty president may now attend cabinet meetings when faculty-related issues are on the agenda. This is a direct result of faculty council engagement last year. I have already attended one such cabinet meeting. Another example involves faculty autonomy. Last year, when the Board of Governors announced that President Ross would be forced to step down, faculty across the system expressed concern and disappointment over what appeared to be a unilateral decision. We did not convince them to undo their decision, but we were not silent. And if we forfeit the right to engage in constructive critique, we cut at the core of what makes the university a center for intellectual exploration and discovery.

 

While Ginsberg comes down hard on administrators, he calls out faculty as well. The following observation does not apply to us, but listen to what he has to say about some of our peers elsewhere.

 

“Professors teach classes, spend time with students, and work in their laboratories, the library, and their computer terminals. They present papers at conferences and submerge themselves in dusty archives. And some view attendance at meetings and participation in the institutions of faculty governance as a waste of time. Thus, some professors contribute to the disempowerment of faculty.”

 

The focus for us, then, as our campus continues to grow at a considerable rate, is for us to engage our administrative leaders, so that, if nothing else, they know where we stand. Will we agree on everything? I doubt it, but if our voices are heard, even those moments of disagreement will be far more productive in the long-term.

 

I have no doubt that our faculty council will have a productive year. I encourage you to bring in particular concerns to me or our president-elect. I leave you with a prompt from the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 classic novel Invisible Man. Think this thought about that faculty member or administrator who gets under your skin: Who knows but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

 

To which I add this: If that person is speaking to you on the lower or deeper frequencies, are you listening?

 

Thank you and let’s have a meaningful year. Together.