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Sharing Governance and Responsibility

Chris Hankin, News Editor

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In an effort to increase transparency and community participation, President Murray has taken to updating the campus on the content of meetings with the Board of Trustees. The most recent meeting marked the implementation of the Board’s new committee structure, and saw Chair of the Board Brad McMurchie officially announce his retirement from the Chair position, to be succeeded by current Vice Chair Nancy Serrier. President Murray’s email also included a note about shared governance.

Shared governance is central to the function of Whitman College as an institution of Higher Education. The Faculty, the Governing Board, and the President all have unique and sometimes overlapping powers. Moderating these regions of overlap is the realm of shared governance.

Shared governance is also one of the primary concerns of Whitman’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). AAUP Secretary-Treasurer Timothy Kauffman-Osborn sees it as indispensable to the fulfillment of Whitman College’s mission.

“At its core, the principle of shared governance affirms that the faculty must exercise a significant role in the decision making processes that define the academic program,” Kaufman-Osborn said.

For Whitman President Kathy Murray, successful shared governance requires a combination of working together across divisions like administration and faculty, and adherence to the powers granted to each.

“The board [of Trustees] carry the fiduciary responsibility for running the college. The administration carries out the day to day operation… and for the most part the faculty controls the curriculum.”

Murray continued, “In one sense those powers are separate, but I think it works best when we are all working together and working across those lines.”

Increasingly, however, some Faculty are beginning to worry that shared governance at Whitman might be in jeopardy. Chair of the Classics Department Professor Dana Burgess referenced this apprehension in his recent letter to the Editor.

“During the last 30 years, power has been shifting from the faculty to the administration, but that shift has recently accelerated sharply. So members of the faculty are increasingly dependent upon administrative goodwill.” This shift is at the heart of issues surrounding shared governance on campus.

“I don’t agree with that”, said Murray. “I always think back to my experience as a young faculty member at a different institution. [There] everything was hierarchical in ways that are unimaginable today [at Whitman]. The president ran the faculty meetings, so he chose who got called on to speak, and he drove the direction of discussions… I just don’t see it the same way [Professor Burgess] does.”

Murray continued, “if the faculty decided that they wanted to add a department of polar ice caps studies, they [wouldn’t be able to] force the administration or the board to provide the financial resources to do that.”

Barry Balof, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Chair Elect of the Faculty, echoed President Murray. “Within the 15 years [that I have been at the College] I haven’t seen that great a shift of power between faculty and administration.”

Balof continued, “The hope is not that it’s a balance of power, but that the faculty and administration have different responsibilities as far as decision making. I haven’t seen any decisions that were the purview of the faculty that have been taken away from the faculty. I think that casting it like that sets it up an adversarial position that I don’t think needs to be there. If we are all working towards a common goal then it doesn’t need to be a balance or an us versus them.”

The specific powers allocated to the faculty and the Board of Trustees are laid out most clearly in the College’s Constitution.

Dictating the courses offered, the material presented in those courses and the way those courses are taught are all within the purview of the faculty. Section 2, Article V of Whitman Constitution stipulates that “the Faculty shall have the power to arrange the courses of study.” This is in contrast to the Board of Trustees, to whom different powers are enumerated.

Section 1a, Article III declares that “the corporate concerns of Whitman College… shall be vested in the Board of Trustees.” While the curriculum is reserved for the faculty, the power of the purse is reserved for the Trustees. The thorny questions in regards to shared governance are raised at the intersection of these interests.

“There are many elements of the College’s operation that are not, strictly speaking, part of the academic program, but nonetheless have a significant effect upon its character. The most obvious example is the annual operating budget of the College,” Kaufman-Osborn said.

Andrea Dobson, Chair of the Astronomy Department and President of the Whitman College Chapter of the AAUP also noted these points of overlap. “We don’t have a formal mechanism in our shared governance structure for dealing with the places where the responsibilities and the faculty and the responsibilities of the board and the administration overlap, and they inherently will overlap.”

The question then becomes what happens, or more specifically how it happens, when disagreements arise in these zones of overlap. A recent example was the decision, financially motivated, to allow the position of Twentieth Century American History to remain vacant.

For Kaufman-Osborn, the pressures at Whitman are a part of a national trend. “Whereas tenure-track positions once accounted for about 80 percent of the faculty appointments in the United States, this percentage has now dropped below 30 percent. Absent the freedom from retaliation that attends tenure, with good reason, faculty members are far less likely to insist on their role in institutional governance, especially when that involves criticizing senior administrators and/or governing board members.”

Though Kaufman-Osborn acknowledged the discrepancy between this national data and the realities at Whitman, he concludes that it would be naive to assume that Whitman is isolated from these national trends.

“Whether the faculty role in institutional governance has eroded in recent years is a question that is hard to know how to answer in anything other than an impressionistic way. That said, when compared to its peer institutions, we do know that the Whitman faculty is relatively young, and we know that many recently-hired faculty do not yet have tenure. It is entirely possible that some of those faculty worry, whether rightly or wrongly, that the expression of outspoken views on controversial matters may not be in their best interests. Certainly the same claim may be made about contingent faculty, especially those on one-year renewable contracts.”

Kaufman-Osborn continued, “having been at Whitman for over 35 years, I owe a considerable debt to the senior faculty members who served as role models for me during my early years at the College… George Ball, David Stevens, Tom Edwards, Kate Bracher, Pat Tyson and many others taught me that vigorous affirmation of the principles of academic freedom and shared governance are essential to Whitman’s capacity to fulfill its mission as an undergraduate liberal arts college.

For Paul Garrett Professor of Politics Shampa Biswas, the stakes of this shared governance debate could not be higher.

“If the faculty don’t have a say in funding or budget decisions that impact curricular offerings or on resources for professional development or student support services, then it can affect our ability to offer a quality education.”

Biswas continued, “that’s why it has to be collaborative. I’m not saying that faculty should have complete reign over running the College. No one is expecting that. We are talking about shared governance. The faculty need to have a say in the decisions made outside of the curriculum which have curricular consequences. But also, [the Faculty] need to have input in the larger educational mission of the College.”

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Whitman news since 1896
Sharing Governance and Responsibility