The Other Side of the Desk:
Co-governance and Change

Scott G. McNall
I've often wondered what people's first reaction would be if Kendall Hall burned to the ground. "Will we still get our paychecks on time?" "Did the staff get out?" If anybody remembered, they might ask, "What happened to the administrators?" A healthy skepticism about what administrators do is part of university life. When I was a full-time faculty member, I believed it was the job of the administration to help me do my job. I wanted my paycheck on time; I wanted good students in my classes; and I wanted, most of all, to be left alone to do what I loved, which was teaching, reading, and writing in my discipline. People still want the administration to give them these things. I wanted administrators to protect me from, or not bother me with, the grim reality of the political and economic environment within which the university operated. I wanted a raise and I wanted the administration to take care of that problem. I wanted the administration to protect me from the flood of details relating to the governing of a university. In short, I wanted them to do their jobs so I could do mine.

Now, I find myself on the other side of the desk, and not surprisingly the world looks different. Every day, streams of paper cross my desk and e-mails flash across the screen asking that a problem be solved, or at least acknowledged. The issues that demand attention come from two primary sources—one external, the other internal—and call for very different responses. On the one hand there are daily bulletins from the frontiers of higher education that claim that universities are locked in a Darwinian struggle for existence: hostile forces of trustees, legislators, students, and parents are assembling to demand more for their money. If captured, we will be held hostage until we admit more students, solve the problem of remedial education, and improve productivity—which, translated, means doing more with less. We are told, too, that the only way to avoid capture is to change in some fundamental and annoyingly vague way, e.g., use more technology. On the other hand, there are legitimate queries from faculty and staff who want to know why the administration is not building a stronger fort to hold back the pillaging hordes and protect people so they can continue to do what they have always done.

What I see, hear, and understand from my side of the desk is that we truly are involved in a fundamental paradigm shift in higher education, and one of the reasons for competing and sometimes discordant agendas is that we do not agree on the nature of the changes or what we ought to do about them. We are, in fact, caught up in a crisis of continuous change: the external expectation that whatever we are doing, we ought to be doing something better. The environment in which universities exist suggests that change will be a way of life for us. Consider the following:

• Students are different from those of twenty years ago. They come with different attitudes, values, and sets of skills.

• We are being asked to certify that students have learned specific skills, or possess a certain knowledge base, rather than certifying that students have attended college for four years.

• Universities exist in a transnational world in which information itself has value, and the value of a university is measured by its ability to produce information or knowledge.

• Universities play a fundamental role in the creation and the sustaining of knowledge-based industries.

• Technology has assumed a major role in the learning environment.

We know, from our own experiences, that administrators, faculty, and staff are being asked to do very different things to support student learning than they were expected to do in the past. How should we respond to this? Alan Guskin (1998) has offered the strong argument that those of us in universities today have an ethical obligation and a responsibility to leave our new colleagues, and those who will follow us, with a legacy. It is our job, now, to create the kind of university in which we would like to work and learn. We must determine how to respond to the demands being placed on us; we must derive creative solutions to the problems of work, learning, collegiality, and creativity in the academy; and we must do this collectively.

Whether or not we can do this collectively has been questioned in some quarters. The trustees and regents of many universities have complained that faculty governance does not work in today's world of higher education, because the speed of change demands a more ready response than the faculty is willing to provide and/or because faculty just plain and simply do not want to change. But that is not an argument which will stand in the academy because faculty and staff have demonstrated repeatedly that they are willing to change when their workloads allow them to experiment.

One of the things administrators must do to manage change is to help separate fact from fantasy, to identify the issues we must confront, and to offer reasonable and feasible solutions to the problems confronting higher education. The issue of workload must be confronted. A crisis of continuous change requires that administrators continually focus on environmental threats and to report them to the campus and to do so in as many venues as possible. But so, too, is it necessary for faculty and staff to offer their knowledge and expertise in crafting solutions appropriate for this institution now and in the future. We are fortunate to have the forum of the Academic Senate in which to do this.

From my side of the desk, the Academic Senate is a site where all of us can come together to do the hard work to make this an institution of first choice, not only for students, but for the colleagues who will come after us. Bill Readings, in The University in Ruins, has declared our task to be no less than ". . .rethinking the categories that have governed intellectual life for over two hundred years." By candidly and thoughtfully discussing issues, in an environment where there is respect for the knowledge, expertise, and skill which each person brings to the conversation, we can achieve much. Collectively, we already have, and we can continue to do so.

Scott G. McNall, Provost

and Vice President for

Academic Affairs

Achievements| Calendar| Exhibitions| Provost's Corner| Sponsored Projects| Other Stories| Credits| Archives| Publications Home Page