Saturday, February 25, 2012

Strengthening the Assembly: a letter from Albert Fernandez


As on the previous occasion when I wrote an article on this subject, the upcoming meeting of the Assembly this Sunday will be devoted mainly to shared governance at Shimer College.  No less than four proposals (see the published agenda) will be considered—all of which I support.  Although some of them have already been discussed informally and at events such as Firesides, they will be new or relatively new to many who will be attending.  And yet, because of the packed agenda and the intention of ending meetings at 6pm (“more honored in the breach than the observance”), only 15 minutes of discussion is allotted to each of the two constitutional amendments that will be taken up.  Hence the following is, without apologies, not brief.

The first constitutional amendment motion, to be motivated by Speaker Eileen Buchanan, raises the standards of transparency in committee reporting to the Assembly, while stipulating that consideration of legal consequences can legitimately override the interest in transparency.  Thus the motion is consistent with Principle 7 of the Declaration of Principles of Shared Governance adopted by the Assembly in November ’09.  I support this motion and urge its adoption not only because of its specific intent but also because its broader implication and effect is to challenge the culture of defaulting to confidentiality that tends to overtake organizations in the contemporary legal environment.  Granted that, as we are so often reminded, we must be careful about disseminating information when to do so might violate law, or ethics.   But we should be just as careful about withholding  information from the community. It is easy, and nowadays has some of the force of what Durkheim called a “social fact,” to default to not telling people, and thus avoid the risk that an idea, plan, or decision will be contested, or even to do so as a “just-in-case” habit.  The egregious example would be the KGB-like (and unconstitutional) secrecy of our former President in deciding to terminate the Director of Admission, and in stonewalling afterward.  The more routine manifestation of a culture of defaulting to confidentiality has come to be called “siloing.”   When confidentiality is truly necessary, the community should at least be given some explanation of the reasons for confidentiality-- reasons which may be challenged, including at Assembly.  Unnecessary or habitual withholding of information breeds distrust, corrodes community, and, ironically, often brings greater trouble to those who sought to avoid complications by it.  Default confidentiality is, last but not least, contrary to the spirit of openness and dialogue that is vital to the serious pursuit of the liberal arts and sciences at Shimer and elsewhere.

The second, perhaps more controversial, constitutional motion coming up this Sunday, originally introduced by Eileen Buchanan and myself, and which I am now motivating, calls for striking the “subordination clause” from the Preamble  of the Constitution of the Assembly, that is, the clause that requires, in the event of a conflict between the Board of Trustees Bylaws  and the Constitution of the Assembly, that the Assembly will in all cases yield to the Board.  I hasten to clarify that neither the proposal nor the thinking behind it aims at setting up the Assembly, or any governance body, as the supreme authority over Shimer College.  Rather, it seeks to re-affirm the balance-of-powers model by which the governance of Shimer was explained to me and many others when we joined this community:  that we have three co-equal and respected branches of  governance, that the Board is the legal authority-- as the amendment explicitly recognizes--that the Faculty is the academic authority, and that the Assembly is the authority over matters of ethos and community.

I should also clarify that neither the proposal I am motivating  nor any of the others to be considered on Sunday are aimed at our current, post-civil war Board, which has abundantly shown itself supportive of shared governance and respectful of the community, to the point that the Shimer Board should be getting some sort of national recognition for it.  However, one does not legislate for the present only.  As the Constitution of the Assembly now reads, if a future Board were to declare the Assembly to be purely advisory, or even to dissolve it, we would be obligated to acquiesce  by our own constitution. Nor is at least the first of those two possibilities farfetched, since the conception of the Assembly as purely advisory or superfluous was advanced  during the Lindsay  administration not just by Lindsay  trustees.

For those who find it natural or imperative that the legal authority, which in our case the Board unquestionably is, should ipso facto be the supreme authority in general, I beg to remind them that legal authority is by no means the only kind of authority.  There’s also moral authority, intellectual authority, professional authority, charismatic authority, etc.  And history is full of instances when legal authority has not been the decisive voice nor should it have been, as is attested by our own curriculum and authors ranging from Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther King.  If the authority of the Shimer Board of Trustees is not just legal, but overall, then it also trumps the authority of the Faculty.  Yet the Constitution of the Faculty contains no subordination clause.  Why should the Assembly’s?  As a matter of fact, the Faculty declined to amend its constitution with a clause to the effect of subordination during the Lindsay administration, when the former Board requested that it do so.

The deeper reason for strengthening the Assembly, in the various ways that are being proposed or other ways, is to preserve Shimer College from what has come to be called “corporatization.”  However well disposed our current board may be,  the national trend is in a direction opposite to power–sharing:  toward  exclusion of  faculty and students from Board membership,  toward  restriction of   student participation in governance  to the bailiwick of extracurricular events and clubs, toward augmented Board control of academic programs, toward the spread of for-profit schools, and toward decisions concerning the future and identity of  non-profit colleges and universities being  made in boardrooms by business people and lawyers, in terms of their corresponding discourses, and based primarily on considerations of enrollment growth and institutional financial health, with at best peripheral consideration of, among other things, burgeoning student debt.  Shimer, with its truly small classes and its lack of “real” majors, is especially vulnerable to what might be called “improvement of the business model.” Corporatization need not take the heavy-handed, pachyderm form that Shimer successfully resisted in 2009-10.  Such episodes, however, can have the salutary radicalizing effect of raising uncomfortable but fair questions, such as why it should be that Boards of Trustees and high-level administrators, whom I have no wish to derogate or stereotype, but who are the constituencies least directly involved in education, be the final deciders in educational institutions?  It seems to make sense, not just at Shimer, that governance be shared among constituencies, without any of them being declared--or declaring itself—subordinate a priori.

(Those whose patience I am taxing can skip this paragraph, intended for those others who might want to look further into academic  corporatization.  By now mountains of analysis and commentary on the subject are available.   A concise overview of the issue is found in “Speakers See Threats to the Concept of Shared Governance” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/13/10). You might also visit the website of the AAUP. And I also refer you to Benjamin Ginsberg's The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University--with which I do not always agree.  This being Shimer, you may be interested in what I for one would consider the classic and philosophical foundations of the critique of corporatization, which, from that perspective, is but a branch of the critique of modernity.  Marx’s concept of alienation, Weber’s of rationalization, Mannheim’s portrayal of “bureaucratic conservatism,” Foucault’s analysis of what he calls “discipline,” and Lyotard’s  of “performativity” are all relevant.  But I especially recommend Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s denunciation of “instrumental reason” in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, arguably the capital work of the Frankfurt School.  “Instrumental reason” is essentially the elevation of such by now familiar “values” as efficiency, speed, productivity, growth, performance, etc. over  the core values, such as educational ones, that they are supposed to be instruments of.)
The motion to strike the subordination clause failed in November  of 2010,  even though more  of  those attending that Assembly voted for it than against it, because abstentions kept the motion from garnering the requisite supermajority--thus reverting to the long tradition of the peacetime Assembly making it extremely difficult to get anything more controversial than on what day of the week we should meet or that the Oxford folks can vote remotely to pass. On that occasion, the most frequent argument against striking the subordination clause was that it would come across to Trustees as hostility--the smoke of battle from the ’09-’10 civil war had barely cleared at the time.  Granted that, then or even now, in the modification of any hierarchy there will inevitably be an element of challenge, a ruffling of feathers, which is why I also support the proposal for establishing some form of permanent dialogal channel between the Assembly and the Board.  But a perpetual policy of avoiding potential affront is equal to a policy of perpetuation of the status quo.  If what we want is an authentic dialogal and collaborative relation between the Board and the Assembly, then it cannot be premised on automatic submission of either party in the event of disagreement.  

The first comment I ever heard about Shimer College was that “They take education seriously.”  I hope that in the future it will be said about Shimer that “They take shared governance seriously.”

--Albert B.  Fernandez
February 24, 2012

Opinions expressed in the preceding are those of the author and in no way the official positions of Shimer College or of the Shimer College Assembly.

Editor's note: The agenda and supplementary documents for the February 26, 2012 meeting of the Assembly of Shimer College are available here.