Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reflections on Governance Committee report

On reading over the GovCom report, I find myself a bit concerned about the direction things are moving.

To take what strikes me as the meatiest of the questions raised:
Will the Assembly at large, instead of a dedicated committee, be proactive and bold enough to ensure institutional transparency and “call” any entity within the College that it believes is acting destructively toward it? Do we need a special oversight committee within the Assembly after all?
I'm not sure this is the right question.  We should never ignore the possibility of genuinely bad-faith actions by members of the community; however, I do not think this is the primary problem that the Assembly or its (non-JAG) committees exists to solve.  There are existing pathways, both inside and outside the Assembly, for dealing with genuinely out of line (or illegal) actions by members of the community.  The key role of the Administrative Committee in providing an early warning of the attempted coup of 2009-2010 should not be forgotten, but focusing on the mere possibility of a single historically rare transgression being repeated in the future puts us at risk of "fighting the last war".  (If I'm not mistaken, this narrow focus is also the source of the concern over the potentially adversarial nature of such a committee, as mentioned in the report.  One can easily imagine an Oversight Committee becoming a twisted version of the JAG Committee, with a sort of permanent grievance against every senior administrator. I don't think such an outcome is very likely, but it would certainly be unfortunate.)

"Transparency" strikes me as a somewhat unfortunate term in this respect, because it does embody somewhat adversarial assumptions.  I would argue that the most important thing that the existing committee structures (seek to) ensure is simply communication, of which transparency and accountability are relatively limited (though significant) aspects.

In that regard, this much seems axiomatic: Students deserve to be as informed as they want to be regarding school operations, and to have their input on operational decisions heard.  This needn't (and shouldn't) imply micromanagement or second-guessing of administrative choices. Ideally, in fact, the existence of such channels of communication should actually lighten the burden on staff overall, especially by helping to identify emerging problems before they blow up into major crises.

The small size of the Shimer community notwithstanding, communication about college operations cannot be taken for granted, particularly in a time when Shimerians are no longer cooped up in the same small area 24-7.  And even when good communication does take place, experience shows that we cannot blithely assume that it will be truly bi-directional -- that administrators will be eager to actively listen to and adopt feedback from the internal community. (However, I don't think that necessarily reflects poorly on the administrators.  Part of being good at jobs of this nature is precisely being able to filter the inputs that urgently need to be addressed from the ones that don't.)

Assuming that communication is still important at Shimer, structures are needed to ensure that it actually takes place.  Do those structures need to be Assembly committees?  Certainly not, but if the committees in question are eliminated, something needs to replace them that will similarly ensure timely, granular, and mutual communication about College operations.   (It might be worthwhile to consider what lessons could be learned from movements such as participatory budgeting in this regard.)

The proposal to replace these two committees with a strategic planning committee is, in my view, a troubling one.  As we often hear, budgets are moral documents. They show where our true priorities lie, after all the fancy words and justifications are stripped away.  In contrast, although we certainly hope for better in the future, strategic plans at Shimer have a long history of being somewhat detached from reality.  The choices that actually shape the school's operations and development, particularly in the time frame in which most students (and many faculty and staff) interact with it, have historically tended to be made at a much more granular level, based on year-to-year if not month-to-month or day-to-day considerations.  Even in the more stable and prosperous future that we all hope Shimer is moving toward, it is likely that these more granular decisions are going to be the ones that most profoundly affect the members of the community during their time at Shimer -- and thus the ones about which it is most important that community members be informed, and be listened to.

If the input of students into operational decisions at the scale where they actually affect the students is no longer sought, then  we will have managed to achieve the goal so eloquently expressed in this photo:

... whatever our intentions may have been.

Since a primary concern raised about the obsolescence of the Administrative and Budget committees has been the increasingly demanding and specialized nature of administrative work, I wonder if consideration might be given to taking the opposite approach to the "Supercommittee" originally envisioned: rather than merging Administrative and Budget committees, replacing them with a number of small groups, one for each department or senior administrator, with the primary goal of each such group being to maintain clear communication between the department and the community/Assembly as a whole.  Mapping the structure of these Assembly committees/groups directly to the structure of the administration in this way might also help to ensure that the Assembly's structures would remain relevant to College operations in the future.

(Such a change would, of course, require considerable deliberation, particularly in terms of its effect on established and noncontroversial(?) committees like Admissions and QLC that already fill some aspects of this role with respect to a specific department. And there may be good reasons to reject this idea out of hand, or perhaps it has already been considered and rejected; since the committee's work has largely been hidden behind the Great Firewall of Shimer, those of us in the external community are at something of a disadvantage when we try to move from carping to constructive suggestions...)

I write, of course, purely as a kibitzer.  My only qualification is as an alum, and even as an alum, I am not especially well-qualified (my own participation in the committee system having been decidedly limited).  Still, I dare to hope that my relatively remote and naive perspective might be of some value to those confronting the trees of this forest more directly.

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