Minding Our Own Business
Conflicting views of faculty governance and citizenship
By Luke Timothy Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins

Join the discussion

From the February/March 2000 issue
Blumenthal's Folly
Faculty Citizenship or administrative burden?
By David Blumenthal

From the December 1999/January 2000 issue
Shaping a Citizen Faculty
Cultivating collegiality in the research university
By Luke Timothy Johnson

Academic Exchange April/May 2000 Contents Page

Professor David Blumenthal's response to my article on shaping a citizen faculty ("Blumenthal's Folly," February/March 2000, and "Shaping a Citizen Faculty," December 1999/January 2000) has good points to which I gladly assent. I agree that faculty often spend too much time on committees when they could be deepening and extending knowledge. I agree that some academic administration can be done by non-scholars. I certainly agree that faculty are citizens of other worlds than the academy and should make a difference in their communities.

We also agree, I think, that patterns of faculty governance need attention. The myth of participatory democracy (a positive formulation for systemic academic paranoia) should not camouflage inefficient and spirit-draining attendance at meetings where little important is said and nothing significant happens.

What, then, separates our positions? Different construals of citizenship. Blumenthal wants to pay taxes and do his fair share. He resists the institution's vampirish craving for faculty blood, while Johnson calls for a sense of covenant, in which shared participation lightens the load for all. These are fundamentally different political constructions of the university. Blumenthal's university is about the individual scholar's performance in teaching and research; everything else is distraction. Johnson's university is about the synergy of teaching and research among a collegium of scholars that is enabled by their common effort.

Blumenthal's solution (his "Folly") is to cluster departments under the administration of an MBA. He is perhaps too sanguine about the likelihood of such a manager gaining recognition from faculty, who often only grudgingly accept their peers as coordinators of their efforts. He is certainly too optimistic about the eagerness of an mba to administer units in which no one can be fired. And despite the growing popularity of the sentiment that a university should be run like a business, I don't think it a desirable option.

Professor Blumenthal acknowledges that even in a unit managed by an MBA, "there are certain kinds of decisions--for example, curriculum decisions--that must and should be made by the faculty ," but he thinks other decisions are straightforward and "do not require a major debate by the faculty." It's an important distinction. The real problem is applying it. If involving the faculty in every administrative detail is paralyzing, eliminating the faculty from some decisions leads to the loss of the university.

Blumenthal seriously downplays the number of processes in which faculty participation is essential. Curricular decisions might be sporadic and curricular reform (thank goodness) rare, but other decisions happen all the time. Among them are the recruitment of new faculty and graduate students. Is there any faculty person who does not want a role here? No decision more affects the future of the university (and each faculty person's life) than those determining the quality of faculty and students. Then there are the practices of mentoring, reviewing, and assessing faculty as they move toward tenure. Who can do this if not faculty? Add the collaborative work required for the process of graduate education past the seminar stage: qualifying examinations, dissertation proposals, dissertation direction and defense. Can this work be placed in anyone's hands but the most experienced faculty who are also the most committed to research and publication? Is it possible to teach Emory undergraduates responsibly--to shift the focus a
bit--without also sharing in student advising (however defined), having some contact with student life, taking part in such collaborative efforts as freshman or honors seminars?

As this list indicates, it is not at all easy to distinguish clearly between those elements of academic life that can be handled without faculty participation and those in which faculty insight and will are critical. Assigning travel funds and teaching assistants (Blumenthal's examples) may be merely a matter of numerical calculation, but they may also involve subtler and more complex issues such as patterns of leaves and sabbaticals or the equitable distribution of teaching load. For those matters that require no debate, an MBA is hardly required; for those matters that require faculty discernment, an MBA administrator would be little use--unless she also had skills in facilitating and mediation.

With Professor Blumenthal, I bemoan the waste of academic talent in frivolous process for process's sake. When we dissipate our energy and time this way, we lose the leisure from which alone depth in learning and wisdom can grow. But I submit that the byzantine committee system that enslaves us is not the result of genuine faculty citizenship. It is rather an ossified replacement for the kind of organic, flexible, and responsive participation for which I called in my earlier essay. In any complex organization, committees serve valuable functions. They should not outlive those functions, or (worse) become the sole expression of citizenship.
At Emory, we need to look at the structure of committees. Even more, we need to address attitudes and practices that identify citizenship with committees and committees with forced labor.