Q&A

I think most of us are receptive to being more involved, but I'm not sure our structures of governance are effective in instilling a sense of responsibility for the future of the university.

Bobby Ahdieh

Vice Dean and Professor of Law, Emory Law School

Bobby Ahdieh joined the law school faculty in 2000 from the U.S. Department of Justice. He has been a member of and chaired a variety of law school and university-wide faculty governance bodies. He was appointed associate dean of faculty at the law school in 2010 and vice dean in 2011. He was a participant in the 2013-14 Academic Learning Community titled “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education,” convened by the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence to explore the shifting contexts of higher education. 

The Academic Exchange: How do you view the role of faculty governance in higher education? 

Bobby Ahdieh: I think the role appropriately varies, depending upon the phase of decision-making. The first phase is defining the strategic vision for the university, school, or department: Where does the relevant academic unit want to go? The next phase is developing ideas for how best to pursue those goals. The third phase is executing on those initiatives, and fourth is assessing them: Was this program a success? Should we abandon it, modify it, or continue as is? Our role as faculty should be at its acme in the first and last phase. Too often, though, we brush past the first phase. And we definitely don’t give enough attention to the role of faculty at the assessment phase. We need structures that ensure that when we do something, faculty join in measuring the results against the vision set forth at the outset. 

AE: What about the faculty’s role in the two middle stages? 

I see this as a more nuanced question. Faculty have an invaluable role to play in the second phase—developing new ideas and approaches—but we can sometimes be overly cautious on this score: until we know everything, we shouldn’t try anything. The changing landscape of higher education, however, requires greater receptivity to experimentation. It is at the third phase of execution, however, that the effects of that changing landscape show up most starkly. Simply put, I don’t believe we have the luxury of not granting administrators and staff the lead role in executing on the vision and initiatives the faculty has embraced. The alternative —that we retain this task as faculty, to be carried out alongside our scholarly and teaching obligations—creates the risk that important undertakings will fall by the wayside. But if the faculty’s role in defining the vision and assessing the outcomes is not shortchanged, I believe that delegation can be a powerful tool.

AE: What’s an example in the law school of effective faculty participation along the lines you describe? 

BA: I can think of a number, though two that immediately come to mind are our Juris Master degree and our Transactional Law program, both of which have been successful—even as they’ve departed from what law schools have traditionally been doing. The faculty set a high bar for them and let their faculty and staff leaders run with them. With a year’s data from the J.M. program, though, the faculty returned to the fray with a set of proposed curricular enhancements. The consensus was that these additions were valuable, and the administration readily embraced them and their costs. They said, If this is the faculty’s sense, we want an excellent program, so let’s make the changes and go from there. 

AE: Do faculty participate in matters of governance as much as you would like? 

BA: I think most of us are receptive to being more involved, but I’m not sure our structures of governance are effective in instilling a sense of
responsibility for the future of the university—or even our individual units. Faculty are not given sufficient opportunity to take full ownership of relevant initiatives or undertakings. I think that’s changing, though. Being creative and entrepreneurial in terms of new initiatives isn’t just relevant at the margins anymore. I think there’s a greater sense of a shared mission now, which may be the silver lining of our financial challenges. 

AE: You’ve been participating in an Academic Learning Community on the future of higher education. Has there been anything in particular that’s piqued your interest? 

BA: As a group, we read the book College Unbound. One chapter discusses how many schools are trying to define a niche for themselves by doubling down on a particular program and staking their claim on that. Some in the group wondered whether that suggested lessons for Emory. Others responded that such “specialization” was distinctly applicable to non-elite institutions, rather than schools like Emory. Not surprisingly, there was pushback: Are schools really insulated simply because they’re elite? And, even if so, is Emory sufficiently elite to rely on that expectation? The discussion brought to mind the reliance of some universities, and individual academic units, on a model of mimicry: figure out what university, or department or unit within it, you want to be like, see what they’re doing well, and then copy them. Personally, I’m dubious that it will be a viable strategy for higher education institutions in the coming decades. I don’t think it will work. Even at the most elite schools, I believe that students and faculty are increasingly attentive to why they should study or teach at the given school. The key is to find the right balance of familiarity and distinction that will best position the institution.