Governance with Impact

Faculty governance at the Rollins School of Public Health

Justin Remais

Associate Professor of Environmental Health, Rollins School of Public Health

Established in 1990, the Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH) quickly rose to be ranked among the top schools of public health nationally and internationally. The faculty governance structures in RSPH reflect our belief that faculty guidance and vision are essential for the continued growth and ascension of the school. The ability of the RSPH faculty leadership to influence pressing issues facing the school and the university, however, flows from its creative use of faculty governance bodies rather than from the authority granted to these bodies. While the faculty share authority over matters of instruction, promotion, tenure, and research, the governance structures in RSPH fall along a broad spectrum of faculty agency in shaping and setting school policy (see figure), ranging from Determination to Limited/None (borrowing the terminology from the AAUP Bulletin, 57(1):68-124, 1971).

remais chart

For instance, the RSPH Education Committee, which focuses on curriculum, teaching, and policies and procedures pertaining to students, acts deterministically in most matters. The Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure Committee, which concerns itself with the professional advancement of the faculty, acts jointly with members of the administration and others. The Research Advisory Committee, which deals with research support and administration, typically acts in a consultative role, addressing matters that affect the conduct of research, including research integrity. Finally, the RSPH Faculty Council engages in broad discussions on initiatives, policies, and procedures that pertain to the professional life of faculty, yet it operates with limited authority.

Aside from setting policy, a major challenge faced by these faculty governance bodies has been maintaining their relevance in light of the school’s strong departmental identities. RSPH has a revenue model that provides for considerable financial autonomy of departments, and thus discussion and debate at the departmental level—through communication with departmental colleagues and chairs—is seen as the primary means by which RSPH faculty members express their views and help shape policy. Meanwhile, our faculty focus intensively on research and the pursuit of extramural funds to support a world-class, global research program totaling nearly $70 million in 2012-13. Such efforts can be highly disciplinary, which can serve to reinforce the primacy of departments. Or they can be highly interdisciplinary in ways that transcend the boundaries of the school, involving collaborators at the School of Medicine or Georgia Tech, for example. In either case, RSPH faculty may see themselves as having limited shared goals that extend across departments within the school.

In this environment, how do we ensure our governance bodies have the most impact? How can the RSPH faculty fulfill their vital role in determining the future of the school, even as their authority to develop and enact policy is limited? How can RSPH faculty governance respond to shifting dynamics in public health education? The responses of the RSPH governance bodies have been varied, but several key themes have emerged across the school:

Activating the faculty: RSPH faculty have sought to activate faculty participation in governance, amplify the voice of faculty through their governance bodies, and harness faculty energy and enthusiasm on a range of initiatives. As an example, the Faculty Council instituted a Live Minutes communication mechanism by which faculty are directly polled for input using embedded links in meeting minutes that direct faculty to prepopulated Google Forms. This strategy has extended discussion outside of committee meetings; has helped facilitate faculty volunteerism, such as participation on a subcommittee or task force; and has provided a means for the rapid assessment of faculty views, including their critical perspectives on the value of faculty governance. As another example of activating the faculty, the Research Advisory Committee recently responded to a set of inadequate reforms proposed for research administration in the school by reaching out to other governance bodies, reaching a consensus recommendation, and authoring a statement that harnessed the collective voice of the faculty across committees and departments. Activating the faculty in RSPH has meant working hard to reach the faculty, building support and consensus, and then strategically using the imprimatur of the faculty to advocate for policies that support faculty life, positively transform our students’ experiences, and position the school for growth and success in years to come.

Engaging in essential fact finding: Research and fact finding contribute to a well-informed faculty and provide school leadership with timely information on the status, views, and experience of the faculty. Several RSPH governance committees have engaged in substantive research, including a look at the impact of network bandwidth limitations on the conduct of big data research, potential salary disparities among faculty subgroups, patterns in enrollment and extramural funding, the increasing reliance on unlisted “special topics” courses that bypass governance oversight, and faculty perceptions of workplace climate. The discovery role of RSPH governance bodies has guided policy discussions, steered committee agendas towards concerns of the faculty, and shed light on unseen dimensions of faculty life and student experiences.

Tackling transformational themes: RSPH faculty governance bodies are moving beyond topics of short-term concern to focus on challenging, transformational themes. Committees have taken on issues that include creating and facilitating a culture of excellence in mentoring; developing and rewarding faculty leadership; helping faculty more fully understand the constraints and challenges facing the school; facilitating “disruptive” teaching innovations; reducing barriers to the pursuit of research that is high risk but potentially high reward; and supporting faculty work-life balance. The RSPH community seeks constructive solutions to the major challenges posed by shifts in the research funding landscape and by changes in public health education, and faculty governance bodies must be at the forefront of addressing these issues thoughtfully and creatively to remain relevant.

In RSPH, governance bodies lead by building support and consensus among faculty, lining up the ways and means, and putting the energies of committed faculty members to work planning for the future of the school and of Emory at large. Their leadership flows from having creative vision, drive, and purpose, rather than from authority, and much has been accomplished under this model. Important questions remain, however. Is this governance structure well prepared to respond to crisis or disruption? How effectively can it fulfill the constructive role of providing “checks and balances” within RSPH leadership? Will its influence rise or fall in times of economic uncertainty? Can it have an impact outside the school by achieving better integration of the school into the larger Emory community? 

These are only a sampling of major open issues, reminding us that while RSPH has an increasingly respected and effective platform for faculty voice and action, RSPH faculty governance is not yet where it could be in addressing the challenges our community faces.