Back to the Future on Faculty Governance

Some random, personal reflections on higher education in the twenty-first century

Frank Y. Wong

Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education, Rollins School of Public Health, and Co-Chair, University Research Committee

Wong IllustrationI grew up in Hong Kong (while it was still a British Crown colony) and Canada (while it was a dominion of the United Kingdom, before Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau reclaimed the Charter in 1982) and earned my B.A. degree in Canada. So my formative education was not “U.S-American” until I began my doctoral education in the United States. I have been living in the U.S. since the 1980s and now am a naturalized citizen and a faculty member at a private university. The educational efforts of my adopted country have been on my mind lately, especially since I participated in Emory’s Academic Leadership Program in 2012 and in an Academic Learning Community on “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education” sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in 2013-14. 

Many things have changed in the last thirty years. These days we have a proliferation of professional and technical as well as for-profit schools. Technologies allow students to participate in distance learning. I marvel at the progress we have made to keep up with the demand of an ever-changing world. 

In his collected essays on higher education (Pursuing the Endless Frontier: Essays on MIT and the Role of Research Universities, 2011), Charles Vest, the late president of MIT, posed an important question: What is the faculty’s collective responsibility to our students? He also addressed two concepts: boldness and openness. To illustrate them, he gave the example of how MIT lists all its core curricula online to share with the world. Indeed, it is a bold move to promote an open society. 

When Dr. Vest posed the question and discussed the two concepts, he was primarily interested in examining how and in what way faculty should be stewards of an ethical education. Yet implicit in his framework are also questions of how and in what way academic governing structures and practices may need to be reconsidered as integral parts of an ethical education in the twenty-first century. 

In traditional academia, governance structures and practices are more or less a local enterprise. For example, alumni are the core resources for university governance roles such as serving on the board of trustees. This is true for good reason, as alumni have vested interests in seeing their alma mater thrive and maintain its core values. 

Meanwhile, each academic unit is responsible for its own daily operation. At Emory, as in other similar institutions, the units either nominate or select faculty to represent its interests to a central governing function, the Faculty Council and the University Senate. This process is no doubt democratic in practice, but it is also operating in a silo. There is little incentive for each constituency to know and learn from one another. More or less, each pursues its own interests. 

The traditional academic governing structures and practices serve a time-honored purpose, but they could use some scrutiny in the twenty-first century. We live in an interdependent world and cannot afford to be unfamiliar with what our other colleagues outside of our disciplines are doing. Can we foster an environment promoting Dr. Vest’s values of boldness and openness? What would such an academic governing structure and its practices look like today? 

I make no pretense that I have the answers to these questions, but I do have some thoughts regarding these issues.

First, education has become a global enterprise. With many American universities establishing international campuses, does the overall institutional governing body reflect this reality? It is one thing to aim for an immediate gain in the global market share (for example, international students), but it is quite different to have a long-term strategic perspective and/or vision to guide the development and cultivation of how market forces fit into the core values of the home institution’s culture. 

Second, the conventional structure and practices of the faculty senate do not encourage meaningful exchanges across departments, schools, and units—and perhaps most importantly, with the central administration. Each is there to represent its own constituency instead of working towards a common goal, be it global education or otherwise. What could be done differently to reflect education in this century? 

Human nature is slow or loath to change. Any change requires what Dr. Vest would call boldness. To be great, a global university (including Emory) must have the necessary expertise or global experience among its trustees to chaperon this process. This need calls attention not only to the structure of governance, but most of all to the required intellectual energy. The university’s governance (for example, having a global education committee) accordingly needs to reflect new priorities. It may be useful to establish a program that allows faculty to do a year-long internship or placement in the central administration or one of its sub-units to promote openness in governance. Alternatively, each faculty senator could adopt a department, school, or unit outside his or her own to learn about the work and aspirations of others. 

These suggestions no doubt require institutional, intellectual, and financial commitments. Emory University is already headed in that direction with key programs such as the Academic Leadership Program and the Emory Public Voices Fellowship. I think it is a strategic necessity for the Board of Trustees to continue fostering such infrastructure building to promote Emory as a great, global educational leader.