November 17, 2003

Straight talk about shared governance

John Snarey, professor of human development and ethics, is president of the University Senate for 2003-04.

Over the last few years, many members of the Emory community increasingly came to feel that their voices were not taken seriously. Faculty regularly asked for greater transparency and consultation from the administration; staff employees called for a greater voice in decisions that impact them directly; misunderstandings grew between the Board of Trustees and those who work here; and emeritus faculty and others protested that their concerns were simply ignored.

In sum, it became evident that shared governance needed to be strengthened.

 The University Senate is the campus' broadest forum for democratic and social interaction among the people who make up the Emory community: faculty, staff, administrators, students, emeriti employees and alumni. To the extent that the Senate functions as a forum for democratic shared governance, it strengthens the entire academic community.

Building on this understanding, the Senate's executive committee began the 2003-04 academic year with the conviction that the time is now right to establish new norms of shared governance.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has suggested that at least three roots are needed to sustain genuine shared governance. First, shared governance requires, and results from, cooperation. In a strong shared-governance model, collaboration among the various governing bodies is the rule.   Conflicting opinions are inevitable (and useful), but should not escalate into combat. Nevertheless, confrontation should be used without hesitation if and when core values are at stake and the administration ceases to demonstrate good faith.

Second, shared governance and academic freedom must be linked. Shared governance (along with tenure) protects academic freedom, and this freedom in turn makes shared governance possible. Shared governance, according to the AAUP Redbook, is "a necessary condition for the protection of faculty rights and thereby the most productive exercise of essential faculty freedoms."

Shared governance and academic freedom also are linked for nonfaculty employees. Without the understanding that their right to freedom of speech is protected from retribution, staff members feel forced to silence their voices rather than become involved in efforts to reform policies.

Finally, shared governance is an ethical enterprise. On one hand, members of a university community, by virtue of their membership, have entered into a social contract to share in the work of governance. On the other hand, as C.S. Lewis commented, we need to support democracy not because people are good, but because they often are not. By exercising our ethical responsibility to share in the governance of our community, we provide a system of checks and balances that prevents anyone from gaining excessive power.

Genuine shared governance can be distinguished from a counterfeit version by the fruit it bears, that is, by what actually happens in the customary patterns of university life. Consider these three questions:

  • Do administrators function as partners in university governance, or are they reluctant to share information and authority? The well-intended old idea that "secrecy protects the university" does not work; secrecy breeds mistrust. Reluctance to share information also reflects a reluctance to share authority, thus undercutting genuine shared governance. Under old-guard administrators, for instance, requests for information often were stonewalled with the explanation, "This is the way we do it at Emory."

  • Do academic deans aim to make sure that each voice is heard and every vote is counted within the schools they administer? Those who appreciate the positive role shared governance plays in academic life will enhance the voices of their faculty and staff. The old idea of administrators as kindly, trustworthy parents who know what is best does not work with adults; it demeans, undercuts motivation and violates the norm of shared governance.

  • Do faculty and staff experience the empowering conviction that the University belongs to us? On occasions of heightened collective awareness, such as graduation ceremonies and town hall meetings, many do. This is an important step toward valuing Emory as a community distinct from or beyond the relationships among its members.

Emory employees, however, also receive the message that they are "human resources," not human beings. This sentiment was communicated through several decisions made last year: All new employees must urinate in a cup; all current employees must accept benefit cuts; all retired employees are disposable. The collective good of the University lost its meaning when the rights of the people who make up Emory were disregarded.

This year we are on our way to a much better outcome, largely due to a respectful partnership that is slowly but steadily being forged by and between the Senate, the University president and the Board of Trustees. The fruits of this new spirit of shared governance have included the Senate's unanimous passage and the president's prompt signing of a balanced pre-employment drug-screening policy.

The new spirit has included the Board of Trustees welcoming faculty representatives to their major committees, which should go a long way toward building more effective partnerships. It has included a renewed sense of hope that we may be moving ahead again and that we at Emory may someday be able to claim our rightful place at the table with our nation's greatest universities.

But much, of course, remains to be done. Emory's fringe benefits policy, for instance, needs to be addressed, not only because benefits were cut recently but also because it appears that some benefits were always less competitive than those offered by our nation's best research universities (e.g., frequency of research leaves; flexibility of sabbatical policies; transferability of tuition benefits for faculty children attending other universities; vesting provisions for faculty and staff employees).

To address this challenge, the Senate's fringe benefits committee chair and the Faculty Council's executive committee will work in close collaboration with Executive Vice President Mike Mandl. As partners, we aim to conduct a broad review of fringe benefits in order to ensure that Emory's benefits are equal or superior to those of other top-tiered research universities. Such a comprehensive plan, however, will take time; it must be thoughtfully prepared in consultation with others, not cobbled together in haste or in private.

One benefits item that cannot wait, however, is a reconsideration of Emory's health insurance premiums for retirees. The Senate's executive committee is acutely aware of the financial hardship that has been imposed on retired employees, especially those too young to qualify for Medicare. Current faculty and staff, as well as emeriti professors and retired staff members, continue to voice their deep ill feelings around this issue. They have experienced a break of trust that must be addressed now if Emory is to move ahead with other projects.

The University Senate will seek to work as a cooperative partner with the administration to provide affordable health care for the most vulnerable members of our community. This collaborative effort also will test the strength of shared governance at Emory. I ask that all members of the Emory community closely watch our collaborative efforts and contribute to a positive outcome through their constructive input.