Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Text of Remarks Delivered at Penn State: Penn State’s New Reality--Four Lessons Learned About University Governance in Crisis

What follows is the text of remarks I delivered at an Academic Leadership Seminar of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation hosted by Penn State April 13, 2012. 

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) is a consortium of the Big Ten member universities plus the University of Chicago, which was formed to coordinate collaborative enterprises among its members, and is overseen and funded by the provosts of the member institutions.  "For more than half a century, these world-class research institutions have advanced their academic missions, generated unique opportunities for students and faculty, and served the common good by sharing expertise, leveraging campus resources, and collaborating on innovative programs. Governed and funded by the Provosts of the member universities, CIC mandates are coordinated by a staff from its Champaign, Illinois headquarters."  CIC, About CIC

CIC Member Universities: include University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Indiana University, University of Iowa, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Among its more interesting projects is its Academic Leadership Program (ALP). "Established in 1989, this intensive experience develops the leadership and managerial skills of faculty who have demonstrated exceptional ability and academic promise. . . . The program is specifically oriented to address the challenges of academic administration at major research universities and to help faculty members prepare to meet them." ALP --Introduction

The last of this year's ALP seminar programs was hosted by Penn State University.  This Seminar III was focused on issues of money, management and strategy.  I was privileged to have served as an ALP fellow this year. As part of our program, each of the Penn State fellows was asked to address how the recent events at Penn State have impacted us in our university roles, and the way in which our situation influenced our thoughts about being or becoming an academic leader.  I was grateful for the opportunity.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer) 
Fellows Program
Seminar III: Money, Management and Strategy
CIC, April 13, 2012


Penn State’s New Reality; Reflections by the Penn State 2011-2012 Fellows--Four Lessons Learned About University Governance in Crisis.

With a nod to current reality, we have been asked to share some very short reflections about what is euphemistically called “Penn State’s New Reality.” I suspect this assignment was an oblique and perhaps conventionally polite way of acknowledging the way that the arrest of a former male employee with significant ties to Penn State on charges of illicit and illegal sexual activity with minor boys, and the related arrests of senior university officials on charges of perjury, served as a opening, uninvited and in some quarters unwelcome, to a necessary confrontation of a host of issues that have been lurking yet growing more insistent in the last several years—university governance, power relationships among university stakeholders, monitoring within universities, the role of athletics, etc. Thus, beyond the irresistible urge to gawk at disaster as one passes by, the pedophile and perjury scandal here at Penn State illustrates not merely administrative and institutional successes and failures in the face of crisis, but it also spotlights a range of issues that may challenge conventional expectations and patterns of behavior, and approaches to the distributions of power and influence, within universities.

I have had a chance to observe the emergence of Penn State’s “new realities,” as well as the organization of resistance to these new realities, as both an outsider and as a guest “inside” the Penn State administrative apparatus in my role as part of the Faculty Senate “leadership.” I will continue to have a chance to observe more this coming year as Chair of the University Faculty Senate. My perspective, then, is that of an institutionally committed faculty member, not an administrator with a position to secure or a master to serve, one who has been given the opportunity to observe, usually quietly and from the sidelines, and now to review in a loving and loyal, but necessarily and perhaps therapeutically critical way.

So in the few minutes left to me for this very short exercise, let me “reflect” on FOUR of the lessons I have learned that have had the greatest impact on me and that will likely affect my interactions with the administrative apparatus in the time to come:

1. The administrative apparatus of a large university is not always prepared for crisis, and tends to handle crisis badly. There are a number of strands here:

a. At the time of the crisis there was little evidence of any pre planning for crisis management, the mis-steps during the critical first days after the arrests suggested a damaging lack of communication between administration and board leadership and a lack of preparation for responding to press and stakeholder questions, rather than appearing in control the reactive posture further suggested a leadership under siege; damage control came late and took a long time to appear coordinated. Worst of all, these vacuums of process and reaction permitted a space where power could be effectively and publicly contested, moving attention from the perpetrators of criminal activity to the politics of the control of the university. Much of this was made possible by clinging to the view that things like that do not happen in a university like Penn State, that universities can make due without a substantial office of legal counsel, or a crisis management team, or the active use of public relations teams, or the cultivation of relations with media and media outlets; or the establishment of crisis response protocols; these and more are now required. The days when it was possible to run a large public assisted universities by jack-of-all-trades tightly knit groups of central office administrators are over.

b. The problem is deeper—strong administrators of large institutions can easily become isolated. Surrounded by people who may not want to challenge the perceptions of people who can fire them, these administrators can easily become critically detached from events around them and assume incorrectly the way their actions will be received by others. They can come to understand the university and the world around them in terms that have little relation to what is actually going on or to the opinions of critical stakeholders. The view from Old Main was sometimes stubbornly unique and especially so in the days after the arrests. Self-centered myopia reinforced by refusing to rely on more than a closed inner circle of information providers, is a constant danger all decision makers must acknowledge and mitigate. The appearance that this is the case is as detrimental as its actual occurrence. What appeared to some outsiders as an example: the former university president’s initial statement of support for Messrs. Curley and Schultz, which produced a critical firestorm that was, in turn, purportedly a factor in the president’s dismissal. The statement might have made perfect sense and been innocuous from the perspective of the president in the context of the usual obligation of a superior administrator to support well respected inferior officers. But that was a view at odds with developing reality outside of Old Main, a reality that was ignored to great detrimental effect.

2. University governance structures that are based on a strong President model are especially susceptible to mismanaging crisis, especially where the crisis itself focuses on the office of the President. The cult of personality is as dangerous for a university administration as it is for political leaders. Stakeholder models built on more open textured governance principles are more likely to have systems in place to avoid crisis and to intervene effectively.

a. On the one hand this requires a greater willingness to re-vest boards of trustees with greater oversight capabilities, including the power to reach down directly into the operations of the university in meeting its monitoring and assessment responsibilities. On the other it serves as a caution when political figures with conflicting loyalties, or their designees, assume an active role in university governance.

b. It also requires boards to be both more pro active, vis a vis monitoring and information flows, and more willing to consult with and defer to knowledge centered groups. The board of trustees appeared to follow neither of these rules in the months after the arrests. The initial response to the arrests appeared secretive and defensive, which tended to have the effect of disengaging faculty, and of raising suspicion in ways that are still felt with respect to official communication from the University to interested stakeholders outside the university. The subsequent terminations of Messrs Spanier and Paterno (whatever the bona fides of those actions) appeared craven to some in the public and among university stakeholders, and reported so in the press—the fact that explanation came garbled and in definitive form only months after the events, did little to raise the reputation of either administration or board. The process of correction continues but it is neither yet entirely successful nor free from gaffs.

3. Large bureaucracies resist nimbleness—they prefer gesture to substantive changes if only because they are less drastic and because they hold the promise of substituting formal for functional changes.

a. There is nothing more disconcerting than to see administrative responses to crisis devolve into little more than frenetic administrative activity that has all the feel of hamsters at their exercise wheel, with the same normative effect. Lots of little activity at the margins of a problem is no substitute for consideration of the more difficult underlying questions that this activity tends to mask. This applies both to issues arising in crisis—for example issues of trust, transparency, engagement, accountability, retaliation—as well as to strategic issues that arise in ordinary course, everything from the future of undergraduate education to the changing role of students and faculty, to the sustainability of tenure on an emerging “made to market” educational program delivery culture.

b. Frenetic activity that appears to substitute for deep engagement may also serve to corroborate a cynical view by stakeholders that it is undertaken to exclude them and to protect administrative prerogatives threatened by crisis, leaving the core of conventional culture intact. Preservation of authority lines, the politics of personal advancement, and the cultivation of cultures of servility as a marker of advancement are always a distraction in a large administration.

4. Faculties, and faculty organizations, did not well serve the interests of the university in this crisis when they assume that servility is the highest form of service. Beyond the general and bland cultivation of cultures of servility within a highly decentralized administrative model marked by benign neglect of the actual governance of unit cultures, faculties themselves tended to be divided, timid, and swayed by sometimes unsupported fears of retaliation. The combination produces a tendency to both over and under reaction that little serves the university.

a. Part of the problem was defensive, there was a sense that some sought to manage faculty engagement, to keep it well mannered and innocuous; this raised suspicion within certain quarters of the Senate and it hurt morale; it also tended to drive some faculty from participation in governance (on the basis of an assessment that faculty governance was being used as a cover to rubber stamp action already undertaken).

b. Indeed, the faculty was under utilized, inhibiting the flow of ideas that might be useful and reducing its effective engagement in crisis management; for much of the crisis the faculty was either an afterthought or a potential threat to spin management, it hardly participated. In crisis, a well behaved faculty was apparently only a docile one.

c. The role of the faculty Senate in the crisis was telling. The Senate was conspicuously absent at key moments from November on. It certainly was not involved in those governance roles that might have provided another source of monitoring and gatekeeping. The Senate was never really invited to the governance table except in a peripheral way and when it did appear to act, the reactions appeared to tend towards suspicion and fear of a crazy group of faculty out of control. Its initial response came late, and to some appeared passive and obsequious; the holding of a special meeting, an extraordinary event in Senate history, was met in some quarters with substantial fear that the Senate would stick its nose where it did not belong; the resulting motions to constitute an independent investigation committee was resisted, as was the move to no-confidence the board of trustees, the administration and its allies countering with a “work with us-not against us” campaign insinuating that a move to no-confidence would be disruptive and cheeky; the absence of authentic shared governance beyond cooperation in low level administrative process issues pre crisis made it impossible to engage effectively after the crisis commenced. Indeed, the greatest effect of the crisis was a move to greater control of Senate processes by curtailing or eliminating the power of members to call a special meeting.

For all that, Penn State has been moving in the right direction. Key actors are beginning to ask some of the right questions. There is a greater willingness by an institution, with a cultural affinity to the safety of the middle of the benchmark, to take greater risks. There is at least a conceptual commitment to structures of engagement and consultation, though not yet enough of one with respect to transparency, and an episodic willingness to engage in shared governance. Under the leadership of our new President, his leadership team, and the new Chair of the Board of Trustees, important changes are being undertaken. Both are making substantial efforts to be more accessible and greater efforts are being undertaken to avoid isolation and disengagement from critical stakeholders. The renewal of a commitment to shared governance is well appreciated. Yet there is much that still needs to be done. Penn State’s new reality, then, is still to some extent its old reality. Some changes have been made, others promised, but old habits die very, very hard. Still, assuming we are able to profit from the lessons of the last several months, there is a role for all of us at Penn State in that process of change.

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