Campus governed by proxy, not ‘prexy’

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes regularly to the Chico News & Review.

Campus getting cheated?Check Newslines for a follow-up on Chico State’s Committee for Academic Integrity.

While Chico State students are busy taking final exams, the officers of the venerable Academic Senate (formerly the Faculty Senate) will be busy filling vacancies in its 39 committees. These groups have names like Arboretum Committee, Campus Climate (anti-harassment) Committee, Commence-ment Committee, etc. Each spring the senate recruits faculty volunteers. If this sounds like pretty mundane stuff, it is.

Besides the senate committees, each of the eight colleges (Business, Humanities, etc.) elects or appoints faculty, and sometimes students, to committees, as does each of the 44 campus departments.

The personnel review committees are most important. People elected to these committees decide the retention, tenure, and promotion of faculty and must be eligible by rank and status to serve. Their peer evaluation decisions can become very politically sensitive. Indeed, an all-campus committee decided all promotions during my era.

Department committees make decisions involving curriculum problems and development, student advising, sabbatical leaves, etc.—and thinking outside the box, as they say, is not encouraged.

Each full-time faculty member by definition carries a teaching load of 15 units, but three of those units are excused for committee work. Some folks find a social outlet in this work, but I thought it mostly a boring waste of time.

I advised my colleagues that in the private sector, where I had some experience, these tasks would be assigned to some mid-level manager who would be held accountable for how he or she disposed of them. More than once I complained at college or department meetings that the main purpose of commit-tees was to avoid single-person accountabilty by making a collective decision.

A common administration strategy is to toss a politically hot potato to a “task force” or a “commission.” The hot potato may remain under study forever or return after a cooling-off period with several tiered curative options. Accepting the top option takes everyone off the hook.

The elected senate is the top committee, and it forces the president to govern by consensus, not decree. It’s called faculty governance. Although state law gives him almost unlimited power, the president must defer to his tenured faculty or risk a crippling senate no-confidence vote. That happened last year to the Sacramento State president.

Chico State President Paul Zingg and the senate chair compromise as needed while thrashing out issues so the senate avoids passing something the prexy doesn’t want to sign. That’s governing by diffusion, folks, like it or not. Big problem: the most sensitive issues like, say, strict enforcement on faculty office hours don’t get on the agenda.