I invite my left-leaning friends and colleagues who teach on college campuses to consider the following scenario:
Imagine that there is very strong agreement among the faculty on your campus that your curriculum needs an overhaul. Pretty much everyone agrees that the status quo is highly problematic and that change is needed. Imagine further that you’ve recently hired a new president and a new VPAA, both of whom agree that curricular change is needed and who came to the jobs with that as a top priority. In addition, one key reason why the Board of Trustees appointed this president was because he promised to bring new honesty and transparency to the governance process and to end the arrogance of his predecessor. The new president and VPAA get right to work trying to pass a new curriculum by asking your Curriculum Committee, which is an elected body comprised of faculty members, to draft a proposal.
That committee comes out with a proposal approved by a bare majority of the committee members. In fact, the only way they could obtain a majority vote for it was by including in the proposal a number of specific provisions that will benefit the departments of skeptical committee members. So, for example, the English department will now get three new tenure-track lines, and History will get a one-course teaching load reduction for each of its faculty so that the faculty representing those departments would agree to support the proposal.
Now having been presented to the full faculty, the proposed curriculum change is opposed by a majority of faculty, somewhere around 55 or 60%. However, the president, the VPAA and many of the senior members of the Curriculum Committee still strongly support the changes. They see this as a once-in-a-generation chance to make major changes to the old problematic curriculum. The opponents argue that the new curriculum doesn’t correct the biggest problems with the old one, that it’s too expensive at a time when the university’s endowment and enrollment have taken a big hit, and that it’s full of these special deals that have no place in what should be a serious discussion of the curriculum and improving their students’ education.
Nonetheless, the leadership insists this curriculum change is crucially important to the future of the institution and if only the Faculty Senate would pass it and put it in place, the faculty and students would then realize just how good it is. In fact, the faculty leadership, working with the clear approval of the president and VPAA, are now scouring Roberts Rules of Order to find a series of sure-to-be controversial parliamentary maneuvers to get the Faculty Senate to approve the new curriculum without it ever going to the full faculty, and possibly without the Faculty Senate ever actually taking a clean vote on it. The president, meanwhile, is going around to students and alumni telling them how important this new curriculum is and, in the process, criticizing the faculty opponents by charging they have self-interested reasons for defending the status quo, even as the new curriculum proposal contains the aforementioned special deals for some of the faculty supporters.
The faculty as a whole and the student body continue to oppose the new curriculum by a consistent majority.
Having considered this hypothetical scenario, here are my questions for you my friends:
- Would you consider this a legitimate way to pass a new curriculum? If the faculty leadership in conjunction with the administration were to ram this through by questionable parliamentary procedure and over the objections of a clear majority, do you think this new curriculum would have any legitimacy?
- How would you view a new president hired on the promise of more collaborative governance and increased transparency who started his term by using these sorts of tactics and who didn’t put a stop to the side-deals for recalcitrant committee members? Do the claim that “if you pass it, you’ll realize how great it is” and the belief that it’s fine to pass it with parliamentary gimmicks suggest that the new president is really less arrogant than his predecessor? Would you be satisfied with a president and faculty leadership with that degree of arrogance?
- How fair would think it is that several departments got sweetheart deals in order to support the new curriculum? Would you say “well that’s how curricula get passed” or would you say “not only is this unjust, it does a disservice to our students who expect us to take this work seriously?”
- Would you buy the argument that this was the “only chance in a generation” to get curricular reform done? Would you think any change, no matter the way it was passed, was better than the status quo?
- Would you be troubled by the ways in which the whole process seemed at odds not just with the promises the new administration made about collaborative governance and listening to the whole faculty, but with your own values about democracy, faculty governance, transparency, opennness, and fairness?
But now let’s talk content. Think again about the questions above as you consider how you’d respond if the curriculum proposal included provisions that would eliminate the current requirements for courses in diversity and multicultural education and would restore elements of a “traditional” Western Civ great books curriculum. How would you respond if that were the curriculum trying to be passed through parliamentary maneuvers and sweetened with all kinds of special interest deals made outside the spotlight of transparency? I hope your answer would be the same, but I tweak the example this way to make sure you don’t think the ends justify the means, no matter how ugly the means might be.
If a group of faculty leaders working with the president and VPAA tried to abuse process this way, regardless of the content of the curriculum proposal, on my campus, I’d like to think that all hell would break loose and that people would see that curricular change is too important to be done by a process that has violated the most fundamental values of collaborative governance and transparency. I’d like to think my colleagues would even consider votes of no-confidence in a president and VPAA and faculty leaders who thought this was a good way to do business. Whatever the flaws of the current curriculum, the damage done to trust, goodwill, collaborative governance, and the faculty by-laws and our respect for Robert’s Rules would be much, much greater. I hope they’d see that ramming through a change in this manner would be a truly Pyrrhic victory, costing the institution a great deal in the long run – and even moreso if the changes to the curriculum made it worse than the status quo.
I’d like to think that’s how my colleagues would respond because I’d like to think their commitment to those values of democracy, transparency, and trust is sincere.
But then I when I hear some, perhaps many, argue that ObamaCare should be passed and passed soon no matter how it gets done, I’m not so sure.