Blue skies, nothing but blue skies

Last week we were all invited to a meeting to engage in “blue sky thinking” in relation to the future positioning of the university, and our Faculty in particular. While this made some colleagues testy, for all sorts of reasons, I thought it was potentially worth a try—although also ambitious to imagine that a largish group of people who don’t get many opportunities to meet and talk would be able to come up with big ideas that are both achieveable and sustainable in just over an hour, even with the usual flap of butchers paper and whiteboard markers.

So we duly formed into groups, sitting in circles with our knees pressed together like travellers thrown into small lifeboats, and tried to think about what we do well, and what might make us distinctive. Obviously, given both the circumstances and our metaphorical seating arrangement, we ended up talking about how to survive the everyday, and how to create better ways of keeping each other afloat. And in some ways this is the best thing about these surprise encounters, as we have very little time otherwise to tend to our collegiality.

The other characteristic of these kinds of meetings is that both academics and administrators are involved. This is something to do with “shared governance”, a concept that rolls around higher education like a tumbleweed from time to time. In the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, Gary Olsen (Provost and VP Academic Affairs, Idaho State U) points out that academics like to think of their administrative labour as a form of “governance”, rather than simple “administration”, and that this status inflation doesn’t lead naturally to a culture of sharing with those who do specialise in administration.

Joan Gallos, writing in the Journal of Management Inquiry, takes this further.  She suggests that the everyday realities of shared governance too often lock up in “competitive stalemate” between academics and administrators, where “faculty see administrators as suspect bureaucrats, while administrators see faculty as ponderous barriers to efficiency and responsiveness in a fast-moving world.”

I think they’re both right. “Governance” does sound more elevated and aspirational than “admin”, or what Americans sometimes call “service”, although this isn’t entirely academic vanity. In fact, we’re actively encouraged to use this label for what we do when sitting around in committees, partly in the hope that we won’t count the lost hours. But few of us have any clear sense of what corporate governance, or even garden variety governance, might entail. And we do tend to miss the dimension of accountability that accompanies governance: getting things done in ways that respect the multiple constraints and obligations of legally constituted statutory bodies like public universities.

Sharing the opportunity to shape the future of our institutions, whether through committee work, or research planning, or curriculum, brings us into the loop of responsibility for doing this well. To achieve this, it’s vital that first we put aside the time to figure out what the rules are. If we don’t, we’re going to hold everyone up with madcap ideas that collide with our enabling legislation or our budget, or that contravene policies that spent the last 12 months plodding through committee.

So if we really want to achieve lasting and visionary change, I’m not sure that it’s the unexpected and slightly nerve-wracking outbursts of blue sky thinking we need (nor the bitterness they produce when there’s no sign of support for creativity or risk on the other days of the week). Rather, we need time and recognition for the work of engaging with the organisation at a deep level, really getting down to the nuts and bolts of it, which is the only way academics and administrators can arrive at a more sympathetic appreciation of each other’s ordinary, hopeful efforts to do things well.

Olsen’s position is that this is an achievable goal we can develop in common with colleagues who do different jobs than we do, but that it’s not something wrought from a single high status event where we propose the wildest ideas we can think of on the spot, having all just had coffee:

The key to genuine shared governance is broad and unending communication. When various groups of people are kept in the loop and understand what developments are occurring within the university, and when they are invited to participate as true partners, the institution prospers. That, after all, is our common goal.

And the really good news is that none of this requires butchers paper.

Conversation welcome here