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An open letter to the campus community

From the Workgroup on Effective Governance of the Faculty and Staff Senates, April 23, 1996

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 29 - April 25, 1996

For the past year the workgroup has tried to think out how the University Governance Structure might be improved. Our conclusions are stated in this open letter to the university community.

How We See the Current Structure

The University Governance Structure consists of, in addition to the Board of Visitors and president, the University Council, nine commissions, and the Advisory Council on Strategic Budgeting and Planning. There are also a number of working committees responsible for matters as varied as parking and Commencement, each of which is linked to one or more commissions. The Faculty Senate and Staff Senate exist outside this structure, but are part of the governance system.

This system has much to commend it, including a tradition of delegating many matters to representative bodies with acceptance at the top of the outcomes of delegation. At the same time, the system can be made even stronger without sacrificing its representative character or changing it radically.

The system is large and involves a great many people, as it should. It is also complex and composed of many separate bodies. This size and complexity make the system difficult to understand. Also its various bodies are prone to isolation without much coordination between them. As a consequence it is difficult for members of the university community to keep abreast of what is going on. In addition, the segregation of responsibilities, a rather fast leader turnover rate, and limited institutional memory all detract from effectiveness. The fact that the workload of the bodies ranges from very heavy to very modest burns out some participants while creating seemingly useless meetings for others.

Perhaps most important, there is no single place in the governance structure where truly effective dialogue across all university constituencies can easily take place. By dialogue we mean direct, face-to-face conversation in which opinions are open to change and consensus can emerge. Authentic dialogue is very different from the presentation of settled positions, heated exchanges, the processing of completed reports, or the circulation of agendas and minutes by paper or electronic mail.

What We Have Done

During the 1995-96 academic year the workgroup considered several successive ideas for reform and reorganization of the system. These were debated within the group in an open, exploratory way without a hidden "agenda" or preconception of what should be done (the names of persons involved are given below).

Our most drastic idea, which emerged in March, was replacement of all major bodies reporting to the president by a single University Assembly. During April reactions to this concept were solicited from seven discussion panels organized by the workgroup, composed of faculty members, administrators, staff members, and students. The Staff Senate and selected individuals were also consulted.

Reactions to the assembly idea were on the whole negative, and we have since discarded it. Yet at the same time, most persons consulted agreed that the system could and should be improved. From them, in fact, we acquired many new ideas which were incorporated into our thinking.

What We Propose

As a result of our year's work we now advance the following proposals for consideration by the Virginia Tech community.

1. Change the University Council from apex to hub.

The University Council consists of 63 persons named either because of the position they occupy or election by a group. It is at the apex of the governance structure. On the organization chart all commissions report to the council, which in return reports to the president of the university.

In our opinion, the University Council should perform more as a hub than an apex. At present, its work tends to consist of receiving reports from the commissions and then approving or modifying them.

We believe that, in addition to performing this ratifying function, the council should also be the central point for reflective dialogue on university-wide issues. With some changes, the council would become the one place where the voices of all constituencies are heard in a meaningful way, joined together in debate.

In addition to reacting to business conducted elsewhere, the council would become a point where issues originate, agendas are formed, and from which proposals spring. Also, as the central hub for discussion, it would become the natural point for external attention to be fixed, whether by individual observers or the media.

At present, such a role for the University Council is made difficult by several factors. The body is large for constructive deliberation. More than a third of its members are administrators sitting in an ex-officio capacity. The council has acquired a habit of conducting its business in a formalistic, parliamentary manner, without extensive debate.

To improve the council's contribution to university governance we recommend two organizational changes:

(1) Reduction of size from 63 to about half that size. This could be accomplished by having only some (perhaps five) of the 15 vice presidents and deans as members; reducing the 20 Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, and student-government representatives to perhaps 10; retaining the nine commission chairs; and reducing the 14 college and group representatives to perhaps five. The president, provost, and executive vice president would continue to serve automatically. All members of the council would enjoy full and equal status.

(2) Creation of two presiding officers. At present the president of the university presides. This is valuable as an authority link but obligates the president to be present at every meeting. Also it gives the body an image of an executive council rather than all-constituency deliberative forum. We propose that a second and equivalent presiding officer be elected by the council from its membership, creating in effect a co-leadership structure.

2. Create an Office of Governance

Another kind of "hub" is needed in the system, one that would be administrative in character rather than a center for dialogue. We propose that an Office of Governance be created, occupied by a full-time appointee known as the governance officer.

This person would be responsible for several activities that would increase the understandability of the system as well as improve its coordination and general functioning.

First, the governance officer would publish a widely distributed booklet that would constitute a directory or organization manual for the system. In it would be published, on an updated basis, the names of all bodies and their duties, leaders, members, and terms of office.

Second, the governance officer would attend the meetings of all key bodies and be the channel through which their activities and actions would be made known throughout the system. He or she would also act as secretary to the University Council and be responsible for maintaining communication between the council and other parts of the system.

Finally, the governance officer would assist the operational functioning of the system generally. He or she would act as a point of contact for those seeking information regarding university governance; assure that position vacancies in the various bodies are filled; keep appropriate records and files over time; and be a source of detailed knowledge of pertinent laws, rules, and precedents.

3. Conduct a Second Year of Study of the System

Our last proposal is to extend concerted study of the system for another year. We suggest that a study project be co-sponsored by the Faculty Senate and Staff Senate, with others joining in who wish to do so.

The study group would, of course, be empowered to examine all aspects of how the governance system might be changed, including giving added consideration to the proposals made above. But the following topics should, in our view, be given special attention in a second year of study:

(1) The duties and workloads of the commissions. It may be possible to realign some commission duties and/or consolidate some commissions, in order to lessen the complexity and unevenness of the system.

(2) The tenure of officers in the system. While membership in most bodies is multi-year, the position of chairperson is typically one year. Extending leadership tenure could increase system stability and continuity.

(3) Organizational placement of the two senates. Their present existence outside the structure gives them freedom to explore issues but undermines their credibility as full partners in the system. Their role and location in the system should be revisited.

Persons who participated in the workgroup were Charles Goodsell, convenor; Dick Bambach, Bob Dyck, Skip Fuhrman, Norm Marriott, Deborah Mayo, Jim McKenna, Paul Metz, Valerie Myers, Kevin Pelzer, Wyatt Sasser, Janet Sawyers, Tom Sherman, and Eliza Tse.