On applying anthropology to faculty governance in a school of education

What I am arguing here is that, in the political life of any polity (whether small town or corporation), the consequences of an accomplishment are never reliably fixed for good. As time passes, the consequences of each event can change as new interpretants [in Peirce’s sense] assert themselves.

[This was triggered by ongoing controversies at Teachers College regarding various decisions made by top administrators, responses by various people including students and faculty.  What can current anthropological analyses contribute to the recurrent calls for shared governance?  What can faculty govern?  How?  For those in the know, I will be mixing Weberian via Geertz, Foucauldian, and Latourian metaphors, along with others inspired by de Certau and Garfinkel]

One of the first thing I heard when I started graduate school in 1968, and associated with “America,” was that “government is best which governs least” and that “the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world” (Thoreau, Civil disobedience).  And yet, if democracy is government “by the people,” then there is no democracy without work by this people who must be concerned with it and bestow at least some thoughts to it.  And yet …, around and around.

Now, it is possible to argue that Teachers College, for many of us, is the small town of most daily consequence.  It is the location of much of our daily work, it is where we may know most of the people and they know us.  It is the space where we meet the most specific of governmental regulations.  Outside, we are citizens, among hundreds of millions, of various nations and states; inside, we are caught with a few hundred people, in a locality altogether unique, deliberating very particular interests with which few “outside” would be concerned.

So, if Teachers College is treated as a small locality with its own political system, one could say, with Thoreau, that the best “governance” is governance that allows most of the citizens (employees) to devote the least amount of time to the production and products of government.  After all, most of us are not here to govern (administer) though we have to check governors (administrators) when they forget the goals of governance.  And yet, without active service by at least some, it is probably that, at not infrequent times, many of us will be obliged to give more time to the products of governance than we might wish.

But, of course, Teachers College is a corporation, not a town.  We are employees, not citizens.  Our administrators are not elected.  Financial resources flow from Teachers College to us, rather than the reverse.  We are not taxed; we sell services.  All of this commercial activity is tightly controlled by a web of laws and regulations, some enforced by various actual governments (from the IRS to IRBs, not to mention credit hours and Integrative Projects).  Other regulations are enforced contractually by other corporations, from Columbia University to insurance companies, etc.  I suspect that no one at TC knows the full extent of this web, and this is OK as long as one person knows her position on the network of entangling connections (including both descending and ascending positions), acts so that the controlling regulating agencies will acknowledge that what it requires done has been done, and then reports this acknowledgment to the proper persons who will then report it further, all the way to the president and Board of Trustees, not to mention faculty, etc., when needed (remember the many e-mails some of us received from Janice Robinson regarding the “On-Line Harassment Prevention Course”).

If Teachers College, as corporation, could be the well-oiled machine some expert in bureaucratic efficiency might imagine, then everything would be OK.  If the actual corporation was powerful enough to have become a panopticon, everything might be well also–though perhaps only as far as the performance of the required is concerned.

But, of course, Teachers College is neither machine nor panopticon.  It is a live “polity” (a word I prefer to “community” for reasons I explain elsewhere) that is also a network and web.  At every nodes there is fundamental uncertainty as to the exact shape of the cog one must fit into, as well as who is warden and who is inmate.  Everyone who is caught here must wonder whether the appointed task was indeed accomplished, or whether an accomplishment has been reported to the right person(s).  It is not only that the feedback channels are not well oiled, but that the feedback for the same event keeps changing.

For example, a brief case study:

There appears to have been two of triggering events to the Spring 2013 controversies: the(bonuses paid to some administrators in 2010/2011; and Susan Furhman’s association with Pearson.  I focus on the latter and particularly on the transformations in the effects it has had in the TC polity.  I personally learned about the association three or four years ago, and talked about my “discovery” to a few of our colleagues, none of them knew about it.  I did not anything more about it.  I assumed that “everybody (but a few at the periphery) knew—including our Executive Committee—and that it was OK with them.  I retreated to my pond (metaphorically, to build on Thoreau) and forgot about the matter.  Actually, as “all” (?) know, Furhman’s association dates from before she started as president.  Quite a few people did know about it, including the trustees who must have been convinced that it would be good for Teachers College to have one of ours as, actually, the sole voice from the world of “education” on the board of a company that self-describes as “the world’s leading education company, providing educational materials, technologies, assessments and related services to teachers and students of all ages” (retrieved from the Pearson web site “About us” and “Board of directors”  on June 6, 2013).  And then, suddenly, many, with Dianne Ravitch, are now saying that the association may be a conflict of interest—a major charge indeed.

Whether there is anything wrong or conflictual about Furhman’s association with Pearson will continue to be debated.  What I am arguing here is that, in the political life of any polity, the consequences of an accomplishment are never reliably fixed for good.  As time passes, the consequences of each event can change as new interpretants [in Peirce’s sense] assert themselves.  The process is not mechanical, and final outcomes cannot be predicted.  We cannot stop moving and the need to govern is ever renewed.

This is a fundamental process that neither the tightening of procedures or controls can abolish.  It is a process well documented by significant research and theory, particularly from the parts of the sciences with which cultural anthropology is most comfortably associated.  As faculty members discuss what we mean, practically, about “shared governance” understanding our contexts and their constraints is essential.

I will suggest some of what I think might be done, practically, in a later post.

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