A survey of University of Illinois academic employees raises questions about how well some departments and colleges include faculty in decisions, a key component of the university's shared governance model.
URBANA — A survey of University of Illinois academic employees raises questions about how well some departments and colleges include faculty in decisions, a key component of the university's shared governance model, faculty leaders say.
A committee of the Urbana-Champaign Senate, the academic governing body on campus, surveyed roughly 6,000 faculty and academic professional staff members on campus via its website.
About 300 responded, with some employees questioning whether their departments and colleges follow university rules for sharing information about budgets and including faculty members in decision-making.
The term "shared governance" is interpreted differently across the country but generally refers to faculty participating in university planning and decision-making — through executive or advisory committees, campus senates and the like.
The survey consisted of 10 questions about the college and department level, and the results were scored. The report also includes written comments from employees — some pointed.
"The Director assumes the role of dictator," complained one employee who said his unit has no faculty advisory committee.
The number of "I don't know" answers and items left blank indicated that "many faculty do not know about governance policies and practices in their department or, more commonly, in their colleges," said the report, written by Prof. Nicholas Burbules.
Those who did respond conveyed an overall sense that shared governance processes were generally being followed, but those who had concerns expressed them in "stark" terms, the report said.
In general, ratings were lower for colleges than departments. And the lowest scores came where respondents were asked two questions — one on how "transparent and fair" processes were for distributing faculty workloads, development opportunities and salary; and another asking how often the executive officer engaged faculty in discussions about budgets.
College scores were also low for questions involving how well the executive officer engaged faculty in planning or sought their advice, and how well faculty understood the shared-governance process.
Written comments were sorted into four areas, including potentially serious departures from university rules that might require future investigation, the report said. For example:
"I have never worked at an institution with so little transparency in departmental matters, nor such a complete lack of faculty involvement in important decisions facing a department. Our department head has gone so far as to erase all of the documents in our Curriculum Committee Dropbox folder because she disagreed with our recommendations. The head has created a culture of fear and division in our department, while telling the college administration that she is creating a culture of consensus. I am frustrated and demoralized," one commenter wrote.
Others complained that unit heads were unfair to adjunct faculty and lecturers with the "least power," cutting salaries with no notice or not allowing them to vote on department matters.
At a meeting of the Senate Executive Committee on Thursday, Professor Joyce Tolliver said the survey wasn't scientific and it's difficult to know how widespread the problems are.
But Professor Harry Hilton felt they indicate a potentially "pervasive problem" across campus.
The report on the survey has been posted on the senate's website (http://www.senate.illinois.edu ), and will be forwarded to campus administrators for distribution to deans and department heads.
Senate leaders Thursday also discussed appointing a committee to look into specific complaints and scheduling a discussion of the report at the first senate meeting of the fall semester.
The responses included about 30 complaints that the survey asked the wrong questions because it was limited to the college and department level. The larger concern is at the campus and university level, they said, with complaints about a "top down" administrative structure, a lack of transparency and the senate itself.
Burbules said campus and university administration were discussed during the last Senate Review Commission a half-dozen years ago and in a campus climate survey commissioned by then-UI President Michael Hogan — who was forced to step down after a year-long battle with campus faculty leaders over centralization and an email scandal involving his former chief of staff.
Burbules, outgoing chair of the University Senates Conference, said his belief is that shared governance is "working pretty well right now, at the campus and university level," and wasn't an "urgent" problem.
But he added, "If there are legitimate questions to be looked at here, we should look into them," he said. "If there's a perception that shared governance isn't working at the campus or university level, I think that's a reason to be concerned as well."
None of the questions dealt with potential union representation, the subject of a senate debate in February. The Campus Faculty Association has been assessing faculty support for a union.
"This is something that we talked about doing independent of any of those discussions," Burbules said.
Campus Faculty Association spokeswoman Susan Davis wasn't surprised by the mixed results, saying her group has been hearing similar comments in conversations with faculty members — including concerns about the process of setting faculty workloads and budgets. Shared governance works well at some departments, she said, but in other areas it is "neglected or even unknown."
Davis commended the senate for taking up the survey but also wondered about the lack of focus on the upper levels of the university, saying she wasn't aware of any recent research on that topic.
Burbules believes the senate has an important role to play in advocating for shared governance and ensuring faculty take part in it.
"A healthy governance system should have people actively involved, engaged and well-informed about issues at each of those levels," he said, and the survey indicates an "unevenness" in that regard.
If it's not working well at the level closest to faculty members, who are busy with other aspects of their lives, it will be perceived as broken, and then no one will want to take part, he said. That's bad for the university and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to faculty discontent and poor morale, he said.