Defending Shared Governance: The Case of Ft. Lewis College

In a terrific essay explaining “Why We’re On Strike,” University of Illinois-Chicago professors Lennard Davis and Walter Benn Michaels wrote this about their institution’s flawed shared governance system: “To call shared governance real governance is like saying your dog has an equal say in how your household is run because sometimes when he whines he gets fed.”  Sadly, the comment applies to an increasing number of higher education institutions across the country.

Take, for instance, the case of Fort Lewis College (FLC), a public four-year liberal arts school in Durango, Colorado.  Below is an article by FLC faculty members and AAUP chapter leaders Mark Seis and Janine Fitzgerald, posted originally on the website of AAUP’s Colorado Conference.  The article concerns a decision by the college’s Board of Trustees to change the curriculum from a mix of 3-unit and 4-unit courses to one limited to 3-unit courses.  The issue, however, is not which system is better; indeed, some faculty, especially in the sciences, support the change.  That may be because, as opponents of the change contend, the decision was confused with a proposal to reconfigure workload in lab classes.  Be that as it may, it’s not for me to determine who’s correct.  The issue is not whether FLC’s board made the “right” decision.  It’s about whether it should have been their decision to make in the first place.  That’s because, whatever differences the faculty may have had among themselves, a faculty task force had recommended keeping the 3-4 unit mix and the Faculty Senate had voted 12-3 against the change, urging continued discussion of the problems it was allegedly intended to address.

In its 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, jointly formulated with the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and University (AGB), the AAUP declared:

The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.  In these matters the power of review or final decision lodged in the governing board or delegated by it to the president should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances, and for reasons communicated to the faculty. It is desirable that the faculty should, following such communication, have opportunity for further consideration and further transmittal of its views to the president or board.

In a January 24 letter to the Board of Trustees the Ft. Lewis AAUP wrote:

The proposal to shift a large number of courses from four to three credits will create massive changes to the content of courses and to the structure and content of programs. Under the principles of shared governance, enacting such a massive change to the curriculum should ideally be done after consulting the faculty and obtaining their agreement. The faculty have already considered the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of the gradual shift to four-credit courses in great depth when these changes were made. Detailed reasons for these changes were provided at the time. Further, at three different times in the last decade, the faculty has considered the move to an all three-credit model. Each time, the faculty has voted against this proposed change to a three-credit model.

Whatever one may think of 3-unit or 4-unit courses, shared governance is the issue at FLC and it is an issue that should concern faculty everywhere.  To be sure, the fight at FLC is far from over.  Faculty leaders in AAUP and the Senate are considering their options, and many remain optimistic that the decision can be reversed.  But even if it isn’t, the task of organizing the faculty to defend their common interest and control of the curriculum will continue.

But let me turn the podium over to our Ft. Lewis colleagues:

Fort Lewis College: Shared Governance Denied

The following is a guest post from Mark Seis and Janine Fitzgerald of the Fort Lewis AAUP:

On February 7th, 2014, the Fort Lewis College (FLC) Board of Trustees (BOT) unanimously voted to change FLC curriculum from a three- and four-credit mix to an all three-credit model against the apparent will of a majority of faculty and students at the institution. This is the first time in the history of FLC that the BOT, advised by the FLC Administration, has overruled the will of the faculty on matters pertaining to curriculum, violating the AAUP’s principles of shared governance. This vote was based on a manufactured crisis generated by Provost Barbara Morris and President Dene Kaye Thomas.

The FLC Administration, claiming to adhere to AAUP principles of shared governance, misled the BOT, faculty, and students on several counts. First, the administration convinced the BOT that the three and four credit mixed curriculum was such a contentious issue among the faculty that “exceptional circumstances” (the only situation deemed by AAUP to constitute a need for administrative overreach) required the administration to override faculty governance by recommending to the BOT that FLC move to a three-credit model. However, the three- and four-credit issue had already been studied, debated, and voted upon by the faculty. The faculty senate convened a task force to study the issue in April 2013. The committee surveyed all departments and received 18 out of 22 responses. The committee agreed based on the responses that the best way to move forward was to maintain the three- and four-credit mix.

The three- and four-credit issue has long been conflated by the administration with workload inequity issues in some of the STEM disciplines because of the way lab hours/credits have been counted toward faculty workload. The committee report called for addressing workload inequities for the sciences by suggesting a two-course two-lab workload, reducing the workload for faculty in the sciences. The committee also recommended solutions for dealing with scheduling both three and four credit courses in a more uniform way to avoid overlap, another perceived problem with the mix of credits. The report was approved by all committee members and passed the faculty senate by a 12 to 3 vote in favor of keeping the three- and four-credit mix. In a survey conducted of voting faculty members, 56 percent overall favored keeping the mix, and among faculty who would be directly affected by the change, 90 percent favored keeping the mix. In a poll conducted by students, 84 percent of students surveyed believed that an all three-credit curriculum change would have negative consequences for their education.

In the face of a clear faculty and student majority against the three-credit model, the administration next put forward what they perceived to be four irrefutable justifications for moving the college to a three credit model: 1) Higher Learning Commission (HLC) accreditation; 2) transferability of courses; 3) scheduling; and 4) workload inequality. In a document submitted to the BOT by the FLC AAUP chapter each of these administrative justifications were addressed separately.

Provost Morris has repeatedly insisted that our current three and four-credit mix was put into place without approval from HLC. However, the three and four-credit mix has been in place for over two decades in some disciplines, without ever having raised any red flags on previous accreditation visits. She has also stated both orally and in email communications that a massive shift to an all three-credit model would not require approval of HLC. Both of these claims are spurious and disingenuous. Neither claim is supported by previous HLC reviews, by substantive change policies and requirements available from the HLC’s website, or by email communications directly from the HLC. In a recent email to FLC’s Provost, Barbara Johnson, HLC Vice President for Accreditation Relations Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association explains the ramifications of changing to an all 3-credit model:

I have reviewed the requirements for submission of a substantive change form (Length of Term Affecting Allocation of Credit attached for your convenience) and whether the form is necessary depends on whether 25% or more of the courses will be impacted (i.e., the four credit hours that will be converted to three credit hours). So if 25% of the total courses are four credits then you will need to complete the form but if less than 25% of the total courses are four credit hours then you will not need to complete the form (Barbara Johnson, February 17, 2014 3:35 PM).

The BOT’s decision will require far more than 25% of the total courses at FLC to change from four to three credits and will clearly require special review and approval by the HLC. President Thomas and Provost Morris clearly misled the BOT and faculty by suggesting that this entire process of moving to a 3-credit model was being driven by the need to avoid such added review and scrutiny by the HLC. This is obviously not true.

The next justification offered by the FLC administration was the argument that transferability requires by statute that FLC must move to a 3-credit model. The Colorado Statutes cited by the FLC administration 23-1-108 (7), 23-1-125(1-5) as well as CCHE Policy I, L. do not in any way suggest that Colorado public institutions of higher learning should adopt a three-credit model. These statutes refer to the ability of transfer students to transfer unimpeded between Colorado public institutions of higher learning to ensure that students can satisfy general education requirements within 60 credits on their way to earning a bachelor’s degree within the 120-credit limit. Because other Colorado colleges have some 3- and 4-credit mix, seamless transferability does pose some challenges for students transferring. However, students transferring to FLC get full credit for every course they take elsewhere. In short, all students transferring to FLC who have completed GE tpathways courses at other institutions are given full credit for having completed those requirements. Statutorily, it is clear that the FLC Administration was being disingenuous regarding the interpretation of the law to both the BOT and the faculty.

There is no doubt that there are some scheduling conflicts with a three and four-credit mix as demonstrated and argued by the FLC Administration. In some cases, scheduling conflicts do cause students to have to enroll in slightly overlapping classes. Faculty are concerned about this problem and have proposed five different models for resolving most of these scheduling problems while maintaining a three and four-credit mix of courses. These scheduling alterations involve starting courses earlier and ending them later. Faculty members have voiced no objections to adjusting their schedules to accommodate student needs. In addition, with required labs scheduling problems will remain regardless of what model we have. While scheduling presents challenges, it does not constitute, as the FLC administration suggested to the BOT, an “exceptional circumstance,” justifying the usurpation of faculty governance and the dismantling of an entire curriculum.

Yet another justification for moving to an all three-credit model by the FLC administration has been the issue of workload inequities raised by colleagues in the sciences. The FLC administration has misled the BOT and attempted to divide the faculty by emphasizing this issue as a major point of contention among disciplines. However, faculty members across the entire campus agree that the sciences have a greater burden when teaching three courses and two labs per semester. There is no doubt that three courses plus two labs require more preparation than three courses alone. Both the senate created committee on the three- and four-credit mix (referred to earlier in this article) and FLC’s chapter of the AAUP support the change to a two-course/two-lab model for faculty in the sciences. This accommodation to deal with workload issues for the sciences is a non-issue among the faculty, yet the FLC administration has repeatedly misled the BOT and the faculty by conflating workload issues in some disciplines with the completely separate issue of changing the entire curriculum to a 3-credit model. Forcing every discipline to operate under a 3-credit model would not change the workload issue in the sciences. This is a disingenuous effort on the part of the administration to obfuscate the issues.

In spite of the usurpation of faculty governance by President Thomas and Provost Morris, FLC’s AAUP chapter and general faculty body remain committed to the principles of shared governance. Fort Lewis College AAUP is working to restore these governance principles and is considering options regarding the administrations’ miscarriage of AAUP shared governance principles. It is important to emphasize that this entire process was in no way presented as a fiscally motivated decision. In fact, it will cost the college more money to make this massive transition to a three-credit model than it would to maintain the current mix of credits. A fact admitted by the administration. If the decision is not about money, then it must be about power and the complete usurpation of faculty governance processes. This episode is alarming and should jolt all faculty out of their complacency and complicity with the trend of hiring ambitious, careerist administrators whose sole purpose is to gratify their own egos at the expense of the collective knowledge and history of our esteemed institutions.

3 thoughts on “Defending Shared Governance: The Case of Ft. Lewis College

  1. To extend the analogy between faculty and whining dogs, anyone who owns a dog recognizes the cues that the dog provides that it needs to go out. If one continues to ignore those cues for long enough, there is eventually a big mess to clean up just inside the door.

    Any administration that ignores faculty input on curricular issues–and especially reiterated faculty input on such issues–is both courting disaster and confessing its own ineptitude. For it is faculty who will have to adjust programs and courses to accommodate any broad curricular changes. Likewise, it is the administrative responsibility to lead effectively–to persuade faculty that initiatives originating at the top are in the best interests of the institution. To fail at that persuasion and then to mandate the initiative without faculty support is an arbitrary abuse of power that calls into question whether those with such power should continue to be entrusted with it.

  2. As I have commented on the earlier posting from this group:

    “The readers of the posting above should be aware that the opinion offered there represents only one portion of the faculty. There are many supporters of the entire Administrative proposal and the BOT decision.”
    Ron Estler
    Professor of Chemistry

  3. Pingback: 2014 Through the Academe Blog: March | The Academe Blog

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