There is No Formulaic Solution to SLU’s Problems

Note: The following post is the text of the presentation by Bonnie Wilson (associate professor of Economics) at the September 18, 2019 Saving SLU Teach-In.

Good Governance: Necessary But Not Sufficient

Back in 2012, Greg, Stacey, and Penny invited me to participate in a teach-in very much like this one. My topic was governance and leadership—very much like it is today. Although this experience feels a bit like déjà vu, in key regards, my views on governance have shifted since 2012. Back in 2012, I was really focused on good governance and what it could accomplish for us at SLU. Today, I remain convinced that good governance is necessary if SLU is to navigate well this very difficult period in higher education. However, I no longer think that good governance is sufficient. I’m going to talk briefly about governance and then turn to what I think lies at the heart of worries and concerns at SLU today.

The Necessity of Good Governance

“Governance” is a word that describes the structures and decision-making processes that “govern” an organization and the conduct of its work. Governance dictates how we go about our business (and how we’re not allowed to go about our business). Good governance is especially important for an organization like SLU—because we are too large and complex and require too many varieties of expertise to be managed from the top down. A good governance structure generates information from the experts that are dispersed throughout an organization, and it produces good incentives for action.

In 2012, I argued that our governance structures at SLU were incapable of producing the information and incentives needed to succeed. I would argue today that insufficient progress in the building of good governance structures is a key reason SLU continues to struggle—with enrollment difficulties, a persistent budget deficit, repeated violations of shared governance, a donor-influence crisis. Last year we finally began to make progress on building good governance structures, primarily through the work of the Faculty Senate. It’s really important that such progress continue to advance. But I caution that we can’t and shouldn’t rely on the Senate alone to solve our governance problems. Grass roots efforts (like Saving SLU) are also important—to generate ideas, to push the Senate to action, and to do things the Senate can’t.

POINT 1: Good governance is necessary if SLU is going to succeed, and we have to keep pushing towards it—using both formal bodies and more informal group efforts.

An Example

I’d like to share one kind of example of governance problems that I hope will also help pivot to my next point. We have some great deans at SLU—deans who are very attentive to the fact that academic matters are supposed to be primarily governed by faculty. We have others though who regularly violate the faculty manual and in turn regularly plead ignorance of the manual’s provisions. One dean has openly admitted that they “have no patience for ‘democracy’ in higher education” and that they see faculty governance as a nuisance to be avoided whenever possible. In another school, I recently heard a colleague say, “It’s like the Trump administration—without the vulgarity.” Deans don’t seem to get credible messages and examples from upper administration that they are required to know or to abide the faculty manual. We need to call this sort of thing out and to push back against it. We also need to be mindful of the increasing number of non-tenure track faculty at SLU—faculty for whom it may be risky to speak up, and who need help lifting up concerns.

The Insufficiency of Good Governance

While good governance is necessary, it’s not sufficient. Even with good governance, we’re unlikely to succeed without the right dispositions and attitudes, including in our administrators. Progress, innovation, development…where do these things come from? These things spring up from foundations of human wonder, of curiosity, of a commitment to shared deliberation around difficult problems that require solutions based in practical wisdom. Herein lies what I think is the source of so much worry and concern at SLU. Much of the rhetoric and the actions of the administration that are visible to faculty don’t seem to reflect the dispositions and attitudes of wonder, curiosity, shared deliberation. It seems as if the administration views the problems SLU is facing as wholly technical matters—to be solved formulaically. Our problems are not wholly technical in nature, and it’s a mistake to conceive of them in such a way. Instead of treating our situation as a set of problems suited to “technological” solutions, we need to see things from an “entrepreneurial” perspective—where hidden possibilities await realization and discovery, and recognizing the importance of exercising and cultivating good dispositions as crucial for leading well through periods of difficulty.

Where do the dispositions and attitudes of wonder, curiosity, commitment to shared deliberation come from? Some of us think they’re cultivated by the liberal arts and humanities—the disciplines that lie at the heart, the core, of who we are at SLU. To not see these dispositions and attitudes on full display from administrators is really disheartening. It makes people worry that, as an organization, we’re giving up on our really distinctive comparative advantage in the liberal arts and humanities—a comparative advantage that while rooted in much history, ironically is far better suited to our modern age than old-style technical ways of managing organizations.

POINT 2: We need the right dispositions and attitudes in our administrators.

Saving SLU?

Like other modern change-efforts, Saving SLU is a leaderless, decentralized movement. It is anyone and everyone who chooses to act and contribute to it. My sense is that underlying the efforts of Saving SLU is a hope that the dispositions and attitudes that we need are in our administrators and that we can draw them out. Failing that, I guess the hope is that if the rest of us can come together and push openly and loudly in positive directions, the force of that community will be overwhelming and will lead SLU down the path it needs to go. That’s going to take a large community and a lot of energy—and I’m grateful to the organizers of this teach-in for their efforts to get us all moving together to Save SLU.

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