Faculty Involvement & HR Design at UW-Madison

May 8, 2012 | Blog

As I recently described, UW-Madison is currently going through a process of Human Resources Redesign.  Today at Faculty Senate there was an unexpected and lengthy discussion of the recommendations of the HR working groups that was at times a bit acrimonious (I say unexpected because it was listed nowhere on the posted agenda). The exchanges between the faculty and the administrators–especially Darrell Bazzell and Bob Lavigna–were fraught with apparent frustration and visible annoyance from both men.  At several points, Lavigna said that faculty had been asked several times to participate in the working groups, but few had. Nothing that had transpired, he seemed to suggest, should be construed as an effort to circumvent shared governance, and transparency in the process was always the aim.  Moreover, he responded to faculty questioning, we should know that “our colleagues” had worked hard on the recommendations, and that he, at least, respected that work.

Driving home afterwards, I had a few reflections and observations I hope it’s productive to share.

First, it seems all-too-common for our administrators to mistake faculty critique for dismissal of their hard work.  As if when someone says “I disagree or don’t like your idea” they are really saying “You didn’t try hard to come up with it.”  That strikes me as a defensive posturing that’s entirely unhelpful, since the critique is leveled at the idea not the person or their effort.

Second, it is also all-too-common for our administrators to bring forth proposals to the community without providing evidence to support those proposals.  The documents from the New Badger Partnership were heavy on big claims and light on data, and the same can be said for the HR recommendations.  As researchers, this is excruciatingly hard for us to accept.  After all, we spend our days seeking proof for ideas.  As such, we expect from anyone bringing forth ideas to say things along the line of “Based on a thorough review of evidence such as X, Y, and Z, we have concluded Q.”  Instead, what we were told today was basically “Believe us, we did research–we talked to people in the community at many forums.”  Well, that’s not research– it’s a convenience sample of anecdotal evidence.  Where is the literature review? Where are the systematic methods? That’s what we need to know.

Third, a favorite refrain appears to be “but we asked you faculty to be involved, and you wouldn’t do it. Now you can’t blame us.”  Well…sorta.  But a key  problem underlying faculty non-participation is how administrators treat advice from faculty.  See above– would you want to participate in meetings where the people you’re having discussions with act as though your difference of opinion with them is an assault on their effort? Where they want to have policy discussions based on anecdote? Where they pull the common punch of “this isn’t your area of expertise, so what would you know?”  Where requests for data and evidence are consistently met with suspicion?  This is the environment many of us faculty encounter when we serve on university committees.  So some rightly ask, why bother?

Sadly, that creates a vicious cycle– out of frustration, we don’t spend the time on these key administrative tasks that govern our daily work lives, and in turn we become increasingly disenchanted with the place. That goes to simply prove the administrators’ point– when the going gets tough, where are we?

My honest question is this: Does the administration genuinely want the faculty involved? If so, then the kinds of questions we asked at today’s Senate meeting should be welcomed. No one should respond defensively when asked for further information — instead, it should be sought and provided.  Instead of redirecting well-informed questioners to other people, people not present at the meeting, those who proffered their ideas for questioning should offer to promptly ascertain the information and respond.  Data should be plentiful, evidence brought forth, and open debates should ensue.  That’s how academia works.  Despite the wishes of some, UW-Madison remains at its core an academic enterprise, not a business. Thankfully, some professors stood up today and  reminded us of that. 

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