A Culture of Silence, Revisited By Mary Jean Ronan Herzog

Vol. 24, No. 2
October 1, 2011
A Culture of Silence, Revisited
By Mary Jean Ronan Herzog
Professor, School of Teaching & Learning
The Fall of the Faculty, a new book by Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins
University, is a blunt and scathing critique of higher education. He decries what he calls ‘administrative
bloat’ and the growth of professional staffers, though the faculty is not immune to his disapproval. The
theme (and subtitle) of the book is The Rise of the All Administrative University, where the faculty are
either disenfranchised or co-opted. He admits that faculty has helped pave the way for this condition by
their unwillingness to do mundane administrative tasks as well as their reticence to voice their concerns.
At WCU, issues of faculty voice and shared governance surface periodically. Fourteen years ago, I was
struck, not for the first time, by the hushed air at the opening General Faculty Meeting and I wrote a
Faculty Forum called, “A Culture of Silence ,” on faculty reluctance to speak up and speak out about
issues of great significance.
In some ways, WCU has changed in that 14 years. New buildings arose, old buildings were reinvented,
and a building or two fell to the wrecking ball. We got a traffic round-about. A road disappeared; a plaza
and water fountain appeared. A real Starbucks came, along with more fast food chains in a new food
court, while local businesses thrived on Centennial Drive.
Departments grew. Departments shrank. Departments vanished. Departments became schools. New
colleges materialized. Department heads became directors and deans and vice-chancellors. Vicechancellors became provosts and associate vice-provosts and associate vice-chancellors. In the past 14
years, many faculty, staff and administrators retired. Some were fired or moved on to better
opportunities. New faculty arrived, many of them young, smart, savvy and not so cowed by authority but
often surprised at their passive colleagues.
The economy crashed, salaries froze.
Chancellor Bardo retired. Chancellor Belcher arrived.
Yes, WCU has changed since I wrote that essay in 1997. In some respects, though, we haven’t changed
at all. I wish this Faculty Forum could be a celebration of faculty voice today, but not only is the silence
still tangible, the fear factor among faculty is at a stage whisper level. An assistant professor told me last
week, “I would like to object to what’s going on, but I’m afraid because I don’t have tenure.” I haven’t
done a survey of the faculty, but I hear similar statements frequently from faculty who feel that their
opinions are stifled by an atmosphere of oppression.
Department meetings are the only meetings I’ve attended in my 23 years at WCU that have consistently
provided direct participation and a safe place for faculty to voice objections. I’ve had eight department
heads in that time, and the level of faculty involvement varied with the person at the head of the table.
The best ones acted as if we were all faculty, with discussions that were robust, systematic and inclusive.
Deliberations were often loud and occasionally argumentative. Disagreements were aired, and sometimes
processes were formed and solutions reached. They were unlike most other WCU meetings I have
attended which were typically run by an administrator who overlooked the rare, restive voices vying to be
heard. In those meetings, questions were cursorily diverted, issues were sent to committee, or the points
were bulleted on power point slides and relegated to the virtual file cabinet. If there was a discussion, it
was tightly controlled. Meeting over. No discussion, no complaints. Thank you. Silence is golden. It’s a
top-down world.
We are not alone in our silence. Ginsberg argues there has been a widespread trend to minimize faculty
influence in universities. He says that, historically, the successes of the best universities can be attributed
to a culture whose main purposes were education and research, driven by faculty. Today, he writes,
universities have created an “…administrative superstructure, with an army of professional staffers who
work for the administration and serve as its arms, legs, eyes, ears, and mouthpieces…and do not work for
or even share information with the faculty. ”
When administrators accomplish their ends by fiat, the faculty is not only silent, they have been silenced.
Ginsberg gives examples of universities where budget crises have been used as a smokescreen to make
huge institutional changes without any faculty involvement. For instance, the University of Tennessee
chancellor surprised the faculty with a new policy that provided students with “… a tuition discount if
they agreed to work online with no direct support from a faculty member.” At the University of South
Florida, he said, “administrators instituted a sweeping campus-wide reorganization plan without
consulting the faculty.” (Ginsberg said that their Faculty Senate reacted by developing a plan to ensure
faculty participation in future reorganizations.)
While we may take some comfort in knowing other universities are grappling with faculty voice and
participation, it’s more instructive to look at examples where shared faculty governance is healthy. Take,
for instance, the AAUP report on Governance and Faculty Satisfaction at Missouri State University. It
states that MSU has a Faculty Concerns Committee (FCC), with an elected faculty member from each
department which works with the faculty senate to identify and address faculty issues. The FCC has been
conducting a biennial faculty satisfaction survey for more than a decade and has found that, “…giving
attention to governance issues on campus has the potential to counteract the debilitating effects of the
economic crisis on faculty morale.” Faculty voice can pay dividends in morale and satisfaction.
This claim is supported by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Great Colleges to Work For 2011
survey which places “collaborative governance” at the top of twelve features assessed by faculty, staff
and administrators at 310 institutions. How would we fare if we participated in the survey? I’m afraid
our ingrained silence and culture of fear would make it difficult for us to earn a spot on that Honor Roll.
In recent years, the Faculty Senate has become a stronger voice for the faculty. But there is no vehicle,
venue or process for direct participation on faculty issues. Faculty may take an issue or resolution to the
Senate, but the procedural constraints mitigate against timely action. WCU needs campus-wide Faculty
Meetings, run by the faculty, for the faculty, where we are free to bring up issues of great concern and
work toward their resolution. We might also want to entertain ideas from other universities, such as
elected faculty representatives on the Board of Trustees and an annual survey of faculty satisfaction and
morale. Finally, I would like to challenge us to set a goal to get on the Honor Roll of The Great Colleges
to Work For, if not by 2012, soon thereafter. The word on the plaza is that it’s a new day, and if we want
to change our culture of silence and fear, we better roll up our sleeves and start talking.
Coulter Faculty Commons for Teaching and Learning
Responses to our September 2011 Faculty Forum article entitled:
It Sure Looks Different From the Other Side
An Academic Steps into the Division of Information Technology
Submitted by Anna McFadden, Director of Academic Engagement and IT Governance and Professor,
Department of Human Resources. Please keep those cards and letters coming!
From Newt Smith
Kudos to you, Anna. Your article was informative and provided
important information to the faculty. You brought out some good points
that often get lost in the academic process but which are critical to the
performance of the academic community. Good work. It brought back
memories, of course.
Editorial Notes
If this month’s Faculty Forum doesn’t get us talking, then nothing will! Right now while it’s on your
radar, please take this opportunity to add to the important discussion about the Faculty Forum articles for
September and October or any of the articles written last year. Remember: You can always send your
comment to the article’s author or to me and request that it be shared as “anonymous”. You may
comment on this month’s compelling feature article by sending Mary Jean or me an email or by accessing
the Faculty Forum’s Wiki, then select the article under What’s Hot on the top right. The Wiki requires
you to use your email username and password to access the article. The Faculty Forum is a publication by
and for WCU faculty, but we do invite comments from staff, who are equally important in the pursuit of
excellence here at WCU.
To access the article as a PDF, please select the article link at the following URL:
The direct link to the main Faculty Forum Webpage is: http://www.wcu.edu/7480.asp 3
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