Faculty-Administration Relations Topic of FSEC Speech



UB's faculty-administration relations have historically been marked by tension often leading to frustration and miscommunication. At Wednesday's meeting of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, guest Bruce D. Johnstone, former SUNY chancellor, ex-president of Buffalo State College and current UB professor of educational leadership and policy, addressed these tensions, speaking to new and old members alike on the intricacies of university governance and relations within the SUNY system itself.

Johnstone was invited by FSEC Chair Michael Cohen to lecture on common problems faced by faculty senates and to offer advice on maintaining good relationships between the university's faculty and the administration.

He explained that unlike private institutions, no SUNY college or university is an independent entity, but rather is overseen by the state government. At times, faculty may become frustrated with the administration over issues that may be induced by the state government, SUNY or the Board of Regents - not the individual school itself.

"We use the word 'Albany' as a huge metaphor," Johnstone said. "You need to figure out what you're mad at."

"Neither your campus nor any other has employees. You all work for the state," he added.

Peter Nickerson, professor of pathology, agreed.

"Students and faculty tend to jump in the middle of something when there are a lot of things we can't do and limitations," said Nickerson. "It's called a reality."

At the beginning of the lecture, Johnstone distributed a list titled "Seven Precepts for Faculty Participation in University Governance." Examples of the precepts are "be concerned for the institution as a whole" and "begin with a sense of purpose that's positive, not negative."

Johnstone described the main causes of conflict between faculty and administrators and how faculty can be limited by lack of authority, time and concrete rewards. Faculty members, he said, often perceive the administration as "unappreciative of real academic values and its demands," as well as "self-aggravating" and "too solicitous to outsiders" such as political and business leaders.

"These are probably important cautions and shouldn't be laid to rest," said Johnstone of the faculty concerns.

In contrast, Johnstone outlined the tendency of the administration to perceive professors as "overly adversarial," "parochial," "oblivious to time and deadlines," and "unwilling to do the homework."

"University administrators in general have that inherent view that faculty senates work slowly and decision-making is cumbersome," said Cohen.

Johnstone explained ways of enabling the administration and faculty to effectively practice sharing influence, such as providing feedback on advice received, prioritizing an agenda and recognizing complementary interests.

"There are very few times when faculty and administrative interests are vastly different," said Johnstone.

Peter Nickerson, professor of pathology at UB and former FSEC chair, considered the group fortunate to have Johnstone lecture because of his expertise in higher education and academic finance, adding that the lecture provided members with a "theoretical background" of the workings of the SUNY system.

"The major contribution [the session] had was it put governance into the context of how SUNY and New York State operate," said Nickerson.

UB's governance process faces several limitations and constraints unique to New York State and its method of supporting higher education and is further limited by the low priority SUNY is given by the current state government, said Johnstone.

"The governor's regard for SUNY is what it's thought about by scholars," said Johnstone. UB does not enjoy a national reputation, drawing the vast majority of its students from in-state, and thus is not viewed in the same way that other state schools, such as Penn State are, explained Johnstone.

The low regard in which SUNY institutions are held at the state level has caused difficulties for the school, particularly a lack of financial resources from budget cuts and a tuition level stagnant for seven years.

"The fact that there was such a diminution of the budget ... has created such a vacuum that it does not work on behalf of the campuses," said Johnstone.

Cohen said that UB's two representatives to SUNY are welcome to present their views on SUNY's relationship with the state at a meeting of the Faculty Senate in December.