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Sunday, September 29, 2019

Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Systemwide Process for Presidential Searching

After UC president Janet Napolitano announced her resignation, effective August 2020, the prospect of searching awoke a quotient of dread. "The Regents will pick," one Senate elder told me.  "They won't listen to us. They don't care what we think."  The idea here is that a small group of uber-regents will pop out another person whose remoteness from educational functions and faculty they will deem a virtue.  This has become a national trend: secretive searches that look for a chief executive who will preside over the university rather than develop it from within, and reflect the interests of the governing board ahead of those of the university's multiple constituencies.  Examples include presidential searches in South Carolina and Colorado this past spring.  The conflict is also present at UC (see this post for national as well as local background). 

But the UC Regents do have a formal search process.  Called Regents Policy 7101, it requires a number of steps.

The first is that the Board Chair forms a Special Committee comprised of six Regents and other ex officio members (paragraph 1).  The membership of the new Special Committee is posted here.

The Chair of the Special Committee then "consults with the full Board of Regents at the beginning of the search for the purpose of reviewing the relevancy of the criteria to be considered and approved by the Board of Regents and discussing potential candidates (paragraph 4). During the search, "all Regents will be invited to all meetings with all constituencies."  The Regents then make the final appointment, although Policy 7101 does not specify whether the full Board votes or how that vote proceeds.

The important features here are (1) the Board retains exclusive decision rights over the selection of the president and (2) every member of the Board has equal access to the meetings that constitute the search.  The Policy protects the rights of regents whom the Chair does not appoint to the Special Committee--the process is not to be controlled by the Board Chair's Special Committee or a small group of allied Regents--and affirms the Board's sovereignty over the search.

But there is also (3): in between the beginning and the end of the Policy comes a potentially huge and dynamic systemwide consultation process conjured in luxuriant description.

B. The Chair of the Special Committee will invite the Academic Council to appoint an Academic Advisory Committee, composed of not more than thirteen members, including the Chair of the Academic Council and at least one representative of each of the ten campuses, to assist the Special Committee in screening candidates.
C. The Special Committee will consult broadly with constituent groups of the University, including the Academic Advisory Committee appointed by the Academic Council, Chancellors, Laboratory Directors, Vice Presidents, students, staff, and alumni. To facilitate consultation, there shall be appointed advisory committees, each with no more than twelve members, of students, staff, and alumni. The student advisory committee shall be appointed by the Presidents of the graduate and undergraduate student associations and shall include at least one student from each campus. The staff advisory committee shall be appointed by the Chair of the Council of UC Staff Assemblies and shall include at least one staff member from each campus. The alumni advisory committee shall be appointed by the President of the Alumni Associations of the University of California and shall include at least one alumna or alumnus from each campus. Such consultation will be for the purpose of (1) reviewing the relevancy of the criteria approved by the Board of Regents and (2) presenting the nominee or nominees to members of the groups at the conclusion of the search.
In classic UC style, the executive decision making body has parallel advisory groups that allows the appearance of consultation but which it can also ignore.  Hence the pessimism of some Senate elders. On the other hand, the advisory committees have a power of self-constitution and also activity.  The only stated rule is a cap on the number of members. The named advisory committees are:
  • Academic Advisory Committee
  • Student Advisory Committee
  • Staff Advisory Committee
  • Alumni Advisory Committee
The Policy puts no limitations on the activities of the committees.  How do these Advisory Committees (ACs) actually influence the Special Committee and the overall Board?

The standard theory is prestige: find the most prominent or trusted insider from each campus and create what management theorist Clayton Christensen likes to call a "heavyweight team."  In the case of the Academic Advisory Committee (AcAC), prestige theory assumes that the regents recognize academic (or senate service-based) prestige and would honor it by adapting their views.  Each heavyweight would be recognized as speaking authoritatively for the (leadership of the) particular campus.

Here's the problem: I know of no evidence that the last three presidential searches have worked this way; the evidence I do have suggests the opposite.  Business culture does not respect academic culture, the class gaps between professors and most regents are too wide, and the key feature of Christensen's heavyweights--decision rights--is stripped from the ACs. 

If this isn't enough to undermine AC leverage, there's also the structural weakness of the committee.  With the AcAC, each campus gets one person to represent its ladder faculty; this committee has a maximum of 13 people for a systemwide ladder faculty of over 11,000 (pdf p 94).   This faculty is divided among 10 campuses, between campuses and medical centers, across all the disciplines, which have diverse needs, and across racial groups, which also have diverse needs.  The idea of one person representing hundreds or thousands of their colleagues makes no epistemological (or political) sense.  It is also a recipe for an incoherent voice coming out of the AcAC, which Senate handpicking of membership can ease only at the price of lost diversity of views.

But the UC advisory committees could affect the presidential search, by using their committees to prompt campus discussions about the presidential search in the context of the immediate future of UC.  All of the Advisory Committees could set up a series of events in which they talk with their constituents on each of 10 campuses.  They listen to hopes and fears, gather ideas about leadership needs, hash them over, and then transmit the resulting comments, recommendations, or demands to the Special Committee.  One faculty member suggested a "UC Day" in which town halls happen across the UC system at the same time. The ACs would have to identify a deadline that would fall before the Special Committee's long-listing and short-listing of candidates such that it (and the Board overall) could fully consider the input.  Each committee could do its work in about 6 weeks--2 campus visits a week (if not all done at once), plus a week to debate, formulate, and forward recommendations.  The scope of the issue is limited and the reports should be short.

Another benefit of using the ACs as a public fulcrum: town halls and other public events would be newsworthy.  Whatever they think of professors, unions, and students, governing boards do care about institutional reputation, media coverage, and what they hear back from VIPs as a result of that.  They also care about the public debates and collective movements that shape public opinion and apply political pressure.  A recent example is the issue of food insecurity and student homelessness.  For years, the Board were told UC financial aid took care of low-income students and they took no action to mitigate student poverty.  Then, sometime after Bernie Sanders put free college on the political map in late 2015, the media started covering student hunger and homelessness.  The UC Regents responded by forming a Special Committee on Basic Needs in late 2018.  The actual results have a long way to go, but the point is that governing boards do respond to public discourse, eventually, academic discourses included.

In short, though UC governance has a top-down 19th century structure, the Regents are most likely listen to faculty, students, alums, and staff under three conditions: their Advisory Committees (A) represent a real constituency brought together by a consultation process that (B) speaks publicly about its views of the University in a way that (C) publicly (re)frames the University's needs for its next president.  The idea is to create an interest, a buzz, an excitement, a university-wide discussion over what we do and don't need, and, more importantly, to construct a constituency which then builds discourses that have an institutional and political existence.  There are no guarantees, but the wager is that the state's media would cover a process in which a university system holds a discussion about its current goals and consequent leadership needs on all ten campuses.   The process would upgrade the level of public discussion about California higher ed both inside and outside the University.

This process would also help locate potential presidents with one vital skill, which is gathering exactly this kind of information from their own institutional grassroots.  This might seem irrelevant to the president's main job of political lobbying, but it is not. Recent history shows that a president without deep knowledge of the university's daily life simply cannot make the statewide case for the University's public benefit and fiscal needs.  UC's advisory committees could set an example of the creation of this kind of profound, inspiring knowledge that the University needs in its next president. 

I do hope the current Academic Senate leadership, Chair Kum-Kum Bhavnani and Vice Chair Mary Gauvain, rapidly set up a systemwide faculty fact-finding and deliberative process via the Academic Advisory Committee, details TBD. UC needs a new president with deep understanding of the University's issues, people, and potential, and the ability to learn directly from them.

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