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  • Writer's pictureSarah Ancel

Ground-Up Reform: Empowering Faculty When Policy is the Catalyst

Within postsecondary institutions, faculty are accustomed to having a great deal of input and influence because of the traditional model of shared governance. Their opinions are routinely sought out and valued when changes are contemplated by institutional leaders. However, when higher education policy is advanced at the state level, catalyzing change across multiple institutions, faculty often find themselves with less of a voice. They may be consulted less frequently or even feel completely blindsided by policy change. There’s understandable wariness of state-level policy, particularly when it seems to challenge their academic freedom.

When policy is used as a top-down tool to motivate change, faculty resistance has the potential to confound implementation efforts, in part because higher education laws are notoriously difficult to enforce. The consequences of noncompliance are minimal or nonexistent. Never has a math department chair been thrown in jail for disregarding a mandate to eliminate developmental courses or a provost had their wages garnished for not giving every student the degree map state law requires.

In the case of state higher education policy, stricter enforcement mechanisms are likely not the best solution, as they may only serve to further alienate faculty and cause them to be even more opposed to the change. A better approach is to make faculty members active, ongoing partners in policymaking efforts, empowering them to use their expertise to champion change at scale. This requires systematic, regular, two-way communication channels between a diverse set of faculty and state policymakers. The following are specific steps that can be taken on both sides of this equation to ensure success.

Tips for Policymakers:

  • Create channels of communication with a diverse group of faculty, not just the usual suspects who frequently find themselves on state steering committees. Find ways to systematically engage younger faculty, faculty of color, those who teach introductory courses, and those who teach advanced graduate students. Use these groups to determine what are the most pressing issues for which policy can be a helpful tool and how a policy solution should be structured.

  • Ensure that multiple departments within the state office hear from faculty, beyond the academic affairs division. Those who work in policy, finance, and other such areas will also benefit from regular engagement with faculty.

  • Trust that faculty have the best interest of their students in mind, acknowledge that they have knowledge and perspective that complements yours, and be willing to make accommodations or modifications in response to what they share.

Tips for Faculty:

  • First and foremost, embrace policy as a tool that can be used to advance equitable outcomes and overhaul structures that have historically marginalized students of color, those affected by poverty, and those whose parents do not hold a college degree. Actively seek out opportunities to help shape the right or best use of state policy rather than resisting policy change.

  • Think of proactive policy engagement as a time-saver. The minimal time spent helping inform policy will likely save weeks or months of wrestling with implementation of an unvetted policy that is unclear, cumbersome, or even outright unworkable.

  • Use a student-centered framework when analyzing policy. Ask first whether the policy change will benefit students, particularly those who are historically marginalized, before thinking about the impact to faculty as professionals. Weigh the impact to students more heavily, and be flexible in your approach if it will improve equity on your campus.

  • Offer constructive feedback. If you think the policy being discussed will not work, suggest an alternate approach, or changes that could be made, while still embracing the same end goal. Suggest things that will strengthen the impact of the policy, but avoid adding loopholes or unnecessary complexity. Show up as someone who will embrace change and maximize the influence you have in the group.

Tips for Policymakers and Faculty:

  • Make all discussions about the students - their challenges, their needs, solutions that will work for them. Institutions exist to serve students, so student success should be the top priority.

  • Root every discussion in data, not anecdotes. Be willing to look at data from other states or institutions, even if circumstances are slightly different in your state.

  • Jointly celebrate successes. If faculty and policymakers work together to pass a new policy, make sure both groups are equally recognized and acknowledged for their contributions.

While policymakers and faculty may have different perspectives, it is important to remember that, ultimately, graduating more students is a shared goal. Working from that common conviction, it is possible to create an environment of collaboration to create policy that is both effective and widely supported.

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