A more democratic University

Administrators need to be open to constructive criticism from faculty and students.
By
  • Eric Murphy
November 22, 2011

The University of Minnesota administration has let an institutional attitude of arrogance linger even after Bob Bruininks stepped down as president last summer. This attitude needs to change, and President Eric Kaler is responsible for setting a new tone of cooperation with faculty and students as well as accepting — and even encouraging — constructive criticism at the University.


Autocratic administration that stiff-armed critics plagued the Bruininks years, and it started at the top. Desires of faculty and students were subordinated to Bruininks’ vision of making the University one of the top-three public research institutions in the world. The University pursued what looked best to a handful of companies that produced rankings rather than democratically pursuing what University stakeholders wanted.


There is plenty of evidence of this, from regents violating the spirit if not the letter of Minnesota’s open meeting law during the presidential search to the University’s toothless and nonbinding shared governance system.


Even after Bruininks stepped down, the unwillingness to listen has continued. The Minnesota Daily recently reported autocratic and corrupt practices in the School of Dentistry. Rather than engage with those criticisms in an effort to solve their problems, the School of Dentistry’s administration dismissed them and pretended they didn’t exist.


Other recent instances of ignoring faculty concerns include a 2010 refusal to set up an independent investigation into the suicide of a participant in a University psychiatric research study and a refusal to consider a faculty proposal for sliding-scale pay cuts in place of Bruininks’ 2010 furlough and pay cut proposal. This is a pattern.


So last week when a column in the Minnesota Daily constructively criticized the Department of English, the administrative response was sadly and disappointingly predictable. As seen in a letter to the editor published in today’s issue, the chair of the English department preferred to reject all criticisms out of hand rather than engage with them productively to improve the department. It is another instance of University administration preferring to pretend problems don’t exist rather than trying in good faith to solve them.


This is by no means a personal attack against anyone; it is merely a criticism of an institutional mentality that stifles or ignores input from faculty and students if that input is not 100 percent positive. University administrators from the president down to the department level should welcome and encourage constructive criticism — that is how any institution improves.


Kaler is responsible for setting this tone — he can make pushing for a more democratic and responsive University one of his signature initiatives, and the University will be better off for it. He has already taken a positive step in hiring Provost Karen Hanson who will take office February 1.


But that attitude must spread to lower levels of administration as well. Every college and department can benefit by starting more efforts to include students and faculty in their decision-making. If administrators are sincere about improving the University, they should not be offended or threatened by criticism; they should welcome it.


Administration exists to facilitate what faculty and students do, so it makes sense for administrators to reach out to those groups for guidance. A comprehensive effort from the top down to listen to and include faculty and student opinion in administrative decisions — as well as rethinking our system of shared governance — will give us all a better, more democratic University.

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