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Faculty and President Cheng butt heads over faculty governance

Faculty and President Cheng butt heads over faculty governance

Campus Forum (file photo)

Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng talks about the state of the university and future plans in a file photos during an annual campus forum  at the High Country Conference Center.

Shared governance of Northern Arizona University was once again the topic of conversation at a full faculty meeting Monday, at which president Rita Cheng spoke.

The forum was hosted and organized by the faculty senate and senate president Gioia Woods said it was, in part, a response to a feeling of dissatisfaction from many faculty on the direction of the university.

The forum also comes after the issue of shared governance was brought up by the Higher Leaning commission last year. Although the university received high marks in most areas, the commission stated in its report that the university “needs improvement” on the issue of shared governance.

“It’s clear in the past few years we have had some challenges with shared governance,” Woods said. “Faculty, no matter the rank, are not itinerant knowledge workers but major stakeholders in the project of educational attainment, student success and, of course, institutional governance.”

Faculty who spoke at the forum mentioned issues such as the lack of any cost-of-living raises in years, a lack of inclusion in decision making and a concern over how much the university values employees.

In a statement after the forum, Cheng said she was thankful for the willingness of faculty to work with administration to “ensure we address challenges and to enhance opportunities. NAU has tremendous faculty and staff, and I value these opportunities to help move our university forward in our common goal of student success.”

In recent years, a number of university functions have become centralized, which some faculty have said has not only made their jobs harder but have violated the university constitution. Among the grievances of faculty are multi-term enrollment, the processes taken in hiring the past provost and the new Endowed McAllister chair, and alleged cancellation of controversial classes.

At the top of this list, however, is classroom and scheduling centralization.

Prior to the change, individual departments had far more leeway in what room and what time a class was scheduled for, but that has since changed. Now, classes are simply assigned a classroom by the administration rather than by individual departments, all in the hope of more efficiently using classroom space.

Faculty members say this has meant they are trying to teach students in rooms unfit for their discipline and often have to travel from one side of campus to the other between classes.

“We don’t have time to spend with our students after class because I’ve got to hightail it to another part of campus,” professor of criminology Robert Schehr said. He added that multi-term enrollment has also meant they cannot change the classes they teach.

But almost as much as the effects of the change, faculty have also been displeased with the way in which the changes have been implemented. Faculty say they have not been included in any of the process of making these decisions despite the fact that faculty generally control the curriculum.

“These are faculty issues inside and out,” Schehr said. “If you want to teach in a small group setting but you’re placed in an auditorium setting classroom, it doesn’t work.”

Schehr added that while the president has signed documents agreeing to shared governance, she is not following them, instead running the university in “what amounts to institutional oligarchy.”

Cheng, on the other hand, said the involvement of faculty in decision making is somewhat limited.

Shared governance, Cheng said, means “shared input, but not necessarily shared decision making. It is also not shared responsibility or shared accountability.”

“What it means it that I don’t get to choose the direction of the university; I have a board that has chosen for the state of Arizona,” Cheng said. “If we make a poor decision, if the performance of the institution is at risk, I am the one where the buck stops.”

Cheng also said, at times, responsibility for a lack of joint governance may be on faculty.

“As a member of faculty senate, are you going back to your constituents? Are you talking to them about community aspects that are happening?” Cheng said.

Cheng said she has asked the university vice presidents to ensure that the current structures surrounding faculty governance are being followed, and “If that is not working, let’s find out why and improve the structures in place.”

Brian Levin-Stankevich, the new interim provost, said all universities use some kind of top-down system, adding that in his experience as a scholar of Russian history, worker control doesn’t work.

The issue of the current lack of a chief diversity officer was also a concern of faculty. NAU’s first chief diversity officer, Carmen Phelps, left the university with little explanation after less than a year.

Cheng said the university is looking at hiring a diversity fellow within the president’s office to act as an advisor and that they increased the staff in the multicultural office as opposed to hiring another chief diversity officer.

Updated for a correction at 9:54 a.m. on October 10.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on twitter @AdrianSkabelund.


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