Several themes ran through people’s comments as they responded to the academic Prioritization process this past fall. One was the concern that task force members would advocate for their own programs, persuading fellow members to privilege their programs when categorizing, thereby giving their programs an unfair advantage. There was also a more subtle variant, the concern that because we were spending so much time together, we would privilege each others’ programs out of sympathy, perhaps not even knowingly.
In other words, although we all committed to taking an “institutional perspective,” there is fear that we won’t, or maybe can’t. So the crucial question becomes, what’s the best we can do to insure that the group gives each program a fair review? From our first meeting/retreat back in May, we have taken this question seriously, and late last fall, we codified certain procedures in order to provide some protection against bias. A formal statement of them is available at http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/chancellor/Prioritization/upload/AcTF-COI.pdf.
Before commenting on those procedures, it’s important to note that the crucial question just asked is a rather different question from, how do we give the appearance of every program getting an unbiased review? Mechanisms to answer this second question are appealing on their face yet do a poor job of addressing the first. In particular, there have been calls for us to recuse ourselves from voting and/or discussing our own programs. But if bias is a problem, recusal doesn’t solve it.
First, the voting. There are 18 of us on the task force. It takes an 80% supermajority to place a program in a category. Even if I vote to put all of my programs into the Enhance category, I need numerous colleagues to agree to reach the 80% threshold. My voting on my programs by itself doesn’t change the outcome.
Second, the discussion. If my vote isn’t enough to put my programs into Enhance, then I could advocate for them and persuade colleagues to change their votes, one of the original concerns. This suggests that I should recuse myself from discussion. We discussed this at length on the task force and in fact our procedures do limit discussion, which I’ll come back to – but we do not recuse ourselves because understanding the next points make recusal disingenuous.
How do we operationalize “our own” programs? Is it all programs in one’s department? My department, Social Work, has 8 academic programs. I have no involvement with three of them and would bring no additional knowledge or particular passion to the discussion. Recusal there would be meaningless in any real sense. My name will be on the templates for the other 5 Social Work programs. Arguably this should be a red flag to my task force colleagues and they should take my comments with the proverbial grain of salt, but recusal from discussing them still doesn’t adequately address the bias problem because…
…There are programs outside my department about which I feel strongly and think I know a lot about, but which will not have my name attached. For example, I was very much involved in creating the Certificate in Civic Engagement, though I have not taught its classes. My husband is a full-time student, and I’ve been hearing a lot about his program. Also, Social Work undergraduate programs rely on others. The GERs, of course, but also some additional liberal arts classes. The Justice bachelor’s program requires its majors to minor in something, and some of them come to us. Likewise, Engineering programs rely heavily on math programs; biomedical programs rely on biology. We talked about all of this in our meetings and concluded that the web of relationships among programs and among faculty interests in programs was much more complicated than what we’re named in. We cannot recuse ourselves from discussing every program that touches us and our students.
Furthermore, and this is integral to the forced-distribution process, every discussion and vote is consequential to every program’s placement. I can’t simply persuade (or rely on the sympathy of) my colleagues because they know that if all my pet programs get put into Enhance, there are fewer slots there for their programs. And vice versa: even if I weren’t trying to be impartial, I would not be naïve enough to place colleagues’ programs in Enhance simply as a favor to them, at the price of my programs’ placement.
So simple recusal doesn’t answer the initial question about fair review. Which leaves us (a) acting as honorably as we can while policing each other, and (b) relying on the procedures we established to diminish opportunities for conflicts of interest to manifest.
Regarding (a), for what it’s worth, I have been genuinely impressed with the seriousness and integrity with which people are approaching this task. I don’t see people scheming to prioritize “their” programs or set up a system that they can game and others can’t. And though I do think there’s a lot of mutual respect among task force members, I don’t see anyone compromising their judgment because they like each other. We haven’t begun reviewing templates yet, of course, but I expect everyone to continue like this. And I think the rest of us will call each other out if we see otherwise.
Regarding (b), I won’t repeat the list of procedures, but together they provide a mechanism for minimizing discussion, and therefore minimizing opportunity for advocacy, intended or unintended. Votes are electronic and anonymous, with the initial vote occurring before we meet; no one will vote like me for the sake of voting like me because they won’t know how I voted. If we meet the 80% threshold for category placement at that stage, there will be no discussion; for the first round of placement, that program is placed.
If we don’t reach consensus right off, discussion is limited to what is in the templates. Akin to review of faculty files, we can’t bring in additional information, nor can we explain things that may be unclear. We talked at some length about this in our meetings. Originally, as I understood it, we were selected in part to represent the different units and types of academic programs on campus. I use the term “represent” cautiously as – I’ll say it again – it was never the intent that we would advocate (push an agenda) for programs from our college/unit. But, for example, as someone from the College of Health, I could “represent” perspective and context about the health & helping professions and related education/research issues. Now it’s wholly up to those writing the templates to explain what needs to be explained, without that additional insight and commentary.
Even keeping strictly to the template contents, we each also will identify to our task force colleagues all of the programs we have some stake in, and therefore potential bias and conflict of interest. In essence, where my name is not there to raise the red flag, I will tell people to raise it. And we will keep a list of the programs where there is potential bias to analyze whether the outcomes for their placements were different for the other programs, and these findings will be part of the final report.
I agree with the critics that we can’t be completely objective. But I disagree that objectivity is required for fairness. We’re subjective when we grade students’ work; we’re subjective when we review job applicants’ materials and faculty files; we’re subjective when we review curriculum at GAB and UAB. And so on. Hopefully we know these processes to be mostly fair. Subjective doesn’t mean arbitrary. It does mean we bring our professional judgment and all of our extensive education and experience to these questions, and that we do that as disinterestedly as we can. And if we as individuals can’t be completely disinterested, that’s why the group is important.
Consider the alternatives. We could continue to leave the decisions to a handful of administrators, who also attempt to be fair but who likewise have their own biases and histories with the institution. Or we could leave it to a consultant, who presumably would be unbiased but who also would be utterly unfamiliar with UAA and the scope of work we do in myriad contexts. Having a large group of faculty take the lead in making recommendations is an imperfect but reasonable balance of interests and knowledges.