Festering discontent at Chico State seems to have reached a point of boiling over in recent weeks following the abrupt resignations of two provosts since 2012, the loss of dozens of faculty across the campus in recent years, and a 2015 Campus Climate Survey which revealed significant dissatisfaction among the faculty and staff. The underlying issues revolve around the concept of “shared governance,” a term which the administration at Chico State and the California State University Chancellor’s office claim to value, but many faculty and staff say isn’t happening.
Shared governance in the California State University system, in theory, means that decisions about how the institution functions are a co-operative process where the staff, faculty, and administration work together to decide and implement best practices. But somewhere along the way, particularly at Chico State, the practice of shared governance has disappeared, at least in the opinion of some faculty and staff.
Last Thursday, one of the lecturers at Chico State had had enough, and presented the Academic Senate with a laundry list of perceived affronts to shared governance, and claimed a lack of transparency in numerous areas including budgeting and scheduling of classes.
The lecturer presented a motion to Chico State’s Academic Senate to discuss a vote of No Confidence in our campus president, provost, and the vice president of business and finance. After passionate, impromptu speeches from several faculty, the Senate voted 29-3 to allow for a discussion to hear the No-Confidence argument at the next meeting, scheduled for Thursday December 10th.
In theory, shared governance would have representatives from all groups of staff, faculty, and administration of the campus at one, decision-making, proverbial table where issues such as budget, planning, workload, and class scheduling including class size and class assignment were discussed. Open dialog without the fear of retribution, and where every member’s opinion was welcomed, is the key element to shared governance. But theory and practice have veered in far different directions lately at Chico.
In practice, there are two tables at Chico State: the big table, where the administrators sit, making big decisions and the kids’ table, where permanent staff, tenure track and tenured faculty sit.
This division reminds me of my grandmother’s house, and Sunday dinner, when I was growing up.
Almost every Sunday afternoon during my childhood, my extended family gathered at my grandmother’s house for dinner. Most Sundays, there was enough room for the 10 or 12 cousins and aunts and uncles to sit together at the big table, but every once in a while, extra friends or out of town cousins would show up, and Grandma’s big table was too small to fit us all. When news came that too many relatives were expected for dinner, she’d send one of the boys to fetch her card table, a rickety old square of plywood covered in vinyl, with unstable folding legs.
While the big table was a massive slab of cherry wood polished to a high shine, adorned lovingly with an intricately embroidered table cloth, and topped with fresh bouquets of flowers from my grandmother’s garden, the extra table was just big enough for the younger grandkids, and always me, the youngest of the family, to gather around for dinner.
At the big table, the adults and older cousins ate off of my grandmother’s good, tulip embossed dish ware, and talked about politics, the state of the world, and caught up on the news of the neighbors and distant relatives. Big announcements were made at the big table, and big decisions were decided at the big table.
At the big table, large bowls of mashed potatoes and sugared peas and fried chicken were passed around the table generously, and the gravy boat was always well within easy reach when my father he wanted an extra ladle of gravy.
Sitting at the big table meant access to information that might affect you, the chance to chime in with your opinion if the right time arose, and at least, when the potatoes were passed around, people acknowledged that you were at the table and offered the same food, and seconds if you wanted, as the others at the table were offered.
Sitting at what was known as the kids’ table was different. I often sat with distant cousins who I rarely saw and barely knew, and who I didn’t have much to talk about with. Sitting at the kids’ table meant bickering over petty topics, like who had the best music collection, and who could produce, on command, the best exhibition of unbridled flatulence.
Sitting at the kids’ table was fun, and meant we didn’t have to hold our forks properly, we could hide our peas under a congealed lump of gravy, and we could swap food with our cousins if we didn’t like something on our plate. We could run off and play well before the adults were done at the big table, and never had to do the dishes, although we always had to clear our plate from the table, scrape the remnants of the meal into the compost bucket, and stack the plate next to the kitchen sink. We were free to wander to the back of the house to the “kids” room, where a stereo and oversized speakers, Monopoly boards, children’s books, and puzzles awaited us.
In the kids’ room, and at the kids’ table, we were free from the adult world.
But being at the kids’ table also meant that if I wanted a second helping of mashed potatoes, I had to trek to the main dining room, stand quietly behind one of the adults sitting at the table, wait to be acknowledged by an adult, and then ask politely, “may I have another scoop of mashed potatoes, please?” The adult in charge of potatoes decided if I had had enough potatoes already, and if he or she thought I could have more, he or she also decided how much more I could have, which was always less than what those at the table were allowed.
There was a hierarchy at my grandmother’s house, enforced by the decision makers, and never questioned by the kids, at least openly. We had been trained to sit at the kids table, and be grateful for what we got.
There was a third element in the hierarchy at my grandmother’s house, and there is a third element at Chico State as well: the people who can’t make it to the table at all because they either were never invited, or were too busy with other obligations to attend. At Grandma’s house, if we failed to show up for dinner, or came late because we had other obligations, we got second hand news and a small plate of leftovers with congealed gravy and a pile of peas. Leftovers were never the same as being there for dinner. And the information we received was old news by the time it reached a tardy cousin and all the big decisions had already been made.
By the time I was 7 or 8, though, I had decided that I didn’t want to be at the kids’ table anymore, and when my cousins ran off to the kids’ room after dinner, I stayed in the living room and listened to the adults talk and paid attention when the evening news and 60 Minutes came on. I leaned in, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg,advises, even though I didn’t know it at the time. And that’s what that lecturer did last week, and what I imagine other lecturers will do this week, when the Senate discusses the No Confidence vote: they are leaning in, demanding their place at a table, any table.
It’s been 18 years since the last time I sat at my grandmother’s for Sunday dinner, but I recognize the hierarchy just the same, although this time, it’s where I work. The discontent brewing and boiling over at Chico State is a lot like my grandmother’s hierarchy: those at the big table, those at the kids’ table, and those who were never invited to the table at all.
As a lecturer, I know I won’t be invited to the big table. Still, I take heart from the fact that the current rebellion was initiated by previously voiceless lecturers who are threatened with class cancellations and layoff two months before Spring Semester starts. No, we won’t be invited to the big table, yet. But maybe, if we all lean in together, the lecturers at Chico State will at least get invited to the kids’ table, and maybe some of us will pull up a chair, and ask for seconds.