A Blueprint for Faculty Engagement: Shared Governance in Action at the University of South Carolina

An interview with Clint Wallace, Associate Professor of Law and Chair of the Faculty Budget Committee at the University of South Carolina. This interview is part of our series on shared governance in action.

In our last installment of Shared Governance in Action, Pete Jones from the University of Alabama at Birmingham described one model for how administrators can facilitate shared governance in budgetary decisions through transparency. At the end of our interview, however, he noted how faculty need to be ready and willing to spend the time to understand and engage in the budgetary process. As Jones noted, “transparency doesn’t equal participation.”

If you are reading this blog, you probably already have a sense for why faculty may not be ready and willing to participate – the overwork and burnout that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, the fact that the majority of the academic labor force is now working on highly precarious contingent contracts with no time to invest in service work, inequities in and the undervaluing of service work in academia…  The list of structural barriers to shared governance could go on for a while.

But what might it look like to create structures that at least enable faculty to be ready to participate in budgetary decisions? I recently had an opportunity to discuss this very topic with Clint Wallace, Associate Professor of Law and Chair of the Faculty Budget Committee at the University of South Carolina (USC). Although Professor Wallace was very clear that USC is not a paragon of shared governance, there are a lot of great features of what they are doing with faculty budget engagement that others can learn from. Below is a summary of our conversation, edited for length and focus.

Niehaus: So tell me about the Faculty Budget Committee at USC. How are you all involved in budget decisions?

Wallace: The committee has five elected members from the faculty senate, a number of representatives from other faculty senate committees, and two administrators – the provost and a representative from the Division of Administration and Finance – who are nonvoting members of the committee. We are supposed to be the faculty voice and the faculty eyes on all formal budget decisions. There are two avenues through which we participate in the university budget process. One is that each fall we have a process for allocating extra revenue to support units – facilities, libraries, public safety, all that. There is a process where they make requests for additional funding for specific projects, and we make a priority list.

The second is that each year we go through a “budget blueprint process,” which involves a blueprint meeting with each academic unit. It is important to note that we have a responsibility centered budget model, where each academic unit has some responsibility for their own bottom line. In these meetings, each unit presents their strategic plan and their budget plan: what they have done in the recent past, their goals and aspirations going forward, and how that connects to budget projections for the next few years. The Faculty Budget Committee participates in each of those meetings. We listen to what they say and ask questions or weigh in. Sometimes we’ve done that in a targeted, organized way where we are asking each unit the same question. Two years ago it seemed like there was a national trend to pull money away from the faculty and try to fill holes with adjuncts, so we asked questions about faculty hiring and faculty resources. Sometimes, though, it is unit dependent.  

Niehaus: What has your experience been like as chair of the committee?

Wallace: When I started on the committee, we didn’t really have a process for having a chair elect. At the end of each year we would pick someone new. But, the chair at the time had to step down in the middle of her term, and two of us stepped up to fill in for her. This led us to work on a system where we have an incoming chair, a chair elect, and a past chair, so we will have more continuity of leadership and knowledge. We realized there is a lot of institutional knowledge in the people who are heavily involved in the budget process all of the time. Faculty have not necessarily organized themselves to play a deep role in that process when there is a new set of faculty members looking at budget decisions each year and not knowing what came before them. So we are doing some things to try to get better at that, like having more continuity in leadership.

Niehaus: It seems like those blueprint meetings would take a lot of time! How do the faculty members of the Budget Committee manage all of that time in meetings?

Wallace: It can take a lot of time – it ends up being 18-20 meetings. We are trying to have continuity to have at least the Chair of the Budget Committee and one other member of the Committee present at every one of those meetings. The Chair of the Faculty Senate also tries to be at every one of the meetings. It is a burden for those of us who are going to every single one, but we do have other elected members of the committee that we can draw from to attend the meetings. So it is not an overwhelming burden, especially if it’s a primary responsibility to do it as the chair – it’s your year leading the committee, so you go to these meetings and that’s okay.

We also have another structure that we are developing, where we have unit-level budget committees that are just standing up right now. Our hope is that having a committee in each unit that is interacting earlier in the unit budget and strategic plan development will help us at the stage where it’s being presented to the Provost and the Committee in those blueprint meetings. Then we will be able to ask more informed questions, have more informed ears to understand what is being communicated from each unit. That unit level information can inform the discussion with the unit, the Provost, and the Faculty Budget Committee. And then the Faculty Budget Committee can go back to the unit-level committee and communicate what we learned from the blueprint meeting and how it compared to what we saw in other units. That would be a good feedback loop to get information to the unit level where they can do something with it. It would also help us make more use of our ears in the room for those meetings.

We established these unit-level committees through an addition to our faculty manual, which now states that a budget committee should be established in each academic unit. We also empowered those committees to request and be given access to budget information so they can keep up with what is going on. And at least anecdotally, the unit-level committees have played out pretty collaboratively with the Dean and administration. They have a series of meetings with the Dean and budget officer who explain the budget process within the unit and keep them apprised of developments.  

Niehaus: Have you seen any results of these structures that you have put into place, with the committee chair system and the unit level budget committees?

Wallace: That is hard to say, but we are experiencing a lot of change with our budget process, and faculty are increasingly a part of that. As COVID was hitting in 2020, we were moving from a sort of cobbled together centralized budget, which made it hard to do any real budget planning, to a more unit-based formulaic responsibility centered budget model. We are calling that initial model “budget model 1.0.” We are now starting to talk about reforms to get to model 2.0 with revised formulas for budget allocations. And that is something that faculty need to be very engaged in. A lot of this stuff is in the weeds and complicated to follow, but it really does affect how people make real decisions that matter, like how much do we have to spend on faculty positions or on faculty support in the classroom and on research? These are things that we really care about.

So we are getting poised for that, and a lot of the credit on this goes to the fact that we have these unit-level budget committees. For the first time this year we have these budget committees all around campus who are plugged into these issues, and I think that will be immensely helpful. We still need to figure out how to get that unit-level knowledge into the discussions of reforms for budget model 2.0, but that is going to be relatively easy. The more complicated part is having people in the right places to analyze how different alternatives will affect people on the ground, and then that lets us make more informed comments.

Niehaus: What challenges do you see with faculty engagement in the budget process?

Wallace: Well, a complicated overlay to all of this for us is the state budget process. It’s not really clear to me what the best way is for faculty to engage with that part of the process. The University administration has a strategy for how to navigate the appropriations process, and it is very much tied to who is in leadership in the state. So that is a looming concern, and something we probably could be more engaged with, but I’m not quite sure how.