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Classroom utilization and university governance

There are two problems with the recently floated trial balloon to radically change class schedules at USF. If you haven’t read about it yet, the June 24th memo to department chairs asks for most three-hour classes to meet three times weekly and for more classes to start at 8 a.m. and meet on Fridays. One problem is untenable assumptions about the facts at hand. The other is a deeper problem with decision-making at USF.

First, the “classroom utilization crisis” may be an illusion. We shouldn’t assume there are huge numbers of empty classrooms on Friday just because there are no scheduled uses. The fact is that several classrooms are in use on Fridays. They just don’t appear in use officially because students are using rooms without reserving them.

Last Friday, I met a group of students in a classroom, which was scheduled for a faculty meeting. They explained they had grabbed the room that appeared empty because they needed to study.

The library doesn’t have enough study rooms, they explained. One student showed me her dry-erase markers and said she and her classmates could write formulas and diagrams on the room’s dry-erase board while they studied for a biochemistry exam. They couldn’t do that in the library, she said.

This is a common practice, at least in the College of Education. Several times a semester, I get to a room early for a Friday meeting and find students studying together. Some colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences will report that whole classes are sometimes meeting in rooms without reserving them.

In other words, many students are working hard on Friday, using university space in an absolutely legitimate way, but the use is not being recognized officially.

What USF needs is an accurate survey of how faculty and students already use space when a class is not in a room. A random check of rooms during the semester would show what portion of rooms are actually empty and unused on Fridays. The university could also implement an online space-reservation system to encourage more organized use of open classroom space.

But the proposed policy is more than a panicked response to incomplete data. It shows once more that the administration habitually ignores collegial governance. A USF assistant vice provost issued a memo June 24th demanding that almost all three-credit courses meet on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday basis and threatening to schedule classes randomly when they didn’t meet his guidelines.

A week later, Provost Renu Khator backed away from her colleague’s threat when pressed by department chairs. Is that result any surprise, considering when my colleagues and I saw no evidence that her staff had consulted with the Faculty Senate, Student Government or the United Faculty of Florida? There was, at best, a small, handpicked advisory group, which is neither genuine consultation nor joint decision-making. And, according to staff in the Provost’s Office, that committee truly was “ad hoc,” with no minutes or reports they could find to document what happened inside the meetings.

Once again, actions have undermined the administration’s previous promises to respect collegial governance. Working with the elected representatives of faculty and students, USF administrators should be able to assess space use accurately and find a university-wide consensus if something needs to happen. This issue need not start a crisis (again) in university governance.

But this incident is a symptom of the long-term habits of university administrators, avoiding collegial governance unless pressed. When awkwardly worded, unworkable ideas pop out apparently from nowhere I wonder, “Are administrators just paying lip service to collegial governance? Do they really get it?”

When will administrators learn that making decisions in a closet has consistently undermined morale and trust across the university our the past five years? There is no reason for the habitual insulation of decisions, in any case. Faculty and students generally do not bite, or at least they won’t when administrators back up statements about collegial governance with consistent actions and collaborative habits.

Sherman Dorn is an associate professor in the College of Education and is a member of the Faculty Senate’s Council on Educational Policy and Issues.