Good evening, everyone.
My year as President of the Faculty Association flew by quickly, and tonight I give my last address to you. As I reflect on it all, my thoughts keep drifting to the Indian parable of the six blind men and the elephant. Encountering an elephant for the first time ever, the men touch the creature to try to learn what it is. The one who feels its side says that an elephant is like a wall; the one who feels its tusk counters – no, it is actually like a spear; the one who feels its tail argues that it is like a rope; and so forth. After the elephant leaves, they have a lengthy and heated argument about the issue, with each man certain that he alone knows the truth. I don’t remember the story’s exact ending, but I believe it involved filing a Resolution of Controversy, followed by expensive third-party mediation.
Although thousands of years have passed since its writing, this ancient story’s message still remains relevant today: since we each only see a small piece of our big and complicated world, we shouldn’t expect that our limited experience paints the complete picture. To fully understand any situation, we need to get input from all the different vantage points. Additionally, disagreements don’t always mean that someone is right and someone else is wrong; often, it means that both viewpoints are simply incomplete.
In the world of higher education, this concept is neatly summarized in the phrase “shared governance.” While the common interpretation of shared governance revolves around decision-making authority, the core idea really comes back to the six blind men and the elephant: no one person has enough information to fully understand any situation, but we can’t make wise choices without that understanding. Shared governance says that we should gather input from as many different angles as possible to build a complete picture of the situation before we decide how to proceed.
Luckily for Maricopa, Chancellor Steven Gonzales sees shared governance not as a box to check but as a philosophy to embrace. He has the humility to admit that he doesn’t know everything (sorry for letting the cat out of the bag, Chancellor), and he has the wisdom to get the vital missing information from others before making his decisions. Better still, he’s proselytizing about shared governance throughout the District, and as the philosophy spreads it is causing our decisions to improve.
As just one example, consider Maricopa’s budget process. We used to choose budgets with a level of secrecy that fell somewhere between “masonic rituals” and “nuclear launch codes.” I’ve literally heard college presidents tell me that they would learn their own college’s financial allocation for the next year while listening to the Governing Board budget presentation. Chancellor Gonzales changed all that. Last year he created the Advisory Budget Council to bring a collaborative approach to our District’s budgeting process. By construction, this Council brings together administrators from both the District office and the individual colleges, as well as faculty and staff, to help craft the District’s budget. By increasing the diversity of viewpoints our budget process immediately began to benefit: new perspectives raised new questions, which led to new data analyses, which led to new revelations, which took the budget in new directions. The budget proposal you are currently considering changed dramatically as a result of this shared governance, with our deeper understanding of underlying issues molding the shape of the budget to better fit the actual needs of our District. We were able to present you with a wiser budget because we are wiser when we work together.
This year I’ve been overjoyed to see our District’s pool of wisdom swell as our decision-makers poured in the input from many talented and hard-working faculty members. I’ve been delighted to see those decision-makers also splash in the perspectives of our phenomenal staff (under the wildly talented leadership of Shannon Monge and Ana Chandler). I’ve even had the honor of adding my own drop of wisdom to the District’s ample pool. I can’t wait to see how this dramatic expansion of our perspective transforms our decision-making process in the future, but I plan to be around to see it bear fruit.
As I said earlier, this is my last Governing Board address as Faculty Association President, but I am not saying “goodbye.” I’ll be around – one more drop in the pool of our collective wisdom, one more voice in our shared governance chorus. So, rather than saying, “goodbye,” let me instead offer up a traditional American farewell between people who plan to reunite soon:
“Happy trails to you, until we meet again….”
Thank you – now, and always – for your time.