On Power

There are a lot of issues facing public higher education today, and here at William Paterson we are right in the midst of these issues. The cost of a college education continues to rise (though be careful here and don’t equate the actual cost to provide an education with the price a student pays–one has risen far faster than the other as the balance has shifted from state funding to tuition funding); the pressure to help students complete their degree in a timely fashion continues to grow; state and national legislation continues to provide new and additional requirements; accrediting bodies, often in response to legislative pressure, also continue to impose and mandate enhanced requirements; high school populations in many areas are in decline, meaning all of us are competing more fiercely for fewer students; and we seem to be enduring multiple questions about the value and function of a college degree.

So, I’m the Provost–the chief academic officer of a university–why don’t I do something?

Thus today’s topic: Power

I think about this quite a bit (I’m still an academic–thinking is what I do) whenever I hear the statement–“well, you’re the Provost, you have the ability to just make things happen–so do so.”

I go back to a conception of power that is old as far as research goes, but I have yet to find a  better conception (well, there is Foucault–but we don’t really have time for that analysis, and actually I do find some connection between Foucault’s perspective and the one below).

In 1959, two social scientists, John French and Bertram Raven, proposed a model of power based on five types or bases:

  • Legitimate
  • Reward
  • Expert
  • Referent
  • Coercive

Raven added a sixth a few years later:

  • Informational

Legitimate power comes generally from traditional hierarchical organizational structures–as Provost, this position provides a legitimate claim of authority over academic decisions at a university (though universities are not always that big on hierarchical organizational structures). And even more, the concept of “legitimate” is always open to interpretation and question.

Reward power is pretty straightforward–the ability to reward. To some, it may seem that Provosts have a great deal of reward power–we control large budgets and personnel decisions generally go through the Provost Office at some point. But as French and Raven point out, and as experience makes clear, reward power is often quite limited. Budgets are never as big (or flexible) as they may seem, and other structures–contractual and shared governance, for example–play a major role in almost all “reward” activities.

Expert power, or power that comes from special or unique knowledge or ability (when clearly known and demonstrated) can provide a basis for the exercise of power. But again, in higher education, we are, by definition, a community of experts. Especially with faculty, we are all very much the expert in our field of study.

Referent power is one of the most important bases of power, and one of the most difficult to build, manage and use well. Referent power is earned–it is built over time and can easily erode when not used well.

Coercive power is the dark side of reward power–and again, it may seem from the outside that there is coercive power, but the same structures that limit reward power affect coercive power equally–and coercive power is a bad idea in general anyway–live by the sword and die by the sword tells you all you need to know about the failure of coercive power.

Informational power, the add-on from Raven, is less studied but still important–though some may argue that in an age of social media and multiple sources of information, information power holds less sway. Information power is access to and control over information–but we are a public university, and there is (as it should be) very little information that is controlled.

OK–so what does this mean?

Back to Foucault (and others of a post-modern bent): Power is the ability to shape outcomes. And that means power rests with many and is built into our processes and practices. Power is both diffuse and often situation specific. Students have the power to learn or to potentially destabilize a learning environment; faculty have the power to shape curricular actions and possess to a large degree all six bases of power in their classrooms and in their departments and colleges. Power doesn’t always rise to or coalesce at the top, especially in modern organizations and quite especially in higher education.

Power to act is something all of us have and all of us use in a variety of ways.

So when asked: Why don’t you do something? My answer is: Let’s do it together. That means time, hard work and communication, connection and collaboration. Power is not the same as leadership–and leadership is not the ability to have people do what you want them to do.

So stay tuned–next time we will talk about leadership.





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