Palfrey Leads Faculty Discussion About Future of Decision-Making Processes at Andover

As students were enjoying a day off of classes, Head of School John Palfrey directed a meeting about governance and decision-making procedures at Andover for the administration and faculty last Friday, October 19.

In the meeting, Palfrey sought to develop a common and current understanding among faculty and the administration about the process of enacting and changing policies and making decisions.

“It seems like good practice in any event to start out with a careful study of how decisions are made to ensure that we have a common understanding of how things work today and to consider areas for improvement,” wrote Palfrey in his letter to the faculty regarding last Friday’s meeting.

The discussion focused on first reaffirming the processes of decision making and shared governance, and then clarifying the three types of decisions and decision-making processes, and addressing how well decision-making groups currently operate.

The three types of decision making processes include trustee-led decisions, head of school-led decisions and faculty-led decisions, according to Palfrey’s letter to the faculty regarding the meeting.

One of the central issues that was discussed was the current and future role of groups like the Senior Administrative Council (SAC) and AdCom, two faculty advisory groups that work with the Head of School, according to Palfrey.

“We are obviously driven by a mission and by our history, but how we do our work every year is something that can’t be on autopilot. We have to make a bunch of decisions,” said Palfrey.

Governance at Andover falls into the hands of the trustees, the Head of School and the faculty and administration. Because Andover follows a corporate model, all power lies with the Board of Trustees and is then distributed, through a process of “shared” governance, to the Head of School and subsequently, to the faculty, according to Palfrey.

The conversation during Friday’s meeting explored “how a bill becomes a law at Phillips Academy,” according to Palfrey.

“In a strict sense, the trustees really do have all of the power in the institution. The question is then, how do we delegate or devolve some of that power from decision makers who are here three times each year, like the trustees, to people who are here more often,” said Palfrey.

“You need to make sure that you share the governance in an appropriate way,” he added.

The process of decision making at Andover creates natural tension between the faculty and administration, according to Palfrey. Palfrey said that a similar tension exists at any academic institution.

“I think it is always healthy to explore a tension when you know it is there and to figure out a respectful way to talk about it,” Palfrey said.

The meeting has not yet yielded any direct results, according to Palfrey.

“I expect to make some changes in the governance scheme based on what we learned…At a minimum we will clarify some decision-making processes,” he said.

Palfrey plans to publish a document of the notes from the meeting to confirm he gathered all of the opinions expressed.

“One of my three big goals for the year has been listening and learning with the faculty and students. I think that one of the important pieces in that process is to always feed things back and say, ‘have I heard you correctly?’”

The meeting consisted of small group discussions of 15 to 20 faculty and administrators. The individual groups shared their findings in a group session after each break-out discussion. The notes from each group discussion were available to everyone at the meeting via an “etherpad,” a collaborative note-taking software.

“I like to think of processes like this as a big funnel. You want a big funnel at the top where anyone can talk and you can collect all of the data, and then you narrow it down, think about what to do, and then think about a process for having the good stuff come out of the bottom of the funnel.”

There were no major disagreements at the full session, according to Palfrey.

When former Head of School Barbara Chase initiated her term at Andover in 1994, she sent a well-received letter to the faculty and administration about governance at Andover, according to Palfrey.

Prior to the meeting, Palfrey sent a similar letter to the faculty with updates and used his comments as a jumping off point for the meeting. He also included Chase’s memo in his message.

Findings from a New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) report last spring said that governance was an area where the faculty wanted to have a larger role. According to Palfrey, this meeting was in part a response to the study, though the study was not the meeting’s only motivation.

This data was compiled by a NEASC committee of faculty and administrators from peer schools after visiting Andover and followed a self-evaluation completed by members of the Andover community.