The concept of white and green papers

How to encourage important discussions

According to BusinessDictonary, a white paper is a “concise report that informs readers about a complex issue, often used to convey an organization’s philosophy and persuade potential customers. This type of document contains proposals for the specific policy area suggested during the consultation process”.

In an academic department, a white paper can start or continue a scholarly discussion or create a framework for action. It is a starting point, not an end. White papers are a “… tool of participatory democracy … not [an] unalterable policy commitment.”[1]

A more appropriate term to describe using a position paper to prompt discussion is a green paper. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a green paper as a preliminary report of proposals published to stimulate discussion.” Green papers are open-ended. Green papers may propose a strategy, or they may set out ideas to obtain public views and opinions.

Thirty-nine years of teaching for seven different institutions ranging from research one to technical schools leads me to a conclusion regarding a faculty’s ability to take action. Faculty need a starting point to ground debates and discussions. Relying on faculty to organically frame and discuss an issue often leads to protracted conversations. The discussions tend to lose focus, fail to lead to a timely decision, and become based upon opinion rather than reasoning and evidence. I have seen this happen many times. Many faculty members make the argument that lengthy discussion is necessary and can result in consensus. I have never seen a situation where lengthy debate results in a better decision and seldom in consensus.

Faculty work better when a framing of the debate or discussion is available. This framing is where green papers or draft proposals come in to play.

Since arriving at VSU, I have attempted to continue this model, creating green papers or proposals to prime the pump. Faculty reacted differently to this approach here than on any of the other campuses I have worked. For whatever reason, the reaction of faculty, assuming they read the paper[2], has been surprisingly negative. My sense of the response is that faculty perceive these documents as directives or mandates for the faculty. This reaction is not my intent.

I will admit that when creating a proposal or green paper, I will do my due diligence and make sure that I put forth the best argument, evidence, and reasoning that I can to address the thesis of the paper or proposal. I believe in what I distribute, but I am open to discussion and arguments, and to change my mind in situations where my decision is relevant. I also admit that the advantage of being the first to make an argument defines the territory typically. I have repeatedly described the above to faculty members over the past six years.

The evidence for this openness is that as part of the Leadership Academy last year and about 15 years earlier, I complete the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. In both cases, my type is INTP[3].

Some of the characteristics of an INTP are:

  • focus on ideas and concepts and tend to think outside the box.
  • make a decision based on logic and reason.
  • see the big picture.
  • can change on a dime when convinced.
  • like to explore concepts, make connections, and seek understanding.
  • understand complex systems and want to build.

Green papers do not address minor issues. Green papers are about significant policy or process decisions or to discuss vision and goals. In higher education, we can include curriculum, assessment, advising, mentoring, faculty development, among other topics to the list.

So, how should faculty react to green papers or proposals? The first step is for the faculty to read the paper and reflect upon what it is trying to convey. The second step is for faculty to do their due diligence, gathering relevant information on the subject, and formulate a response. This response may be to the green paper, or it may be taking up the issue at an appropriate meeting. The reaction can be a reasoned disagreement and argument with the premise of the green paper, address problems within the paper and make proposals for change or support the agreement. It is at this point that the author no longer controls the green paper topic. The topic enters the sphere of public discourse.

[1] Doerr, Audrey D. The Role of White Papers. In: Doern, G.B. and Peter Aucoin. The Structures of Policy-making in Canada. Toronto, MacMillan, 1971. pp. 179-203.

[2]Injecting white or green papers to a discussion assumes faculty members read them, which several faculty members admit they do not do.

[3] See for more information