Advice for a New Faculty Senate Chair

Administering a faculty governance body is not for the faint of heart.
By Ben Trachtenberg

Congratulations. By the choice of your colleagues you are the new chair of the faculty senate. Whether you have sought this office for some time or were harassed into running, here you are. Allow me to offer some advice based on my experience as chair of the University of Missouri’s faculty council, our version of a faculty senate.

Before I begin dispensing advice, I will inflate your ego a bit by telling you why your position—which former University of Wyoming faculty senate chair Larry Hubbell described as “thankless but vital”—matters. The senate chair has an important job for two reasons. First, the senate itself matters, and a good chair makes the senate more effective. Second, some informal faculty governance is too sensitive (or must occur too quickly) for discussion by all members of the senate, and when administrators—rightly or wrongly—decide to seek the advice of only one faculty member before acting, the senate chair often receives the call.

The senate itself matters because shared governance is essential to the success of the university, allowing faculty to participate in the development and implementation of university policy, which both improves the substance of the policy and helps build support among faculty for what the university chooses to do. Where there is no faculty union, a senate speaks up for faculty rights and advocates for faculty members on all issues in which they have an interest. This advocacy helps to protect the academic freedom without which the university cannot promote excellence in research and teaching.

In addition to their “functional” role—approving curricular changes, amending the faculty handbook, and other tasks that require the documented assent of faculty—faculty senates perform an “influential” role, affecting university policy through their prestige and the respect they command. For example, faculty members can have an impact on the procedures governing student disciplinary hearings even when they have no formal power to amend those rules or to prevent trustees and administrators from enacting them as they choose. If the senate enjoys respect from administrators, the faculty as a whole, and students and staff, then it can use the expertise of the faculty to improve the university. The reputation of the faculty council at MU has allowed it to advocate successfully for the inclusion of faculty in the planning of student orientation events related to diversity (instead of leaving the curriculum to student affairs and diversity and inclusion staff); for robust participation by faculty in the creation of workload policies at the unit and college levels; and for the enactment of sensible rules, which faculty helped to write, governing free expression and the use of facilities.

Now, some observations and advice.

1. The hourly pay for senate members is poor, and for senate officers it is even worse.

Because your senate colleagues are working with you for free, one of your primary tasks is motivating them to care about the senate, pay attention to faculty governance, show up, and work. In addition, they do not work for you, at least not exactly. You are the chair of the senate, not its monarch, and your term will be over before you know it. If people dislike you, they can simply slack off. If they really dislike you, they can make your meetings unpleasant and slow down senate business.

So, go out of your way to thank people—ideally in public—for their work. Bring a couple of bottles of wine to the fall orientation retreat. Try to maintain a pleasant disposition. When people propose silly ideas—and they will—be nice. Keep meetings moving along and end them on time whenever possible. If you act like you believe that the senate and its work are important, without coming off as self-important, others will act the same way.

2. One of your primary roles is to get information to persons who need it.

Your university is a large enterprise; one hand often does not know what the other is up to. If you are diligent and trustworthy, you will come to possess a great deal of information that is not widely known. Some of this information will be confidential, but much of it will simply be obscure. Suppose some faculty member is bad-mouthing an administrator who has no idea the faculty member is upset. Gentle diplomatic efforts may solve this problem before it worsens. You may hear that the new parking machines are confusing for visitors, and you may well learn this before anyone at Parking Services receives a formal report. Let someone know who is in a position to address the problem. Perhaps the president is seeking feedback about a proposed project in a manner that—unbeknownst to him—is alienating potential allies. If you wish the project well, see if you can convince the president to change tactics.

You may learn something relevant to the work of a senate or campus standing committee. Often, an administrator will have a vague sense that someone on the faculty should be aware of an issue but will not know whom to call. So, your phone will ring. With luck, you will remember the faculty members who actually handle this area. Recall, however, that not everything you hear will be accurate. Bad information can come your way by accident or on purpose, and you will want to consider the source before becoming an intermediary.

3. To spread information, you must have it.

Once you know something, sharing the news is not rocket science. The trickier part is discovering it. You can already identify the cast of characters who will know most of what you need to learn (vice presidents, key faculty leaders, and so forth). Life will be easier for you if you make an effort to keep in regular contact with them, ideally meeting in person or speaking on the phone often. You should see the president and provost monthly, in addition to their visits to regular senate and committee meetings. These people may provide information in private that they would not otherwise share.

When a crisis arises, you will be glad to have existing relationships. In my first summer as council chair, I visited the university police department and had a nice chat with the police chief, who gave me a tour of his facilities. Because of that meeting, I already had established rapport when student protesters began sleeping on MU’s Carnahan Quad in 2015. When deciding which persons are worth contacting regularly, you should cast a wide net. I am lucky that I included the chief of police—a person many faculty leaders might not bother to meet—in my group of summer conversations. Don’t forget folks like secretaries in the central administration building. You can discover a great deal by wandering around and saying hello.

4. Trust is essential.

Both formal and informal communication channels depend on trust. Quite often I learned somewhat explosive information before it became public. I then needed to balance my desire to share the news— which helped me to engage other faculty in planning a response—with the need to protect my sources. Sometimes I could solve the problem by sharing news in a way that did not reveal my source. In other situations I was able to request information from a second source despite already knowing the answer. I could then share that second source’s report without mentioning the first.

It is better if administrators communicate important information with several faculty leaders rather than sharing that information only with the chair. For such a process to work, however, your colleagues must exercise discretion. My executive committee had important conversations with top administrators that could not have occurred if even one member of the committee had been a loose cannon. That said, one must balance discretion (good) with undue secrecy (bad). If senate leaders keep all the information to themselves, then the broader senate (not to mention the faculty as a whole) remains in the dark. Senate officers will often follow your lead about what should stay under wraps and what needs broader dissemination.

Whether you learn something alone or with senate colleagues, you will influence how the overall faculty react. For example, you might prepare a motion for the senate so that it is ready as soon as news breaks. My Mizzou colleagues may recall that in 2016 our faculty council considered a motion mere hours after MU announced communications professor Melissa Click’s dismissal—an event about which I had a bit of unofficial notice. By contrast, when the student affairs committee chair and I learned about the impending cancelation of the graduate student health-insurance subsidy very early in my term as chair, we took no action between that meeting and the next day’s announcement, a decision that in retrospect seems unwise.

Relatedly, trust affects your ability to manage senate meetings. If members believe that you will give them a fair chance to be heard, they will mostly respond gracefully even when their motions are defeated. If they believe you are trying to deny them a fair hearing, your life will be much less pleasant.

5. Your formal powers are minimal.

The faculty senate has minimal imperium (a Latin word roughly translated as “power to command”), and the chair has almost none. Nearly all of the senate’s authority, and that of the chair, exists as auctoritas (clout associated with prestige). Ultimately, almost everything you wish to achieve requires the consent of many others. The unanimous vote of the senate can be ignored by administrators without any risk that you will hold the president in contempt and have the marshals toss her in jail. The punishment for ignoring the senate, if any, comes in the form of hassle and damage to administrators’ reputation among faculty. Governance works better when the senate coordinates its actions with others (for example, by sharing possible requests in advance with the provost, so the senate can then ask for something likely to be granted). Similarly, the chair is more effective when key faculty members (some on the senate, some not) are on board before the chair opens his or her mouth.

Much of your credibility depends on whether observers perceive you to be worthy of respect. I suspect that I was tapped as chair in part because I tend to wear suits at council meetings, and I am certain that dressing like a New York lawyer (or, perhaps, like an administrator) contributed to my effectiveness as chair. Whatever your style is, it is worth remembering that giving respect makes you more likely to receive respect. Even if someone acts rudely toward you, responding in kind—especially in front of others—can undermine your reputation.

6. Delegate or do it yourself.

There is too much for you to do. A key task therefore becomes choosing what to do, what to delegate, and what to risk having no one accomplish.

When I received draft council meeting minutes from the council recorder, the minutes usually contained errors. These were not the sorts of mistakes about which nations would go to war, but they nonetheless could have been embarrassing (for example, misspelling names of MU administrators and using inaccurate titles or incorrect abbreviations of campus entities). I decided that, considering how poorly the recorder is paid (zero compensation), it made no sense to bug her about the errors, and it would have taken as much time for me to identify mistakes and ask for a new draft as it would to deal with the corrections personally. So I made the corrections myself. Perhaps that was not the best use of my time, yet it was better than any alternative I could think of.

Many projects are sensibly placed in the hands of other faculty members. I could not possibly have accomplished what a well-chosen committee did with MU’s free-speech policy, nor could I have advanced civil rights and Title IX concerns as well as two other committees did. I once asked five council members to investigate MU’s policy related to research incentive funds. I had no idea at the time what they would accomplish, but I knew that they almost certainly would do more than I could myself. Delegation yields “buy-in” and—assuming you have chosen the right folks for the job—will produce a better product than any chair could deliver alone.

It is easy to forget all the committees that already exist. In addition to the various senate standing committees, your institution likely has a wealth of campus standing committees, as may your constituent schools and colleges. The more work you get from these committees, the better.

Even smaller tasks are often appropriate for delegation. Standing committee chairs can check in with administrators about various matters. Your vice chair likely has largely undefined duties. If you can hand off ministerial matters to a trusted colleague, then you can attend to other matters.

7. Written records are your friends.

The senate generally acts by approval of written motions. Unless those documents get where they need to be, they might as well not exist. Similarly, for a great deal of faculty governance work, if no one creates a written record, the effort has been wasted. If a committee (a senate standing committee, a campus standing committee, or a similar body) takes no minutes and prepares no annual report, perhaps the members could have saved time by skipping all the meetings. Conversely, if the senate chair does not give standing committees a written charge, their work may lack focus.

When you meet with administrators, it can be helpful to send an email following up on whatever you might have agreed upon or confirming certain information. That way, there should be no arguments later about what was communicated. The same is true of meetings with certain faculty. A brief oral review at the end of a meeting can also clear up misunderstandings quickly about what happens next and who is responsible for what, avoiding delays caused by crossed wires.

8. Written records can be your enemies.

Keep in mind that many email messages sent by public university employees (as well as many other university records) can be read by random busybodies under state “sunshine laws.” Also, recipients can forward emails at will, even at private universities. (Lawyers joke that the “e” is there because email stands for evidence mail.) If you write stupid things in email messages, you stand a significant risk of looking stupid down the road. (“Dance like no one is watching, and email like it will be read aloud at a deposition.”)

Written records can occasionally create problems because email (and other writing) lacks the tone of voice and other clues that so often give needed context to speech. While it is often easier (and faster) to communicate by email, in-person meetings can be better when it is important to avoid hurt feelings and to communicate your convictions and your respect for others in a manner beyond mere words. In-person meetings also allow communication largely unburdened by fear of deposition readings.

9. It is not always clear for whom you speak.

After you become chair, it will occasionally be unclear for whom you speak. Do you speak for yourself? For the senate? For the faculty in your school or department who elected you to the senate in the first place? For the entire university faculty? For the university itself? Especially when speaking with the press about university policy, you should assume that listeners will often presume that you speak for the senate, at a minimum, and perhaps for the university’s faculty more broadly. The same can be true when speaking with administrators. That does not mean, of course, that you cannot offer your own opinions without taking some kind of vote or survey. It does mean, however, that you should be careful not to needlessly annoy faculty colleagues by saying things large portions of them may not believe; the same is true of your state’s electorate. I could have probably paid better attention to this issue, although circumstances beyond my control caused me to speak to the press more often than a senate chair normally would.

10. Professionalism matters and is time-consuming.

The senate is more effective when it looks and acts like a professional organization. If its documents are well written, they will receive more generous readings. If discussion at senate meetings flows smoothly and without undue rancor, then critical comments toward administrators may be taken as constructive rather than hostile or silly. The reverse is true as well. Amateurish displays weaken the senate’s ability to be taken seriously, which undermines its ability to serve the faculty and the university.

Unfortunately, it takes time and effort to maintain the professionalism of the senate, and often only the chair can do the necessary work. Ideally, the senate’s administrative assistant (if you are lucky enough to have one) and others can help you convey an impressive image. Alas, the gritty details are often yours to manage. Editing draft minutes, improving the website, and the like all take time and are difficult tasks to delegate. Similarly, time spent preparing the chair’s reports—which set the tone for meetings—is time well spent.

If you are not already familiar with the most commonly invoked provisions of Robert’s Rules of Order—as well as your senate’s own rules—studying them early will substantially reduce the risk of chaotic meetings in the future. Rules of order are supposed to ensure that the majority can accomplish its goals while concurrently allowing members in a minority to be heard. A chair who does not know what it means to “move the previous question” is in danger of having a meeting hijacked by troublemakers. Relatedly, because so many senate members know so little about parliamentary procedure, they appreciate a chair who helps members understand the rules.

11. Start now, and don’t lose the summer.

The summer is the time when many battles of the upcoming year are won and lost. Given the nature of the academic calendar, the window during which progress can be made on campus is quite limited. If you do not plan thoroughly over the summer, you will discover in the fall that you spend two or three months getting your priorities ready for serious consideration. These months will be full of distractions as you welcome new members, help new officers and committee chairs assume their roles, and deal with your “real” job (teaching and research).

Although the faculty tends to disappear for part of the summer, most staff and administrators are around. They will be glad to meet with you to discuss your plans during a relatively quiet time on campus.

Whom do you need to see? What do you need to learn? Do you need any ad hoc committees and, if so, who can chair them effectively? Regardless of today’s date, now is the time to begin your work.

Have fun. I wish you the best of luck.   

Ben Trachtenberg is an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri. From 2015 to 2017, he chaired the MU Faculty Council on University Policy. His email address is trachtenbergb@missouri.edu.

Photo by Peshkova/iStock

Comments

At Auburn University in Alabama the Chair of the Faculty & University Senate has, in effect, a 3 year term. The first year the Chair to be learns the ropes of the job from the current Chair. The following year the Chair-to-be becomes the Chair. And the 3rd year the Chair becomes the past Chair and is able to speak to issues that arise, at the meetings of the Board of Trustees, although the past Chair may not vote.
Also, the year that one is the Chair, the Chair receives a 20% raise in salary. This is done because the role of the Chair is so onerous that otherwise few, if any, individuals would want to be Chair. When I was Chair I was on about 10 committees, wrote the Post-Tenure Review policy and worked with the Chair-to-be in writing the job description for the University Ombudsperson.

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