Faculty Forum: Five Lessons I Learned as Faculty Senate Chair

By Judith G. Curtis

As I gazed out at the campus from the top-floor windows in the chancellor’s suite, everything seemed doable. High above the campus, conversations veered into blue-sky territory: Wouldn’t it be great if . . . ? Why couldn’t we do it this way? As the meeting with the chancellor and provost broke up, the plans sounded reasonable. As the faculty senate chair, I was confident a majority of the senators would be persuaded that we needed to clarify policies on faculty campus engagement, make promotion and tenure guidelines more consistent, and discontinue low-enrollment programs to maximize efficiencies with a dwindling state budget.

This confidence lasted through the twenty-minute walk across campus, past the Starbucks, over the bridge across the pond in front of the library, past the bell tower, and up to my office in the oldest building on campus, which faces the railroad tracks. When the trains roll by, blasting their horns every couple of hours, the whole building shakes. That’s how I felt when I sat down at my desk and opened my e-mail. What seemed so perfectly reasonable twenty minutes ago had set off a firestorm on the online faculty mailing list. Faculty members viewed suggestions for increased campus involvement as dictatorial, changes to promotion and tenure policies as nefarious, and doing away with any programs as heresy. Lesson number one: The view from the top makes things look easier than they really are.

Politics is messy. That’s true on the national, state, local, and campus levels. Higher education in many states is underfunded. Some legislators view faculty members as having cushy state jobs that entail little actual work and university systems as riddled with fat that needs to be trimmed.

Faculty senates on individual campuses pass resolutions that they send on to the system-level faculty assembly, where representatives growl and hiss. Most often, however, these resolutions are ignored. In states with no collective bargaining and where faculty members are reluctant to get out of the classroom and march on the state capital, faculty voices don’t even echo in the wind. The daily trains rumbling by make more noise than we do. Lesson number two: At a state university in a large system, faculty members have little clout.

When I first was elected as faculty senate chair, I hadn’t learned these lessons, yet. Seduced by the view from the top floor of the administration building, where complex issues seemed so easy to resolve, I eagerly spent my year filling the faculty senate agenda with items I was sure could be accomplished. Many of them were, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I often left faculty senate meetings amazed and, frankly, dismayed by the unsophisticated arguments that derailed motions. Lesson number three: Not all faculty members are persuaded by logic.

A large state university system will have its governing policy published in a code. If a faculty senate tries to ignore policies, or passes something that isn’t in line with the code, the administration will be forced to overrule it. The administration is not necessarily launching an assault on shared faculty governance; it’s simply following the code. Individual campuses have flexibility in how they manage implementation of the system’s code, but some actions are mandated, such as a required review of promotion and tenure decisions. Yet, some senators will oppose anything the administration brings forward, even if it’s a result of a mandate in the code at the system level. Lesson number four: Many campuses have a tea party, a group of faculty members who will oppose whatever the administration proposes.

Politicians at the national level always seem to be running for office. An election ends, and the media coverage of the next potential candidate begins. That political reality to focus on reelection makes it difficult for faculty senate chairs who serve one year at a time. During my year as faculty senate chair, I concentrated on the issues and had lengthy agendas to tackle them head-on. I spent my time on the issues, not solidifying my base. Lesson number five: Reelection is the name of the game in politics at any level.

Judith G. Curtis is associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to academe@aaup.org for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.

Comments

It's easy to see by Dr. Curtis's revealing language why she struggled to "persuade" the faculty senate at her institution to go along with her "agenda items." It is extraordinarily condescending to frame faculty senators as being unable to be "persuaded by logic," or as being a "tea party," simply because they did not support Dr. Curtis's proposals. These proposals were hatched, by her own admission, from the lofty and detached perch of the upper floors of the administration building and NOT among her faculty colleagues, where a senate chair should be negotiating these issues. Dr. Curtis also presents no concrete details of what her proposals were and why faculty senators did not support them. Lesson number six: If you're a senate chair who thinks you're superior to your senators, you won't -- and shouldn't -- be re-elected.

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