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On Becoming Faculty Senate President

April 11, 2009

I am scheduled to become the president of our Faculty Senate in less than one month.  Being an academic,  this has spurred me to begin to read the literature on academic governance and faculty senates.  After all, it would be good idea to know what I should be doing and perhaps even to discover how best to do my new job.   I was surprised by the number of scholarly articles and books that have been published on university governance.   So far, I have only read a smattering of them.   Unfortunately there is no Faculty Senate Presidency for Dummies.

Much to my surprise, however, I did find a study on faculty senate presidents by Dean Campbell, “Leadership and academic culture in the senate presidency.”   For his study he  interviewed 42 faculty senate presidents at institutions classified at the time  as research extensive by the Carnegie Foundation.  Needless to say, I quickly read this study hoping to learn from my soon-to-be peers.

The president of a faculty senate is an unusual leadership position.   You are in office for only one year.  The administrators with whom you interact have years or decades of administrative experience as department chairs, deans, provosts and presidents.  They are well versed in the minutiae of the university’s structure, budget, and governance.  They also have a cadre of highly trained professionals and administrative staff at their disposal.   Having already spent a year as the president-in-training, i. e., president elect, I am well aware of the immense gap in knowledge and  resources  between senior university administrators and part-time faculty senate leaders.  To make matters worse, although the top officers of the faculty senate do get some release time, they continue to have significant teaching and research responsibilities.  Unlike department chairs who are in a similar position, faculty senate leaders receive no increase in pay for taking on administrative responsibilities.  In other words, it is a part-time job with long hours and few perks .

Given the problems inherent in being a faculty senate president, why would anyone want the job?  This is the central question addressed by Campbell.  Based on the responses that he received, he concludes that there are three major reasons why faculty members become senate presidents:  career advancement, sense of duty, and accident.

In my case, I was definitely not motivated by career advancement.  I was an administrator for ten years and have no desire to be one again.   A number of past presidents of our faculty senate have become deans, associate provosts, and one a provost.   I have no idea if any of these individuals consciously choose to become faculty senate president as a career step, but it evidently did not hurt their advancement. Most former presidents, however, return to being faculty members.  In any case, I am over 60 years old and there is no chance of my ever being considered for an administrative position anywhere.

I like to think that my primary motivation for becoming president was a sense of duty to the faculty and to the university.   In fact, this is usually what I tell people who ask why I took on the job.  Having been on faculty of the same university for 35 years, I have had many opportunities to observe and experience both good and bad aspects of faculty life at a research university.   Being president would give me an opportunity to improve some aspect of the  lives of our faculty.

Although I did become a faculty senator out of a sense of duty, i.e., no one else in my department wanted to do it, my becoming president was mostly an accident.  I was nominated for the position of president elect by a former president with whom I served on a faculty committee.   Unfortunately, as I found out too late, there are not a lot of members of the senate who were willing to run for president elect.  In many years, there is only one candidate.    As a number of senate presidents in Campbell’s study also noted, it does not take any effort to become president.  My whole campaign lasted two minutes.

The major role of any senate leader is to inform university administrators about faculty opinion, concerns, and problems.   We are  conduits between the faculty and administrators.   We are advocates for the faculty.  The routine duties of the president are overseeing the day-to-day operation of the senate and its various committees and serving on a number of major university committees.  One fundamental question facing me as the senate president is how I can use my position to improve the university.  Can/should I be a change agent in today’s jargon?

According to its constitution, our faculty senate has “legislative responsibility for general academic policy for the university.”   This  specifically includes promotion and tenure policies and procedures, admissions policies, curriculum requirements, degree programs, graduation  requirements,  and approval of all degrees granted by the university.  All policies and procedures approved by the senate must be submitted to the university president for “review” and then submitted to the regents for approval.   Although the importance of  shared governance is a local mantra, senior administrators view the president as having absolute authority over  all academic and other matters at the university.  Thus faculty initiatives that senior administrators do not favor are routinely thwarted by announcing that the president won’t approve them.  (Another show stopper is the proclamation that there is no money for that.  There always seems to be, however, money for a senior administrator’s  pet project or program.) There are mechanisms, which  are described in the senate’s constitution, for resolving differences between the senate and president, but our faculty senate leaders, as far as I know, have never used them.

From my perspective,  the president can best serve the faculty and improve the university in two ways.  The first is by speaking truth to power.  University administrators often have lost day-to-day contact with faculty and thus with current faculty concerns and problems.  Administrators are interested primarily with  pleasing their superiors.  This is not surprising because they are  appointed to their positions and can be fired at any time.  Remember, I was an administrator for ten years.  On the other hand, faculty senate presidents can’t be fired by any administrator.

The second is by finding a solution to some problem or situation that adversely affects the  professional or personal lives of faculty.  A year is not a very long time, and it is essential to select a problem or an issue that is relevant to many faculty and is tractable.   The absolute power that is assumed to be vested in the president over all matters at the university also makes selection of an issue very tricky.  It would not take much to derail any senate president’s (or anyone’s) effort if senior administrators do not favor it.

My main effort to improve the well being of the faculty will be focused on developing better faculty salary policies and procedures.  The senate  has previously passed salary policies, but they have been largely ignored.  Let’s see what happens.

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