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The Beginning of the End

May 9, 2010

What was it like?  How did it go?  Are you glad it over?  These, and a number of related  “it” questions, have been put to me in the last few days because my term as faculty senate president is over.

What was it like?   In a nutshell, I went to meetings —  lots and lots of meetings.  Too many meetings.   These meetings fell into roughly three categories:  senate related meetings, meetings with administrators, and ceremonial meetings.  The latter included meetings to which I was invited to report to some group  on recent activities of the faculty senate.   Between meetings, I spent a great deal of time getting ready for meetings — reading reports, collecting information, writing reports.  My meetings ranged  from boring (the majority are pointless snooze fests), frustrating (faculty and administrators at times can be amazingly obtuse and pigheaded, including me),  enlightening (you have to deal with many topics about which you know nothing),  to  occasionally inspiring (you meet people who are truly devoted to the institution and who work hard to make it a better place, often  at the expense of their own professional careers).  I have never worked longer hours in my entire time at the university.

How did it go?  The budget crisis was the major issue facing the university last year and consequently the faculty senate.  As at most universities our budget was cut significantly, both at the start of the year and during the year.  Luckily, money from the federal stimulus package made it possible to deal with the budget crisis in a more deliberate and controlled way than would otherwise have been the case.  Needless to say, the budget and budget related issues dominated the senate’s and thus my agenda.   In particular, two interrelated  issues  absorbed most of my time:  revising policies dealing with the nonrenewal and termination of faculty appointments and the size of the budget cut to one academic unit.

Our faculty handbook had almost nothing in it about the circumstances that would warrant the termination of tenured faculty appointments.  In fact, it had only one sentence that indicated that tenured faculty appointments could be terminated, after the affected faculty members had been given a year’s notice, due to a disastrous financial crisis.  There is no indication of what would constitute such a crisis or who could declare one.  It became known last fall that the administration was looking at ways to justify terminating tenured faculty appointments, if this would be required by the size of the budget cuts.  Two scenarios seemed to be favored by administrators:  (1) linking tenure to departments and terminating faculty appointments by closing departments; and (2) declaring that a disastrous financial crisis existed.   The ultimate problem facing both administrators and faculty leaders was the inadequacy of our of faculty handbook, and the only way to solve this problem was to revise the section of the handbook dealing with nonrenewal and termination of faculty appointments.  We needed to establish the rules of the game.

Meetings to work on the revision of this section of the handbook began last October and the resulting revision was finally approved by the senate  seven months later, but only after devoting parts of five senate meetings to discussions of and amendments to it.  The numerous meetings among faculty senators and administrators and faculty senate leaders and leaders of the local AAUP chapter about how to revise this policy were at times frustrating, confrontational, and disappointing.   In the end, however, the process worked and a new policy was developed that was consistent with AAUP recommendations, that provided administrators a way to reorganize the university through the elimination of academic programs, that replaced the phrase “disastrous financial crisis” with the more standard “financial exigency”,  and that clarified the university’s obligations to tenured faculty who were threatened with nonrenewal or termination of their appointments.  To get back to the question, How did it go?, it went well.  Shared governance worked, and worked well, if slowly.

Shared governance, however, did not always work well, if at all.  Our new responsibility centered budget model has shifted most of the responsibility for making budget decisions to the college deans.  While the faculty senate and central administration were working out new policies on nonrenewal and termination of faculty appointments, the deans were busy trying to make decisions about what cuts to allocate to the departments in their colleges in order to meet their budget reduction targets.  Although the majority of the deans acted responsibly, two did not.  These two decided to reduce the budget of a jointly administered social science department by as much as 50%.  For faculty across the university, these dean’s actions came as a shock.  To faculty,  the deans had used their control of the budget to rid them of a troublesome department, its ailing academic programs, and its fractious faculty, including tenured faculty.   In their decision making, shared governance was largely ignored by the deans.  Faculty senate leaders found out about this draconian cut after the fact from a memo that went viral sent by the department chair to the faculty.  The  section of the faculty handbook that deals with the proposed reorganization of administrative units was ignored by the deans.  The effect of this unilateral budget cut on faculty morale has been profound, and it will be long lasting.

The size of the cuts to this department meant that tenured faculty would have to be terminated.  Thus, a budget cut of this magnitude was perceived by faculty across the university as an attack on tenure.  Faculty quickly realized that if budget cuts could result in the the termination of tenured  faculty in this department, this could also happen to their departments and them.  After considerable faculty concern about these cuts was voiced, the deans and provost began trying to downplay the size of the cuts by explaining that these cuts included the salaries of faculty who will be moved to other departments and thus that these cuts are really not as draconian as they appear.  In fact, they promised that no tenured or tenure-eligible faculty will be terminated.  Nevertheless, their continued  defense of the size of the cuts remains troubling, and their back pedaling on what these cuts  were intended to do seems like a feeble attempt at damage control.  No plans had been developed to move significant numbers of faculty to other departments when the cuts were announced.  How did it go?   Very badly.   Shared governance failed completely.   The deans are not used to having to deal with their own faculty, not to mention the  faculty senate, when it comes to making budget decisions.  They had better learn to do so, or the university is in for years of strife and turmoil.

Are you glad its over?  Yes.  There are issues facing the senate that arose during my term as president that were never resolved.  However, I will still be around next year as past president and will continue to work on them.  I am looking forward  to leading my old life again and doing the things that interest me most, teaching and research.  I will certainly not miss the endless meetings that consumed most of my last year.

This will be my last blog in this series.  This blog was intended to be a record of my experiences and observations as the president of a faculty senate.  My year as president is over and so is this blog.  Thanks for taking the time to read it.

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