Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Why Don’t They Show Up?

How heavily attended should the college Senate be?

I’ve been mulling this over lately.  Brookdale has a more robust routine turnout at Senate than I’ve seen elsewhere, but some folks think it should be even more so.  I suspect that my wise and worldly readers have seen great variation in college Senates elsewhere, so I’m hoping to get some sense of what has worked (or not) in other places.

At some level, of course, high turnout is a good thing.  It increases the chances that people will know what’s going on, and what the major campus issues are.  If the high turnout is evenly distributed among constituencies -- not a given, but if -- it can increase the chances of multiple perspectives being brought to bear on various questions.  Ideally, high turnout both indicates and feeds high interest, which in turn leads to the most collective brainpower focused on shared issues.  Even better, reasoned dialogue across ranks and roles leads to a better shared appreciation of our commonalities.

And sometimes that happens.

In practice, though, most people don’t attend to be edified.  (Some do, but they’re rarely a majority.)  Beyond a core group, most people don’t attend unless they’re upset about something.  By that point, it’s often difficult to have reasonable discussions, because battle lines are already drawn.  If the agenda for the next meeting started with “Resolved: Monetary Pay for All Employees Shall be Replaced by Compensation in Kit-Kats,” attendance at Senate would skyrocket, but I don’t think the overall effect on the college would be a new golden age of deliberative democracy.  People who don’t usually show up, would, just to prevent something terrible from happening. Then, after the crisis had been averted, attendance would quickly regress to the mean.

In my poli sci days, we used to study voter turnout and the theories explaining it.  One theory -- I remember George Will championing it, among others -- held that non-voting is a sign of contentment.  This is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought.  It sounds plausible until you look at the demographics of who votes and who doesn’t.  For this school to be correct, we’d have to assume that the very wealthy are horribly oppressed, and the very poor are content.  That fails the “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck” test.  

Another school looks at mediating institutions, like labor unions or political parties.  Robert Putnam got famous by broadening the idea to include all manner of “social capital.”  The idea here is that people vote when they’re prodded by people they care about and identify with.  That could mean a union, a church group, or even a bowling league.  (Hence, “Bowling Alone.”)  

The strength of Putnam’s position is that it fits the late twentieth century quite well.  But it doesn’t do a great job of explaining why voter turnout is higher in national elections than local ones, given that local ties are supposed to matter more.  And it doesn’t explain the spike in voter turnout in 2008, when Obama rode a wave of new voters to victory, even as unions and bowling leagues continued to decline.

I was more convinced by the folks who looked at non-voting as a desired outcome of elite policies.  Piven and Cloward argued in “Why Americans Don’t Vote” that voter registration rules were deliberately designed to discourage participation.  (They wrote it in the 80’s, well before the voter-suppression wave of the last ten years.)  Nina Eliasoph argued in her brilliant “Avoiding Politics” that certain social norms within the culture make it difficult for people to “own” the role of citizen, and that those norms were deliberately reinforced at all sorts of levels.  Her argument flipped Putnam’s on its head; in her view, social ties often precluded politics.  

Still, the most persuasive perspective I’ve seen argues that people are likelier to vote against something than for something.  This is why David Duke’s run for governor of Louisiana in the early 90’s occasioned record-breaking voter turnout among African-American voters; faced with the prospect of putting the Grand Dragon of the Klan in charge of the state police, folks who had never bothered to vote before suddenly did.  Looking back at most of my own votes for various candidates, more of them were motivated by stopping A than supporting B.  

Given that the campus is unionized, and nobody has to register to vote in the Senate, I don’t think some of the national explanations really apply locally.  But the last one probably does.  Outside of a smallish group of unusually public-spirited types -- in which I include myself -- most participation is sporadic, and occasioned only to prevent catastrophe.  Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it seems to be a persistent thing.

Wise and worldly readers, are there better explanations?  And are there consistently successful ways to make shared governance both more widely shared and a more positive influence on campus?

Hmmm. Writing in 1980, those two could have been looking at the extension of some practices into the 1980s that go way back, most of which still apply today. You still have to register, which could be quite inconvenient until well after the 80s, and can lose your registration if you move and don't update your address. You also can't vote in some primaries, and some primaries are the actual election.

As for the faculty senate, how do you get anything done if there isn't a quorum? Hope no one makes a quorum call? I much prefer a large representative body over a committeee of the whole, although that depends on a good agenda coming out well in advance, like when folks follow Dean Dad's meeting rules!

BTW, I'm curious. How often do you attend in an official capacity?
In my experience at different schools, "senate" can be something that's the whole faculty, or a representative body of faculty, or a representative body of faculty and staff. In the latter cases, only people voted in as representatives could vote, and they pretty much all went to all the meetings because it counted as their service. In the former, everyone pretty much went because it counted.

In my experience in the latter senate (as a senator), most meetings involved administrators talking and telling us what the administration was doing whether we would or not. Many administrators seem to count meetings as their primary work. For faculty, they don't feel like our primary work. I can't begin to count how many hours I've wasted because an administrator wanted to inform (or have a deanling inform) the senate (or committee) about something the senate (or committee) wasn't going to ever vote on. (How many meetings on "clickers" have I sat through as a senator? More than I like to remember.)

Now that I'm not a senate representative, I don't go to the meetings unless I need to for some reason. If the senate actually had any governance power, then it would be worth putting in the time. But just to nod at the endless parade of talking administrators? No thanks.

I'd look at the scheduling of the meeting, and think about whether it's convenient to the faculty/staff or if it's convenient to the administrators. (Almost all big college/university committees at my current school are set up to be convenient for administrators.) And then think about whether the faculty/staff actually feel like the shared governance is really shared.
I want to echo the prior poster - one of the reasons why I don't go is that it seems like 90% of the items aren't really important/relevant. Some people like showing up and talking, but once the requirement that I be part of the audience was lifted I mostly stopped going.
We are having conversations about shared governance on my own campus. Small lib arts school. Sadly, as I'm staff, the shared governance stops at my doorstep and at times I'm invited to look in as an observer while the faculty (while still excluding certain parts of the faculty body) make decisions that have wide ranging impact. So, when our presence is a token and the fact that the bylaws will probably never be changed to include staff in shared governance, pardon me if you aren't going to see staff getting up in arms over the things faculty are upset about.
Wait - getting paid in Kit Kats is a bad thing?

Always interesting to compare voting in the US to Canada (given similarities in the countries). Their recent election had record turnouts in hopes of dumping a Prime Minister who had overstayed their welcome.

I believe that believed efficacy is a factor in voting or political attendance. Do people feel that their attendance at a meeting is worth the effort/time to be there. Most Senate meetings are about mundane matters or approving items where the real work was done in the committees. When they perceive they have a real stake in the outcome, they make the effort to attend/vote.

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