Monday, November 14, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Starting a Faculty Senate

A returning correspondent writes:

Our FT faculty are exploring the creating of a Faculty Senate and allowing adjuncts to participate. Actually, I'm the token adjunct allowed to participate -- on the "proposal writing team". This is just the proposal that I'm allowed to work on, so far.

Any thoughts on Faculty Senates in general? Purposes? Pitfalls? Examples to study? Roles of Adjuncts?

This is good news, and a great question. I don’t have a worked-out general theory of faculty senates, but I’ll offer some thoughts and ask my wise and worldly readers to contribute theirs.

The first question I’d have is context. Is this a response to a particular event or crisis, or is it long-germinating? Is there already a larger “shared governance” structure, or has the college been run pretty much from the top down? If there is a larger structure, how would the faculty senate fit into it? If there isn’t, what jurisdiction would the senate claim?

Getting the jurisdictional boundaries right will matter tremendously. Generally speaking, senates are ‘advisory’ to college presidents. In the case of a college senate, they could advise on any number of things, ranging from curricular proposals to campus smoking bans to the location and structure of the graduation ceremony. However, if you have collective bargaining, the turf of the union(s) and the turf of the senate can’t overlap. That means that the senate can’t deal with salary or job issues, and the union(s) can’t deal with curricular issues.

If you have a faculty senate, as opposed to a college senate, its jurisdiction is narrower still. A faculty senate could still appropriately deal with curriculum, for example, but would have no special say over a campuswide smoking policy, since that would also affect staff. And it couldn’t deal with salary or staffing issues, since those are contractual.

That said, I’ve found value in the faculty-only deliberative body my campus established a few years ago. (Here it’s parallel to the general shared governance structure. Where the all-college body reports to the president, the faculty group reports to the academic vp.) The most valuable moments in it have come through conversations that faculty have with other faculty, in which they sometimes discover that ideas that make perfect sense from the perspective of, say, the history department would be disastrous for the chemistry department. Those conversations actually move substantive discussion forward, because at that point, the history department can’t just blame The Administration for being bullheaded. It has to address some very real concerns that it simply hadn’t considered. (In that case, the question involved the academic calendar and how to compensate for Monday holidays. A solution that made perfect sense for classroom-based courses would have wreaked havoc with the lab sciences.)

If the goal of the faculty senate proposal you’re dealing with is to address staffing levels and/or working conditions, it’s the wrong vehicle; you need a union for that. If the goal is to work on proposals that affect the entire campus, it’s the wrong vehicle; you need something that includes staff and, presumably, students. But if it’s to address specifically academic issues, it makes sense, and it’s probably a good idea to include adjuncts. Given that the adjuncts are central to the delivery of the academic programs, it’s reasonable to include them in those discussions.

If the college really doesn’t have a shared governance structure in any meaningful way, and this is the first foray into those waters, then the primary concern isn’t so much overlap as not shooting yourself in the foot. Careful attention to jurisdictional boundaries, and some upfront discussion of civility and the rules of the road, could help prevent the kind of crash-and-burn that discredits the idea for a decade. If the senate gets taken over by hotheads, it will quickly reduce itself to irrelevance. Cast your net wide, and recruit people known for being grownups. If the senate can gain credibility, it can gain influence.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or correct)? Anyone who has been involved in the recent creation of a faculty senate, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.