Friday, June 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Senates: "Faculty Discipline Makes All the Difference"

One of my colleagues brought to my attention Siva Vaidhyanathan's excellent commentary published to the Chronicle of Higher Education:  What We Learned at UVa, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 2012. The assessment is well worth considering in its entirety.  It captures well an awakening to the realities of great changes now roiling around the university.
His assessment of the long term results of the ouster and reinstatement of President Sullivan may be contested.  He correctly posits that the Sullivan affair was about "who gets to guide the future of a great research university." (Ibid.). But in his defense of the old order he misunderstands the forces that are moving us away from the old model--even at great research universities--reducing them to "a small cabal of market- and techno-fundamentalists [who present] as a clear danger to not only the traditions of their alma mater but to the very value of the degrees they have earned" (Ibid.).  But see this blog: Charting the Passing of an Age or Counter-Reformation?: The University of Virginia Saga Continues on of the Future of Board-Administration Relationships, June 22, 2012).

On the other hand, his comments on the role of the Virgina Faculty Senate are valuable and worth serious consideration.  They suggest, to some extent, a reminder of the simple insight that the quality quality and commitment of representation on a Senate may translate into the quality and influence of the Senate as an institution. At the same time, to the extent it suggests management of faculty representation on the Senate by administrators, it raises issues as troubling as those about the division of authority between president and board of trustees.

Professor  Vaidhyanathan, who is also undertakes administrative duties as Chair of the department of Media Studies, suggests the contours of the faculty discipline in its institutional setting in a  Senate:
• Faculty discipline makes all the difference.

“Discipline” is not a word one usually associates with committees of faculty members. And it’s almost never applied to a faculty senate. But our Faculty Senate surprised everyone with its careful articulation of reasonable demands, its moral authority to speak for the entire faculty of every school at the university, and its clear, unified, sober response to every development. When many of us doubted that we could persuade the Board of Visitors to restore President Sullivan, the core leadership of the Faculty Senate refused to waiver from that clear and modest demand. They saw her restoration as the only conceivable way to undo the damage to the university’s reputation, and they said so repeatedly in the press, before the board, and to the broader faculty. The senate leadership avoided histrionics and hyperbole. The president of the senate, George Cohen, a law professor who has taught at UVa since 1992, presented an image that the Board of Visitors had to respect. Not coincidentally, Cohen teaches courses on “professional responsibility.”

The lesson here is that department chairs like me must take the appointment of representatives to the Faculty Senate very seriously. We should not put first-year assistant professors in the senate to learn all about the how the university works. And we should not put our most demonstrative, politically unsavvy senior colleagues in the senate either, because they might not exhibit the discipline, wisdom, and self-control needed in a crisis.

Every public university across the country could face a similar crisis soon. It might not be a showdown with a board. It could be a clash with the president or provost. It could be a schism within the faculty. Regardless, a trustworthy faculty senate is essential at those moments. We at UVa will never again take it for granted.
He makes a great point.  One that is exemplified by the speech given by Virginia Assistant Professor Peter Norton on behalf of the Faculty Senate at a weekend rally in support of ousted President Teresa Sullivan as reported by Valerie Strauss for the Washington Post: Peter Norton, Address to the Rally for Honor, University of Virginia,  June 24, 2012, for the Faculty Senate. The conduct of the Faculty Senate and the leadership of its Chair throughout these events was measured, consistent, and proactive.  The Senate served as a vital stakeholder in the process of considering the merits of the Sullivan removal and of her reinstatement.  The Senate was consulted by administration and board.   It performed it role in shared governance well.  It would be a valuable exercise for other Senates to compare their own approaches to leadership in crisis, including Penn State's, with that of the Virginia Faculty Senate. The experience of the Penn State University Faculty Senate in the terminations of Penn State's former president and head coach were different.  And those differences might be worth thinking about (e.g., Resolution Endorsed by University Faculty Senate November 18, 2011; and Special Committee on University Governance - Charge and Membership 3/15/12

But there are two important caveats here that are also worth considering.The first is the danger of administrative capture when Senate representatives are "chosen" or "encouraged" by administrators, especially administrators close to faculty and with power to determine salary, support and other working conditions. If I am encouraged to join the Senate by my department chair, am I also encouraged to represent that Department Chair's views or risk the loss of favor?  Institutional autonomy requires a bit of separation between stakeholders.  And because the interest's of administrators and faculty may not be the same all the time, and because, as Professor Vaidhyanathan reminds us, crisis may pit the senate against administrators as easiliy as against the bioard, faculty ought ot be protected in choosing their own. The problem becomes more acute where, as at Penn State, low level administrators may be selected as administrative representatives of the administration and also stand for election as Senators, and even serve as Senate leaders.  Yet, administrators have a role to play in encouraging qualified faculty to run for Senate; and the nature of that service is worthy of serious discussion. Shared governance means little if faculty, administration and board do not try to work together to bolster each other in the performance by each of their roles and in the improvement of each of their institutional character.  Institutional integrity is a joint effort within the university.  

That last point touches on the second caveat--the construction of a social norm framework for Senate activity that encourages the development of a robust and involved institution.  This second caveat, also involves administrator participation in the selection of Senators, but it cuts in another direction.  That caveat focuses on the cultivation of social norms that serve as the foundation of the sort of Senate much in evidence at the University of Virginia. (e.g., Attendance by Faculty Senators at Senate Functions and Meetings). He understands the importance of the cultivation of these social norms in the context of communication to outside stakeholders:

• Spread the word about how great the university is.
UVa is a special place. So much of this alumni and student activism might be hard to replicate in places less steeped in tradition and reverence. But if faculty members anywhere do their jobs with passion and commitment and let people know about it, it’s not hard to get the public to listen and respect the message.
We have heard for years that scholars have to work on their message to justify their jobs, especially if they toil in unsexy or nonutilitarian fields. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to “go public.” But connecting with a larger public to share passion, curiosity, and a commitment to the public good can have its own rewards. It’s not about interviewing for our jobs over and over again. It’s about showing respect for taxpayers, parents, students, and alumni. They want to know what we do and why we do it. Dozens of faculty members took the opportunity of this crisis to reintroduce ourselves to the public. We bragged about our students. We gushed about our colleagues’ work. We invited people to come visit to see what we do. We explained that the public research university is both broad and deep, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that public service is one of the core missions of any responsible public university.
That activity mattered immensely. It countered some pernicious stereotypes about complacent, out-of-touch, tweedy academics who are deaf to public concerns. We were able to articulate all the innovative stuff we do in classrooms and labs. And for once, reporters and radio talk-show hosts wanted to sincerely know why all of this matters and why anyone should value the public research university.
. . . .
Higher education needs its own corps of articulate thinkers, writers, and speakers to counter this propaganda. But more important, we all need to better engage with the lives, minds, and concerns of students, alumni, and the public. It’s not just a strategy to deal with the next attack. It’s good practice in general. It’s the ethical way to be a devoted and responsible public servant. (Ibid.).
But he fails to apply it with equal force to the internal construction of norm values within a faculty that could support the strong institution he finds at U Va. As Professor Vaidhyanathan suggests, it is about the cultivation of a normative structure, its presentation and preservation to outside and inside constituencies.  It is in this context that administrators serve a Senate well.  Cultivating a social norm system, backed appropriately by policy, that rewards Senate participation, that protects faculty in their governance activities.  It also requires both board and administration to take the Senate seriously.  Clearly this is a two way street--a Senate that acts merely as a conduit for the travails of low level administrators, that serves only as a a technical resource for courses and the management of student flows through the university does not serve the institution well.  

But the Senate also has an obligation to act in ways, to undertake activities, that also construct it as an important stakeholder in university governance.  It is sometimes useful to observe the normative messages supplied by a Senate through its website.  The Senate websie at the University of Virginia is quite telling in that respect: UVa Senate Website. People, even faculty, rise to challenges and to calls to duty and service.  They care about the institutions in which they serve, but they will serve only in those institutions that express these norms effectively. A Senate that can attract merely the blow-hard or the young faculty member looking to lard a tenure portfolio is one that has need of serious revaluation of its own social norms. For most of us, there is a lot of work to do.  

The focus on social norms also reminds us that selection of the "best"  faculty is not necessarily merely an exercise in avoiding certain "types" of faculty.  It also requires developing and maintaining a culture of service and an approach to engagement at the institutional level.  That project is necessarily an important job of the Senate leadership, but it also requires the support of administrators and board. Even the most unsuited faculty member can rise to the occasion in the appropriate context. It is to the development of that context, and to the encouragement of faculty to embrace its obligations and conduct expectations, that much work may need to be done. 

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