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Faculty Senate past president's address

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 06 - September 28, 1995

(Editor's note: Following is the address traditionally presented by the former president of the Faculty Senate at the first regular meeting of the senate. Presenting his thoughts on university governance, and the role of the faculty was Larry Shumsky.)

I'd like to begin by telling you a couple of anecdotes. Some of you might have heard them before, but others might not. The first occurred, so I'm told, a few years after World War II, and General Eisenhower was being installed as president of Columbia University. As he was delivering his inaugural address, so the story goes, he kept talking about the university this and the university that, the faculty this and the faculty that. After he had done this a number of times, one distinguished member of the faculty arose, interrupted him, and said something like, "Excuse me, sir, but at Columbia, the faculty ARE the university.

The second incident occurred several years later, after Eisenhower had been elected president of the United States. He nominated Charlie Wilson, the president of General Motors, to be secretary of defense. At Wilson's confirmation hearings, one of the senators provoked him to say something like, "What's good for the United States is good for General Motors," a statement that was widely reported as, "What's good for General Motors is good for the United States," and so it has come down to us in most history books.

I was reminded of these two anecdotes, which I prefer to think are not apocryphal, when I was told another story by both of the participants, although separately, and I certainly hope that I am not mis-quoting them, especially in front of them. As I remember the incident, President (Paul) Torgersen and President (Tom) Sherman were meeting shortly after Tom's election as new president of the Faculty Senate, and President Sherman asserted that what is good for the faculty is good for the university, and that they cannot be separated. President Torgersen differed. Both of them were apparently somewhat taken aback by the other's response, and both mentioned the incident to me within a few days.

If I may be so bold as to interpret their thoughts, I think that they were thinking about different things. I think that Sherman was thinking about academic matters, and referring to the formulation of academic policies and procedures--and saying that what is good for the faculty is also good for Tech. But, I suspect that Torgersen was thinking about something quite different. I think that he was thinking about job conditions and referring to the enormous number of matters that affect our lives not only as professionals but as (and I choke on this word) employees, not just of the university but of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

If I am correct (and let's just assume that I am, or I have nothing else to say this evening), the confusion is understandable and has great implications for this senate and its role in the university. Historically, faculty senates have played many roles in colleges and universities. On the one hand, they have watched over working conditions--our salaries, our teaching loads, the processes for gaining tenure and promotion, and so on. If I may use the dread "u" word, they have acted like a union, at least to a small degree. I think that this is what President Torgersen was thinking about, and in this instance I have to agree with him. There can be a distinction between what is good for the faculty and what is good for the entire university. After all, it might be very good for the faculty if a large part of the university overhead budget were re-allocated to faculty salaries, but one could certainly argue that that would not be good for the entire university.

But faculty senates have also played another major role; they have participated in making academic policy at universities. In fact, at some colleges and universities, they have not just participated in determining academic policies and procedures, their primary function has been to make policy independently, and administrators take their lead from the senate. Last spring, I attended an AAUP conference concerning the nature of shared governance, and I was surprised to learn that at many colleges, the faculty senate alone determines standards of education. The senate decides how many hours are needed for graduation, the definition of acceptable academic standing, the structure of the core curriculum, and so on. As you might expect, faculty members from other institutions considered our own administrative structures to be bizarre, to put it nicely.

For the few weeks after that meeting, I tried to understand why Tech seems to have a unique way of doing things, and why we have a system of shared governance in which the faculty, I think it is safe to say, plays a distinctly secondary role in making academic decisions and formulating policies and procedures. My first answer was relatively simple, and I think has some validity. Many faculty members are simply not interested in being involved in university governance, and they are not willing to play a significant role. They think that "service" such as being on committees, being a member of the Faculty Senate, and so on is a waste of time that has no reward. They don't want to be bothered because they think that there is nothing in it for them. They also think that the governance structure is so established that their opinions count for very little. Any of you who has ever had the thankless task of trying to persuade a colleague to perform a particular job or task knows exactly what I mean.

As a result, I spent no small amount of time last year trying to figure out how to change the situation, how to persuade more of our colleagues that service is not a waste of time, is valued, and, to borrow a phrase that we will probably all get sick of soon enough, can make a world of difference. Unfortunately, I could come up with no solution to this problem other than exhortation by the administration, backed up with filthy lucre (you know the old expression, "put your money where your mouth is"). But, of course, there's no money available for almost anything, and it seemed unlikely that I could persuade anyone that faculty service is highly regarded and significantly rewarded.

I became quite frustrated, but the subject would not leave me alone. And the more I thought about it, the more it somehow seemed related to my interactions with the Board of Visitors. Without mentioning names or specific incidents, I was constantly amazed at how little confidence some members of the board seemed to feel toward us faculty members as a group. In fact, one or two of them (and maybe I am stretching this) could be described as hostile. No one ever said anything to me directly, they always treated me with the utmost respect and friendliness, and I think that I generally had good relations with the board as a whole. But some of them made off-hand comments that suggested they were not totally sympathetic to the faculty, our needs, and our concerns; in fact, I think you could say that at least a few of them had little understanding of our work, our concerns, and our priorities. They were particularly cool to the Faculty Senate as an institution, and I had trouble understanding this.

Then, one evening after a senate meeting last year, one senator accosted me and said that he hadn't enjoy the meeting. That he had not become a senator to waste time talking about topics like our position in university governance, and that if we were going have discussions like that regularly, he wouldn't be back. I refrained from the exquisite pleasure of telling him that he probably wouldn't be missed, but the incident stuck in my mind.

And then, rather slowly, all of these things seemed to come together. It all goes back to those two views of faculty senates that I mentioned a little while ago. The first is as a participant in formulating academic policies and procedures. We claim this role and responsibility because we have professional expertise that gives us particular qualifications and abilities to formulate policies and procedures. We believe, and faculty senates have historically asserted, that our credentials, our training, and our experience give us that responsibility. The other role of the senate (the only organization that represents the entire faculty) is to protect our rights and privileges--whether it is getting us mega-bucks, gaining lighter teaching loads, protecting academic freedom, safeguarding tenure, and so on.

The problem, as I soon came to view it, is that these two different roles of the senate have the potential to impede and obstruct each other, at the very least to damage our legitimacy with some of our constituents. As one result, we lose credibility with some of those people--whether it is the Board of Visitors, the administration, our students, the legislature, or the general public. They think of us in one of those two roles when we are really acting in the other. Let's take an absurd example just to illustrate my point. IF, and I do mean if, the senate were to petition the administration and the Board of Visitors to increase undergraduate tuition by a sizable amount in order to fund substantial salary increases for the faculty, all hell would break loose immediately. But, more than that, if we later went back and asked the board and the administration to impose higher admission standards, more stringent requirements for graduation, and other tightening of academic standards, I think that neither the visitors nor the Provost's Office would hear us sympathetically, would not be nearly as willing to pay attention to us, and would wonder what we saw in it for us. At least one highly placed administrator has already mentioned the selfishness of the faculty on several occasions to me. If I may put it a little differently, not only can the two roles of senate conflict, but the inherent nature of power relationships often makes it difficult for people to share decision-making responsibility with their employers--or employees.

How do we deal with this situation? And I do think that it should be considered and dealt with. In my opinion, the key lies in the nature of the governance system here at Tech. First, those of you who have been involved in the governance system for a while know that the senate has no formal place in the governance system. I think that it has a great deal of influence, and can actually wield some power at times, but it does not formally participate in governance institutions other than by electing representatives to councils, commissions, committees, and so on, and also by having regular access to the highest levels of the administration. But the senate per se does not actually participate in the governance system and making policy. I think that that situation should be re-considered. Second, there is a strange condition within the structure of governance institutions. Committees, commissions, and councils represent not only the administration, us (the people who have some expertise about many subjects), and the people who have a direct personal stake in the outcomes and results of the work of the committee, commission, or council. No, almost every council, commission, or committee has representatives from almost every interest group on campus, regardless of their knowledge or their involvement in particular issues. What was probably once an attempt to achieve greater democracy in governance on campus has created a situation in which the wrong people are sometimes involved in making decisions.

If I knew exactly what to do about all of this, my office would be in the White House, not in a converted college dormitory, but I do have some suggestions. First, I wonder if the senate, as the only representative of the entire faculty, should be re-organized and re-constituted. Perhaps it should be tied much more closely to the faculty associations of each college, and senate officers should be chosen by the entire faculty, not just by the senate membership. Those changes would make the senate much more a representative of the faculty. At the same time, as I already mentioned, I think it would be desirable to weave the senate more tightly into the governance system and actually include it in making decisions, not simply electing representatives to governance bodies.

I also wonder if the two roles of the senate, academic policy-making and, let's call them, working conditions, should be separated. This would no doubt be difficult to do, and I understand that the lines between the two roles are sometimes not clear cut and often overlap. For example, faculty salaries are obviously a conditions-of-work issue, but they are also a matter of academic policy because they have a significant affect on faculty morale and therefore on the quality of instruction. Nevertheless, I can't help but think that these two subjects--conditions of employment and academic policies--should and can be separated, and that doing so would circumvent some of the friction that currently exists. There are more than enough governance institutions at the university that different ones of them could have more clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Next, and this is perhaps my trickiest thought, and the one that might provoke the greatest disagreement on campus, and I am very deliberately avoiding mentioning any "for instances," I haltingly ask if the governance system should represent only those people who either have expertise or are directly involved in particular issues, and if only those people should participate in decision-making. I am deliberately not specifying any particular cases because I don't want to provoke any conflict this evening, but I think that most of you can come up with your own examples of this phenomenon. If you can't, just look at the composition of the various councils, commissions, and committees and see how they are constituted.

Finally, I think that the relationship between the governance system and the administration needs to be clarified. How much responsibility does each have and over what? While that might seem clear, it is not. What exactly is making policy, and what is implementing policy? What are the appropriate roles of the faculty and the administration, and how many lines does each deliver in this on-going play? I think that many of the disagreements that have erupted on campus during the last two or three years are directly related to this lack of clarity. I could give you my answer about the proper division of responsibility, but my object tonight is simply to raise some questions and ask you to think about them, not to present any solutions, although this one case does tempt me.

I realize that none of this will be easy to accomplish and will require an enormous investment of time and energy. It almost certainly can't be done in a single year, and it will almost certainly offend some people. But I think that if this university is going to progress, and if the faculty is going to take, and be willing to take, an appropriate part in the governance of Tech, all of these issues must receive attention. Speaking personally, I think that there is, to use another popular buzzword, "a window of opportunity." The university is mandated to consider re-structuring, and nothing could be more central to re-structuring than the issues that I have raised. More than that, our highest administrators are currently highly respected individuals who are former members of this and other prestigious faculties. They share many of the same concerns that engage all of us, and are more sympathetic to our concerns than the administration has ever been. But in order to get their attention, and to win their support, the faculty in general, and the senate in particular, must begin to consider these issues and seriously give them the attention they deserve. Thank you.

Larry Shumsky