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Statement of Senate Chair Made at the Aug 28, 2012 Meeting

The Penn State University Faculty Senate held its first meeting of this academic year on Tuesday August 28, 2012 (e.g. Faculty Senate August 24 Meeting Agenda).  I have spoken to the forensic discussion requested by one of our Senators to consider the NCAA sanctions and the university’s response (e.g. My Thoughts on the Questions Posed for the Senate Forensic Discussion on the NCAA and Big 10 Sanctions).
(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2012)
This post includes the remarks I made at the start of the meeting,


Opening remarks of Senate Chair, August 28, 2012:

Though we start this year with the ordinary functions of the Senate, it is important to remember that we are living in extraordinary times, times that will require from us, not merely to do our jobs exceedingly well, but to contribute to the remaking of this university into what Board of Trustees Chair Karen Peetz has described as the university with the best governance structures in the world. That is no small task; it is, though, a task that requires the contributions of board, administration and faculty, working together toward a common goal. We cannot make shared governance a reality, we cannot hope to be taken seriously as a critical component of shared governance, unless we contribute. That does not mean that we will always agree; indeed we have a duty to be true to our selves as the representatives of the Penn State faculty, to speak our truth even when it might not be what people may want to hear. But it also means that our engagement must be constructive, always contributing, as we see it in good faith, to the common good of this institution.

It is in that spirit, and in a loving way, that I want to make three brief observations before we begin the substantive part of our meeting.

First, I would caution us to work hard to remain extremely sensitive to the real pain that the Sandusky scandal has caused to real people. The email that many of you received from Matt Bodenschatz, stripped of its raw emotion and intemperate language, reminds us not to exaggerate injury—especially institutional injury that we that we find so unfair. We remain sensitive to the error of wrapping the university and our own response to the perceived injustice of the Freeh Group, the NCAA and the Big 10, among others, in the sort of victimhood that presumes to equate those wrongs against the university with the pain and suffering of victims of sexual abuse.

Second, shared governance means exactly that. The University Faculty Senate has been working for years to be taken more seriously by its governance partners in the administration and the Board. There are still some who view the Senate as a ridiculous inconvenience, and those who serve the Senate as busybodies or worse. Part of that is our own fault—we sometimes fail to understand both the extent and the limits of our authority—falling silent when we should speak and speaking when we should be silent. This is especially so when we are tempted, as a body, to behave as if we might act for the university. It is true that, collectively, we represent the institutional voice of the faculty. We represent that faculty within the university. We may speak for the faculty, we may make public statements, even sharply worded ones, on matters that fall within our purview, we may urge administration and board to take or refrain from taking any action. But we may not act as or for the university or presume to take for ourselves the powers of university President or Board.

Last, we will be engaging in an important discussion today, one for which I thank Senator Nelson for bringing to the Senate. That discussion is a useful exercise. It is a reminder that there are those among us who remain troubled by the constitution and work of the Freeh Group and the failures of the Board to manage that process, of the procedures used and the basis for the NCAA’s punitive actions against the university, of proportionality in imposing sanctions, of the adverse effects of these actions on those not responsible for the evils these sanctions were meant to cure. Other are concerned about the “insult” to the university of negative references to the failures of our cultures of governance and the relationship between sport and academics here. These are valuable discussions. I welcome statements from our eminent members and from the body as a whole. These have their place, they make important points that are often overlooked. They deserve the kind of careful review and courageous analysis that this Senate can supply. But right now there is much to be done. The reality of our present situation dictates a determined focus on the complex job of comprehensive reform and reconstruction along the lines outlined by the NCAA. The university is committed to this path—from our Board of Trustees to our senior administrators, to this Senate. Many of your Senate colleagues have already started to contribute to this great task, most of us will eventually have a hand in making a contribution to that effort. I, for one, stand ready to continue to do my part this year, to ensure that the faculty voice is heard and considered as the university moves decisively from the past to its future. I hope you will join me in this effort.