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Statement of Senate Chair Made at the December 4, 2012 Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting–Is the Senate Fatally Ineffective?

The Penn State University Faculty Senate held its third meeting of this academic year on Tuesday December 4, 2012 (e.g. Faculty Senate December 4 Meeting Agenda).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2012)
I used the occasion to speak to an important issue raised by our Senators at the last meeting of the University Senate Council–Why does the Senate appear to be ineffective? This post includes the remarks I made at the start of the meeting.

Statement of Senate Chair Made at the December 4, 2012 Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting

I wish to speak to one last matter that may be worth a couple minutes of your time. At Council, a number of Senators have raised an important issue. They wonder why the Senate appears to be so ineffective. There seems to be a sense that the Senate is neither flexible nor nimble enough to be effective, nor does it seem inclined to effectively participate in the important decisions that are being made around us and communicated to us as and when it seems useful. There is a sense that the entire Byzantine structure of the Senate, a Senate that is well, and perhaps too well, marbled with administrative personnel members, is designed to avoid, rather than to take action, much less to take any sort of decisive action on issues of importance to faculty. There is also a sure knowledge that within many units of this university, deans and chancellors both despise this body, and view those who engage in its work as engaging in useless and non-productive activity of little relevance to their units. As well, there is a sense that the Senate is sometimes ignored—consider the way in which the institutional Senate has been written out, as a body, in connection with the Freeh Group implementation processes—or end runned as administrators cherry pick faculty of their choice for whatever inclusive consultative project they wish to cobble together with a fig leaf of faculty participation. At its core, the issue that has been raised goes to the reality of shared governance within a hierarchically arranged, administratively fiefed, and increasingly budget driven and income producing institution, in which faculty may be understood more as a factor in the production of that income than as a significant stakeholder in the operation of this joint enterprise.

So I would like to take a minute to consider this very serious question. First, as a deliberative body made up of about 265 people, the transaction costs of effective or official action are high. Deliberative bodies require substantial effort to reach decision, whether by consensus or through the assertion of the will of a majority. Second, this is a body that on many important issues remains deeply divided. Third, it is not clear that the success of a Senate ought to be measured solely by the “things” it produces, or by its willingness to indulge, as a body, in heroic gestures. This last year has evidenced the result of extent of the divisions and their limiting effects on the Senate’s ability to take action—in everything from the failed efforts to no- confidence the board of trustees to the recent efforts of our past chairs to have their view of things endorsed by this body. But we should not view this as a failure. Instead the intense and public debates provide comfort. The Senate’s greatest success is not necessarily to be measured by its ability to get things passed. Rather success must be measured by the Senate’s resolve to have things discussed; it takes courage to confront issues that others might rather the Senate ignore. To bring issues into the open—from outside the offices of unit heads or of our friends in Old Main is probably among the most important successes of this body.

So beyond this perhaps too narrow a view of effectiveness, when I look at the success of the Senate what might I see? First, I see a renewed and very positive relationship between the Senate leadership and the University’s President, Provost and Board of Trustees. Rod Erickson, Rob Pangborn and Karen Peetz have done a tremendous amount since the start of their tenures to support the role of the Senate as an active and respected member of the university’s governance community. This commitment has made it possible for the Senate to participate in the functional governance of the university more from the inside than the outside. And this is a very great step forward in our ability to be effective. No glory but lots of good work.

Second, we continue to play an important role in the development of curriculum. No longer merely a technical operation, curriculum and program development has moved to center stage as a instrument of budget reform. The administration is moving to embrace a new paradigm—moving from one grounded in the premise that the university should offer only those courses faculty might want to offer to one grounded on the premise that the university offer courses and programs that are needed. It is for the Senate to take the lead, rather than either the administration or its financial officers, to help determine these needs and the content of programs. The Senate must ensure that curriculum and program development remains faculty driven.

Third, the Senate will play a larger role in assessment. Assessment is also no longer merely a technical or bureaucratic exercise, one best left to what are presented to faculty as knowledgeable administrators. Assessment is, at its heart, the application of policy to behavior. But that application of policy can be used to avoid any discussion of the substance of policy, by substituting a seemingly benign implementation of assessment techniques for policy development itself. Less benignly assessment can be used to veil the development of policy determinations, to keep stakeholders from participating in its development. For example, assessment might be used as a budget-driven device to force on faculty the adoption of different teaching techniques to save money without involving faculty in a discussion of the choice to change teaching techniques. But such exercises may touch on issues of academic freedom, even if only through the back door, and for that reason is a matter of significant concern for this Senate. I am pleased to note that two of our standing committees will take a much more proactive role in the development and monitoring of assessment efforts, efforts which, like curriculum, ought to remain essentially faculty driven.

Fourth, the Senate will likely take a more proactive role in helping the university work through issues of productivity. Faculty productivity has become a very important focus of our operations. The marginal value of faculty potential to generate income for the university is an important element of our financial success and institutional planning. The Senate will help in this effort. It will expect a prominent place at any table where officials seek to develop policies grounded on productivity objectives: including discussion of the meaning of productivity, of what actions output or other activity is valued, of the method of valuation and of the measure of productivity. We also appreciate an increased role in the valuing of administrative productivity. The issue of administrative bloat is the other side of the productivity coin. We are pleased to note that academic units at Penn State are not run like Persian satrapies in which some deans and chancellors seek to use their limited budgets for the greater glory of an increasingly well-marbled local staff, and at the expense of teaching budgets. This tendency, of course, affects not just faculty budgets but also governance as a collegial structure at the units is replaced by a bureaucratized technocracy overseen by an uncontrolled and unaccountable potentate. We will continue to work with administration to ensure that this valued cultural attribute of Penn State administration remains highly valued in theory and well practiced across the university. Indeed we welcome recent informal efforts by some forward thinking administrators to engage in limited 360 degree review of their performance. Bravo!

So where are we as a body? Are we relevant? I think that it is clear that the Senate is, in some ways, much more relevant now. It, like the university, faces challenges. But it remains a willing and now, I think, a more able partner in moving the university forward while preserving the essential character of this institution as a premier public service mission teaching and research institution.

Thank You.