Notes on a Faculty Senate

September 27, 2012

By Shannon Bontrager

Editor’s Note: In a summer faculty meeting the idea of a faculty senate was discussed at length.  Several key questions arose, and Shannon Bontrager attempts to address some of those questions here.  Please comment below if you have an opinion about a faculty senate.

Shannon Bontrager

Shannon Bontrager

I have had the privilege of publishing two articles in double-blind peer reviewed journals.  These two experiences were simultaneously rewarding and difficult.  In both cases the original essay I submitted was read by three anonymous readers who critiqued my work.  Their responses were sent back to me with a letter from the respective editors explaining that they would not accept my essays as they currently stood, but they were interested to have me rework my articles and resubmit them for further review.  In both cases, I re-wrote them taking the anonymous reviewers’ comments and incorporating them into my newest versions.  I resubmitted them and the same three reviewers for each essay read them again and asked for more revisions.  I revised my essays again and the respective managing editors finally agreed to publish my article.  When the copyeditors went through my article, she or he found additional mistakes that I had to correct.  At the end of these long (and standard processes in the world of academic journal publishing) I had two very different essays than what I had first wrote.  And they were much better.

The academic and scientific communities committed to a process of peer review long ago to protect against, among many other things, poor quality research.  Something similar can be found in the realm of shared governance in American higher education institutions.  Faculty Senates across the land create an opportunity for “peer review” between faculty and administrators for the betterment of the institution.  They help insure that no tyranny of the administration and no tyranny of the faculty exist when it comes to governing the academic institution.  Faculty senates can take many different forms.  Some senates include committees that work with administrators to oversee the running of the institution.  Some senates, for example, have a financial committee, an athletic committee, an executive committee, a tenure and promotion committee, etc.  These committees are formed by the senate to work with respective administrators (finance officers, athletic directors, Presidents, Academic Affairs officers) to serve as a check—that is to say a peer review over financial, athletic, or executive affairs and other areas in which the faculty are stakeholders.  This does not mean that the senate has the power to change, prevent, or disrupt programs or ideas that might come out of these offices.  It simply means that the senate can review ideas originating with administrators and suggest initiatives for administrators to consider.

Take the decentralization process for example.  This process has fallen short of many peoples’ expectations.  It was an idea, created by the former president and implemented by a previous administration, which had no opportunity to have decentralization ideas reviewed by other interested parties.  It is doubtful that a faculty senate would have been able to stop the decentralization train.  Administrators hold the ultimate power in the American university system—no tyranny of the proletariat faculty can exist.  But had a senate been in place (rather than a Faculty Advisory Council) it is likely that the decentralization process would have taken longer because it would have gone through several review steps along the way.  The end result would have seen an implementation process of an idea that had been reviewed, critiqued, and rewritten after several different sets of eyes had interpreted, analyzed, and helped implement the program in a more efficient way.  This sort of review of an administrative idea would make its implementation less hasty and of higher quality.  Most administrators would greatly appreciate such efforts and it would allow faculty and administration to become more vested in the institution.

A faculty senate could not only offer up reviews of administrative agendas but it could also initiate a faculty-driven agenda.  For example, a finance committee might be able to initiate a budget review that asserts certain values that reflect the faculty’s interests.  Or an executive committee could initiate a policy review that advocates a faculty-centered approach.  The financial officer or the President retains the power to accept or reject these initiatives.  It is highly unlikely that a senate could change the budget of the institution.  Bills must be paid after all, and some bills are mandated by outside interests.  But this would be a professional and cooperative way to advocate for a pay increase or to suggest a faculty-initiated “doomsday” plan should economic crises emerge in the future.  If the Chief Financial Officer would reject the initiative, the senate could request a written explanation.  If the President would not enact a policy recommendation from the senate, she or he could explain why in written form.  In other words, not only can the faculty work to review administrative agendas but the administration can work to review faculty agendas.  This is a professional process that seeks out opportunities to make ideas stronger, to make implementations more equitable and efficient, and to make the institution better.

The system, as Georgia Highlands College currently operates, does not allow for these sorts of review processes to happen.  The Faculty Advisory Council currently operates as a committee to receive reports from the President as to what she or he has already executed.  It is merely an informed body that is never consulted, has very little responsibility and no accountability.  Because there is no strong impetus for peer review, the product that is produced is usually a weaker one.  When I require papers in the classes that I teach, I like students to write at least three drafts of a paper.  Usually I ask them to write a proposal of their paper, a draft of their paper, and a final version.  Sometimes I have them review each other’s papers but I review each draft.  This process is painstaking but effective.  In most cases, the quality of student papers increase dramatically as the writing process unfolds.  It is very easy to spot a student paper or a professional paper that has not been through a rigorous review process.  Having a Faculty Advisory Council at Georgia Highlands College is very much akin to having a student submit the un-reviewed and un-edited rough draft of their paper as a final draft.  Having a Faculty Senate at GHC is like having a writer submit a paper that has gone through a rigorous review process.  The standards generated by a Faculty Advisory Council and a Faculty Senate are clear.  With these differences in mind, it is my hope that this article will stimulate a deeper conversation among faculty and administrators as the merits and demerits of moving to a senate model of shared governance.

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