SENATE MATTERS: Shared governance should be more than offering opinions


The national election we have all just been through is an inspiring backdrop to our own approaching University Senate elections.

For those who believe in the promise of shared governance, our upcoming Senate election, wherein we will definitely see the election of a new president, is of utmost importance.  Among rank-and-file faculty, the president of the Senate holds an unequaled position for communicating our needs and priorities directly to the senior administration, something that will become apparent quickly for whomever assumes this role, if it is not apparent already.

Errors of execution in this role may affect thousands of our faculty, and in fact almost certainly our staff, students and surrounding communities, as well.  It is naïve to assume these constituencies exist in discrete, isolated compartments in any respect, and effective representation and appreciation of the interests of all of these parties and the consequences of University policies and actions for them is essential to maintain the mission and credibility of the Senate.   

To their credit, I believe our current president, Chris Bonneau, and our immediate past president, Frank Wilson, set admirable, positive examples on all of the above. So, the next president need not look far for a model or for advice. And, frankly, it is extremely heartening reflecting on just how many great folks there are even just among the Assembly membership, who I know would step into this role and lead us well. I feel likewise for those aspiring to the other Officer positions; I take great solace in knowing how deep our bench is.

Where I do worry is on the matter of growth and change, particularly as concerns the power of the Senate. My brief time in the Senate, as an Assembly member for two years and then, unlikely as it was, vice president for the subsequent two years, has hammered home key lessons that more senior members learned long ago and productively navigated over decades. I commend them for being smarter, more tactful, and more patient than I am. Those are all, incidentally, the kind of virtues we will need in our next president.

Among these lessons is the reality that the vast majority of the Senate’s collective power rests in its ability to make an official opinion, or as official of an opinion as one can make within the shared governance structure at the University. Our resolutions in the Assembly, our votes in the Council, amount in the ultimate calculus of University operations as opinions, and like any opinion they can be discarded readily and without recourse. And while we owe our exceedingly competent and attentive administration much credit that they have always made an effort to work toward the direction of those opinions (I honestly attest to this), they cannot deny understanding that negotiating with a party that knows you absolutely control the outcome is a biased process. 

Whereas the concept of the Senate evokes a democratic approach to governing the institution, the execution does not really get us there. It is probably the case that if we did get there — if our votes could officially send a policy for revision, for instance (currently they cannot; the most formative elements of the policy development process largely flow around the Senate until policy language has been formulated) — the result would be less efficient and far more chaotic. Having dived into one such process recently, I can say that while I absolutely understand the rationale for a streamlined, efficient approach, I am far more wary of a system that encourages complacency out of assumed futility.

Even if we were to assume that it is best for the Senate to remain an advisory body and its products to amount to official opinions, there could still be substantial power in this arrangement if the opinion were demonstrably representative of a large enough segment of the University.

However, there are two key obstacles in the way of this strategy. First, a priori the membership of the Assembly is allocated by broad academic units at the University, not department. While numerically the allocation lines up with the number of faculty in each of those units, faculty in departments not lucky enough to have a member elected to the Assembly effectively do not have a say in the official opinion. Or at least they do not have a vote.

One might say that it is reasonable to assume Assembly members within one unit know enough about their colleagues throughout that unit to adequately represent them, but I think that is a serious leap. My department shares a kitchenette with Palliative Care, but I cannot assume I know where they stand on the current royalty split for copyrightable intellectual property.

Second, this situation would not matter as much as long as the Senate could reach its constituents easily, say, by directly emailing them. And if we could, we would. However, the Senate officers, representing an official third of the University-level shared governance apparatus, currently do not enjoy the direct-to-faculty mass email privileges of the senior administration. We cannot directly reach out to the faculty we represent without paying for a Read Green. And of course, the real cost of that distributive mechanism is a demotion of the officiality of our messaging, from University correspondence to advertisement. 

It has been noted quite correctly that the senior administration is part of the Senate, and it would be difficult to disentangle messaging from the Senate officers, for instance, from the administration’s, potentially leading to confusion. Respectfully, the structure of the Senate is such that Senate officers are also the officers of the Faculty Assembly, which excludes the administration. Messaging from that body should be quite unambiguous.

In closing, I worry about those issues and more, because they underlie the apparent legitimacy and the effective power of the Senate. Whereas the Senate currently operates on good faith, I believe its best embodiment would include codified, binding recourse, and I hope that is something our next president can achieve sometime in their term of office. In our system of shared governance, having a say must mean more than just making an opinion.

David Salcido is the University Senate vice president and encourages you to spread the word about the upcoming elections.