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Faculty Senates

26 May Posted by in Faculty, Observations | Comments
Faculty Senates

One of my jobs as Provost is to maintain, insofar as possible, good relations with the Faculty Senate. Let me stress immediately that while I think this is an important goal, in terms of maintaining a vigorous academic community, it is not usually a hard one. Senate leadership at Mason has usually been most cordial in facilitating good relations, and the Senate as a whole has been likewise.

Over time, in fact, we’ve both made some constructive moves to enhance cordiality. Some years back the Senate invited me to give an annual report, at the first meeting of the academic year, outlining probable issues for the year and inviting feedback. It’s a good spur to me, and I hope helpful in orienting the Senate as well. From my side, I realized some time ago that the Senate had no systematic structure to help evaluate international projects, and after a bit of confusion they responded to the suggestion and set up an active committee that has been quite useful in keeping tabs, for example, on the Songdo initiative.

Of course, there are periodic tensions. Senators can’t resist some occasional pleasure in seeing the administration poked in the eye, and for the most part I take this cum grano salis. There are a few issues I would love to raise with the Senate, where I think we could have more fruitful policies than we do, but refrain because the conflict level would be unacceptably great. (We’ve got an issue now that had to be raised that may turn out to fall in the high tension category; we’ll see.)

I’ve been in administration a long time, from department chair to dean to, now here at Mason, Provost. But I have never stopped regarding myself as a faculty member, only slightly contaminated. Some Senators clearly have a more jaundiced view of administration, and while resultant jostling rarely gets out of hand, it can raise a few sparks.

Rumor levels also periodically surprise me, and it’s startling every so often to see the Senate pick up some, to me, outlandish ideas about what the administration is proposing to do. The resulting exchange is useful, of course, in calming things down (I think), though occasionally one could wish that the rumors were addressed ear4lier or that Senators themselves could have discerned their implausibility. There’s no question that maintaining communication channels is a key responsibility, which is one of the several reasons I take working with the Senate very seriously (as do many others on my staff—I have lots of help in the collaborations).

Faculty Senates, ours included, do have two characteristic weaknesses which are worth considering if hard, in fact, to address. One simply goes with the territory of faculty responsibilities: unlike governments, academic legislators have virtually no staff, which means it’s quite hard to maintain information levels that permit effective, responsible participation on a variety of issues. We actually do try to help here, for example through regular budget briefings, but it’s a challenge for all concerned. Sometimes Senators reach out for roles that they could really fill only if they were willing to put in a much greater time commitment—which would risk making them academic administrators.

The second challenge involves representativeness. The Senate is an elected body. Some units take the selection of, and communication with, representatives quite seriously, but others do less. The Senate itself often sees a fairly stable handful of Senators take the key leadership roles, which can limit outreach. The fact is that some academic units rarely generate particularly active senators, while one or two monopolize. Adequate representation of the regional campuses is another, related issue at Mason. Senators understandably worry that the administration sometimes wants to choose some of its own faculty reps to deal with certain issues, alongside the Senate selections, but there are some valid reasons.

All this said: the Senate is a tremendously useful, often vigorous body, and I raise any issues not to complicate the good relationship I cited at the outset, but to see if it can be still further improved. As it should, the Senate periodically annoys me (and vice versa) but I am consistently impressed by its overall good judgment and commitment to academic quality. And it’s worth noting that we have some good laughs together as well, which doesn’t hurt.

And given the season, best wishes for the summer to our Senate members and the new Chair. See you in the fall.