Underutilized Governance: The Faculty Senate

At the AAUP Shared Governance Conference this past weekend, I listened to quite a few panelists talk about the importance of the Faculty Senate as a vehicle for shared governance in our colleges and universities. I won’t go into detail on the panels right now, only saying that I hope to convince many of those who presented to offer their papers here over the next few weeks and to point readers to Alexandra Tilsley’s piece on the conference for InsideHigherEd, “Building a Better Faculty Senate.” Right now, I just want to kick myself a bit.


In the nearly eight years since I began teaching full-time, I’ve had nothing to do with Faculty Senates. That’s why.

My attitude is much older: The last time I paid much attention to any Faculty Senate was in the wake of the Kent State killings in 1970 when, as a student, I cheered as the Faculty Senate lent its support to our demand to shut the college. Since then, the Faculty Senates I observed seemed weak and ineffectual, more prone to members arguing among themselves than in actually doing anything. They seemed to be living examples of the adage “If the stakes are low, passions are high.” No one seemed to care about anything any Faculty Senate was doing–at least, not from where I stood outside the academy or within its lower ranks.

This past weekend showed me how wrong I’ve been.

Especially when a Faculty Senate is able to coordinate with a union (each has its own bailiwick, but they are certainly both more powerful and effective when they communicate and cooperate), a tired, old facade of governance can once again come to life and become an important factor in shared governance. Yes, college and university administrators have long ago mastered the technique of sidestepping Faculty Senates (just watch the maneuvering at CUNY), but that’s no reason to slip out and simply go home, as I have done too often.

When unions and senates, in the best situations even working together with departments (perhaps the other last bastion of faculty power in governance), can present a united and daunting front… as Donald Astrab found as he tried to bend the faculty to his will as President of Nassau Community College–a position he no longer holds.

It is not unions alone, I now understand, that can effectively wield the power of shared governance. In fact, acting on their own, unions are no more likely to succeed, in today’s anti-union climate, than Faculty Senates have been able to, alone.

Yeah, yeah… I know: “United we stand, divided we fall.” Trite as that may be, there’s a great deal of truth to it.

Perhaps the first thing we should all be doing is ensuring that lines of communications between unions, senates, and departments are not only open but are in frequent use. We’re seeing that here at CUNY, where the chair of the University Faculty Senate Terrance Martell and Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, are working together to turn the administration’s Pathways steamroller aside. We’re seeing it at other places where shared governance is resurgent.

We’re not seeing it in those places where administrations do as they wish, where either the Faculty Senate or the union has fallen down on the job, or where there is no Faculty Senate (as in many of the for-profit schools) or no union. For shared governance to work, both are needed.

And we should all be working for both, not simply for the success of one or the other. Just so, we should be working to involve more of us in governance of significant kinds, not simply the serving on docile committees for ‘service’ points.

To many of you, this may be obvious. It wasn’t obvious to me and, I suspect, it is not obvious to a majority of the members of the faculty nationwide.

Now that my eyes have been opened, I’ll do my best to open others.


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