Accomplishments of the University of Alabama Faculty Senate – the long view
Ed Stephenson – Faculty Senate Vice President 2015-16
22 March 2016
This is my last Senate meeting, at least as a Senator. I may join you as an alternate next year, but that will be different from serving as a Senator. I have served on the Senate for 10 years, and the nice roundness of that number suggested that it might be a good time to retire from the Senate. Ten years is a long time, although there are some who have served longer, but it is certainly long enough to reflect on what has been and has not been accomplished in this body. Last spring the Senate wrote and administered a climate survey, and one of the questions concerned the willingness of faculty to serve in this body. A number of people wrote that they were unwilling to serve on the Senate because doing so was a waste of time, as the Senate did not really accomplish anything.
I want to address that sentiment here. I believe that the Senate has accomplished some things, perhaps not as much as we’d like, or as quickly as we’d like them, but some substantial things nonetheless. Changing the direction of a University is like maneuvering an aircraft carrier, and only by taking the long view can we understand the differences we’ve produced in the University. I offer here, briefly I hope, that long view.
The actual, defined roles of the Senate are few: We are responsible for and charged with representing the faculty in the maintenance and revision of the Faculty Handbook, which governs many aspects of faculty life in the University. Revision of the Handbook is and probably should be a permanent, on-going project, an important undertaking to protect academic freedom and to enhance the research, instruction and service functions of the faculty. Other duties of the Senate are the election of Ombudspersons and the Mediation Committee, which assist individual faculty in resolving grievances and possibly unfair practices within academic units. We elect members to the Merger and Discontinuance of Academic Units Committee, and nominate members to the Faculty Participation in the Selection of Deans and Department Chairpersons and in the Evaluation of Academic Programs Committee, two committees that are charged with important aspects of maintaining academic integrity and freedom. And the Senate appoints a member to every University standing committee; in an entity as large as the University, where it often seems like the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing, the Senate can claim with some justification to be the only organization that knows, or should know, what all of the hands are doing.
Although the official duties of this body are not many, the Senate exerts most of its influence in its unofficial role as the voice and sense of the faculty. Some but not all offices in the central administration and some but not all colleges actively seek out and value the advice of the faculty, as represented by the Senate. We have had an excellent working relationship with Academic Affairs under Provosts Bonner, Benson and Whitaker, who have often asked for the advice of the faculty and who have sometimes heeded that advice. We have had an on-again, off-again relationship with most of the other offices in the central administration, including the Offices for Student Affairs, Research, and Financial Affairs. I know that my college, Arts and Sciences, appreciates the service of its senators, and I think they probably listen when college-specific issues are brought to them by the Senate. I know less about other colleges.
I have spent a few hours looking over the archives of the Senate, which are all housed on the Senate website, and have come up with the following list of accomplishments over the past ten years. I admit that some are easier for me to recall and more familiar to me by virtue of the committees on which I’ve served. I’ve probably forgotten some; for that, my apologies. If I misrepresent any of the ones that I mention, I apologize for that as well.
In each of the following areas, the Senate led the administration to make changes, after discussion in the full Senate and its committees, and by nudging, pushing, arguing, cajoling and tweaking the administration, in most cases over the course of several years.
- The addition of sexual orientation to the anti-discrimination policy.
- The enactment of a 30-foot no-smoking zone around the door of each building, and later the banning of smoking altogether.
- The creation of an office for diversity, a new diversity plan, and the proposed hiring of a diversity officer.
- The revision (albeit incomplete and insufficient) of University policies on maternity leave and tenure-clock extension.
- The granting of benefits to domestic partners.
- An assurance from the Chancellor that the University has no plans to lease the Shepherd Bend site for mining operations, and further, that the system will inform the University faculty well in advance of changing this position.
- Clarification by the office of Academic Affairs with regard to the content of the Core Curriculum, and with regard to the procedures by which new core courses are reviewed and approved.
- Passage by the state legislature of a revision to the age of majority, streamlining the involvement of undergraduates in research.
- The repudiation of a wrong-headed preliminary proposal for the Malone-Hood Plaza and Foster Auditorium, resulting in the current celebratory space.
- The restoration of faculty as chairs of the IUCUC and IRB committees.
- A revision to per diem expense policies for international travel.
- A change in policy for searches for administrative positions at the level of vice president and above: that they be filled by open national searches, that faculty be consulted as to the characteristics of new officials, and that faculty be given prominent roles on search committees.
- Implementation of annual faculty evaluations of college deans and department chairs.
- Standardization of course syllabi across the University, based on faculty notions of what is educationally appropriate.
- Review of new policies on Conflict of Interest in research (twice), Misconduct in Research, and Patent procedures.
- Revision of policies concerning postdoctoral fellows.
- Solicitation and incorporation of faculty input in the design of classrooms.
- A new document elaborating on the Philosophy of the Baccalaureate Degree at the University of Alabama, to be included in the student catalog.
- A new policy on Non-tenured Renewable Contract faculty, on which the Senate has been consulted, and which parts of the Senate have edited and vetted.
Is it fair or appropriate for the Senate to claim credit for these accomplishments? Perhaps they would have come about anyhow, even if there had not been a Senate. I don’t know. What I do know is that the Senate was out front on every one of these issues, pushing our higher-ups to do the right thing and to make the necessary reforms. The fact that the Senate took a leadership role is enough as far as I’m concerned.
Our relationship with the administration, and our ability to get anything done, is enhanced by the maintenance of open communication with the administration. An enormous part of this, more than most of you are aware, falls on the shoulders of the Senate President, who meets frequently with Provosts and Presidents, and also attends Board of Trustee meetings, where occasionally he/she represents the faculty with prepared remarks. I would be negligent in not recognizing the Presidents that in the pat ten years have taken on these onerous, sometimes tedious, but important jobs: John Vincent, the late Karen Steckol, Clark Midkiff, Steve Miller and Donna Meester.
The Senate has also initiated projects on its own to improve the lives of students and faculty. These include:
- The creation of a regalia loan project allowing faculty who do not own their own regalia to participate in commencement ceremonies without having to rent them.
- The organization of Higher Education Day, a chance to visit legislators in Montgomery; and a legislative breakfast here in Tuscaloosa, both opportunities to explain why support for the University is important.
- The creation of the Alabama Reach Program, to assist homeless and other economically disadvantaged students.
There is much yet to be done. With regard to most of the accomplishments above, we received part but not all of what we asked for. In addition, the faculty and university will face substantial new and old challenges in the years ahead. There are too few faculty for the size of our student body. We must resist the temptation to apply quick fixes by hiring too many temporary instructors, for these do not enhance the research profile of the university, and temporary appointments erode the influence and effectiveness of the faculty. While we have made some progress, our family-friendly policies and institutions (eg., parental and elder-care leave, day care facilities) are well below norms. There is much that needs to be done to eliminate institutional discrimination, and the University’s implicit recognition and approval of it, for instance with regard to the corrupt Greek system. And we must view with suspicion and alarm the activities of legislatures in other states to destroy tenure (as in Wisconsin), and eliminate local regulation of the university, most recently by meddling in firearm carry regulations. We maintain good relations with the academic segments of the central administration, but poorer relations with others, including some offices that are directly relevant to the faculty (eg., Research). I believe that the faculty Senate, democratically-elected by the faculty and answering to it, is the most effective body on this campus to confront these and other pieces of unfinished business, and whatever may arise in the future.
It is my sincere hope that the Senate continues to play an important role in resolving these issues. I wish you well in confronting these challenges to the University in the years ahead.