'Congratulations, I Think'

I was elected president of our college's faculty senate last spring semester. One colleague’s response nicely captures the gist of the responses I received then:

"Congratulations, I think."

Others just gave me a look. Depending upon the cynicism index of the faculty member, it meant either "Fool!" or "Well done!"

February 2, 2011

I was elected president of our college's faculty senate last spring semester. One colleague’s response nicely captures the gist of the responses I received then:

"Congratulations, I think."

Others just gave me a look. Depending upon the cynicism index of the faculty member, it meant either "Fool!" or "Well done!"

The ambivalent congratulations signal a handful of concerns. First, faculty recognize that although they have honored me with their confidence that I can do this job, they’ve also given me an important responsibility. As the president of the Senate, I’m charged with bringing faculty concerns to administration.

Second, faculty understand that although my new position involves release time, my work will likely exceed whatever release time I am awarded. That is, I have taken on more work and responsibility for the same pay. This turns out to be true. My normal course load is typical for a community college professor: five courses a semester, 10 courses for the academic year. With a half-load release time, I teach five courses during the academic year. The time I spend in meetings, answering e-mail from concerned faculty, relaying those faculty concerns back to administration, writing reports for the monthly Board of Trustees meetings, conducting Senate, preparing for Senate, and other duties meets and often exceeds the release time.

Finally, faculty may avoid faculty leadership positions because they believe these positions would make them targets. No one wants to be the person who goes to administration with faculty complaints. This was my primary fear going into the job. I am not naturally a combative person, and I worried about my ability to approach administrators with criticism. Most administrators I’ve talked to realize that it is in their interest (and in the interest of the college) to work with me on resolving issues. Although I have yet to feel like a target, approaching administrators with faculty concerns has not become any easier for me.

Yet if you ask faculty about the importance of shared governance, you will rarely get the same ambivalence. Everyone is for shared governance. Indeed, shared governance is one of the ideals about which our ideologically diverse faculty agree. We just have mixed feelings about becoming a part of the actual enterprise of governing. Yet a robust system of shared governance not only requires an administration genuinely willing to respect the process of faculty input, but faculty ready to provide that input and hold administration accountable.

Of course, the ambivalent congratulations echo my own ambivalence and fears. Mostly there is fear of failure. Nothing in my experience as a graduate student or professor is predictive of my performance as Faculty Senate president. A close reading of Frank Norris (author of the novels McTeague and The Octopus) may not help me communicate better with fellow faculty or administration, partly because nobody reads Frank Norris, but more importantly because the close interpretive skills of humanities graduate training do not easily translate into the kinds of communication required by a faculty leader. Effective faculty leadership cannot just rely on critique (the emphasis, I think, of my humanities education); it also requires the ability to construct positive alternatives, to have some vision.

I have been an active member of the Faculty Senate for the last three years, so I am familiar with its structure, its routines, and its often frustratingly slow deliberations. After one semester of being president, I still occasionally bungle Robert’s Rule of Order.

So given my colleagues' hesitant best wishes and my own fears, why did I take the job? When I considered the position, I asked myself, "What do I want out of this experience?" Here are the answers I came up with then, and they are the same answers I give now after my first semester.

I want to feel useful to the college as a whole, and I want to be an effective agent for faculty within the college. I also want to work with other faculty outside my department. One of the most satisfying experiences so far is that I’ve come to know so many people across the college. So much of what I do is predicated on the hard work and dedication of faculty senators and the faculty who work with their senators. My experience has made me feel more like a member of the college and not just my department.

Most of all, I want to be a part of larger conversations about higher education, and since I work at a community college, those conversations have all the more urgency, power, and relevance. Across the country, we are debating higher education’s fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers and the state’s responsibility to provide affordable and accessible higher education to its citizens. We’re debating the value of a liberal arts education versus the value of education as a form of workforce development. And we’re exploring the means of delivering education (online or in-class), and how we should measure outcomes and what that might look like. At the community college, we do not have the luxury of ignoring or deferring these discussions. At Salt Lake Community College, we have already created a general education electronic portfolio requirement in order to address issues in assessment and general education outcomes. The college also recently passed a policy that outlines a procedure for dealing with disruptive students in the classroom, a very real issue at open-access institutions, as recent events unfortunately reminded us. The Senate played a central role in both of these recent policy changes.

Faculty are very good at dialogue within their particular discipline. They’re often less effective when it comes to broader exchanges about higher education. I still identify myself as an English professor, but I also increasingly view myself as a community college professor ready to participate in discussions about the direction of community colleges and higher education.

Those conversations, though, have become increasingly divisive, which is perhaps the final concern signaled by the ambivalent congratulations I received. Who wants to talk to administrators who are evil, scheming, corporate nabobs and faculty who are lazy, entitled fools? The rhetoric surrounding higher education becomes more and more like our political rhetoric, and that’s unfortunate.

Faculty need to be active and educated participants in the arguments over the value and structure of higher education. Faculty Senate is one of the best places for that education to happen. And here is my disgustingly optimistic conclusion: I believe that when faculty speak with a collective voice from an informed stance administration does listen. Maybe not always, but often enough to make that voice worth having.


Jason Pickavance is associate professor of English at Salt Lake Community College.


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