Afshan Jafar offers advice on what you should and should not do when serving on a faculty steering committee.
This past year I was elected for the first time to our faculty steering committee (the equivalent of a faculty council, or an executive committee for a faculty senate). I found the experience rewarding and exhilarating. What made for this successful and positive experience on a committee on which faculty on many campuses avoid serving? After reflecting on my experience from this past year, I came up with the following list.
1. Thou shalt appreciate and thank one another. This may sound insignificant, but given the tremendous amount of time and work that goes into such a committee — work that is often not visible to the rest of the faculty — it becomes important to acknowledge the dedication and commitment of the members.
2. Thou shalt not speak for the entire committee without first consulting the entire committee. One of the simpler rules, but violating it will cause conflict within the committee. No one member or small group of members should make executive decisions — that’s not how a faculty committee works.
3. Thou shalt listen to one another and the larger faculty — especially to those who offer a dissenting opinion. It is never a good idea to ignore a dissenting voice in a committee. Chances are that other faculty will have similar concerns and questions. Openly discussing the various points of view ensures that a particular policy or piece of legislation will be given thorough consideration by the committee. It also ensures that the committee is functioning as a representative faculty body.
4. Thou shalt seek out your tired, your poor, your huddled, and your untenured masses and get their perspectives on issues of great import. Sometimes all-campus faculty meetings are not the places where untenured faculty (including non-tenure-track faculty) feel comfortable voicing their opinions. Making sure that untenured and non-tenure-track faculty have a way of communicating their opinions — via personal conversations, special meetings, individual liaisons — is crucial to shared governance.
5. Thou shalt not appoint when thou can elect. The faculty steering committee is where the administration (and faculty) turn to populate ad hoc committees, task forces, working groups, and so on. While appointing may seem expedient, calling for nominations and holding an election is always the better option. It strengthens faculty commitment to and trust in shared governance by demonstrating to faculty that they have an opportunity to provide input and that their input will be decisive.
6. Thou shalt have a game plan for faculty meetings. Send out an agenda for faculty meetings a few days in advance; be prepared to explain your rationale for a particular piece of legislation, or even a particular word choice; have easily accessible copies of legislation for faculty to view/comment on at the meeting (either as hard copies, or on a projector). In short, be prepared and make sure the faculty have had time to process information.
7. Thou shalt know thy rights under Robert’s Rules, and use them. Knowledge of parliamentary procedures is power. Make sure you and the faculty know how to use these procedures in order to have productive meetings in which each member of the body has an equal voice.
8. Thou shalt deliberate. Faculty who work on major legislative/governance committees on campus often find themselves caught between the desire to deliberate, and the desire to move things along (often expressed by the administration) and get things done. But moving forward simply to accommodate a schedule imposed by somebody else, without due consultation and deliberation by the faculty, is not shared governance.
9. Thou shalt consult the Faculty Handbook. Repeatedly. If you don’t have a Faculty Handbook, stop reading this. Writing a Faculty Handbook is your top priority.
10. Thou shalt remember: it’s not personal; it’s structural. Faculty who serve on the most important governance committee often need to confront administrative decisions, policies, or initiatives. In those times — especially when the people occupying administrative positions are your friends or former colleagues — it’s important to remember the above motto. Faculty and administrators occupy different positions within an organization and thus have different goals within that structure. When we argue against a particular initiative, it should not be construed as a criticism of particular individuals; when we argue in favor of a particular initiative, it should not be construed as support for particular individuals. The particular does not matter. Barring individual abuses of power, which certainly happen — as we saw in two recent cases at the University of Southern Maine and Quinnipiac University — it’s important to remember that most of our disagreements arise from our different structural positions.
As of July 1, Afshan Jafar is associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College.
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