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WASHINGTON – Faculty senate leaders know they’re often viewed as the “naysayers and feet-draggers,” as they said Friday, but many think they could combat that perception by taking proactive steps in university planning and more effectively communicating the results of their work.

A group of faculty senate members from a variety of institutions met here Friday to discuss how to make faculty senates more effective as part of the American Association of University Professors’ Shared Governance Conference.

Larry Gerber, chair of AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance and a history professor at Auburn University, said faculty members have a responsibility as the academic experts on campus to play a role in colleges’ academic decisions, like those about the curriculum, graduation requirements or hiring. “No one is better equipped to make these decisions,” Gerber said in his opening address. “They’re not always the right decisions, but at least they will be based on expertise.”

As part of the three-day conference, some participants attended a workshop on making senates effective. Gerber began the workshop by describing principles for effective faculty senates. He suggested using deadlines to ensure work gets done, gaining support from the university, rewarding senate service, and being proactive.

“There are too many senates where the only thing they do is respond to administrative initiatives,” Gerber said.

Taking proactive steps was a common theme in the workshop’s discussion groups, too. After Gerber introduced the issues at hand, participants split into three groups – small liberal arts colleges, universities with collective bargaining agreements, and universities without collective bargaining agreements – to discuss problems that are unique to each type of institution and to brainstorm potential solutions.

The collective bargaining group included representatives from a number of college and university systems in the midst of significant transitions, including California State University, the California Community College system, City University of New York, and Connecticut State University. They discussed issues such as universities’ increased reliance on adjuncts – and whether adjuncts should have a place on the faculty senate, a subject on which there was no consensus – the role of the faculty in determining curricular changes (there are major ones going on at a number of those colleges), and the increasing tension between faculty and administrators and legislators.

Understanding the university’s budget is crucial to beginning to address these issues, attendees agreed, and many recommended finding an expert, whether from within or outside the senate, to analyze and interpret the budget.

Tight budgets have forced many of the states whose institutions were represented at Friday’s conference to cut back on funding for higher ed, which has led to consolidations, a focus on completion and transfer rates, and significant legislative and administrative involvement in curriculum changes. At Connecticut State, for example, the system was recently consolidated with the state’s community college system; at CUNY, the chancellor earlier this year approved the “Pathways to Degree Completion Initiative,” which is designed to ease the transfer of students from community colleges to four-year institutions, but which has angered many faculty members, who object to its specifics.

Faculty leaders were interested in discussing ways to resist those changes, something that they said their senates had not done successfully.

Part of the problem, a representative from a CUNY community college said, is that faculty sometimes end up pitted against each other. As an example, a faculty member from Cal State Fullerton said that as the state’s general education and major requirements change, engineering faculty fight to expel the arts and humanities requirements from the engineering major, and so members of those departments end up battling each other.

A recommended solution was improved communication and education. Faculty senates, participants agreed, need to do better public relations for themselves and need to educate both administrators and faculty on their role, and on what’s at stake.

Educating faculty is particularly important, many agreed, because it is a way to get more faculty engaged in senate service. Faculty senates often have a tough time recruiting new blood, and better explaining to faculty why shared governance is important could help address that, participants said.

Another way to engage faculty in senate service is to demonstrate that the senate can engage with the university effectively and proactively.

“We need to find a way to let faculty get their ideas out there,” said Diana Guerin, chair of the Cal State Statewide Academic Senate. “We need to say this is what a quality education looks like and force them to respond.”

Senate leaders also need to follow up on senate work and show faculty they impact all of the committee meetings and reports can have, attendees said.

The other break-out groups – from universities without collective bargaining and from small liberal arts colleges – presented many of the same questions and potential solutions. They suggested engaging junior faculty, allowing faculty members to submit agenda items for faculty senate meetings, and not “waiting for the president to come to us.”

“Faculty often wait until there’s a real emergency – then we’re pretty effective,” one faculty member said. “That means we can be effective before the emergency.”

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