Middlebury College has redefined its idea of a faculty meeting quorum, following a lesson in numbers last month from a math professor.
“The situation was acute in that, at the start of the meeting, slightly more than 30 people were present,” said John R. Schmitt, referring to the Oct. 1 first gathering at which he objected to a pro-forma declaration of a quorum. “But at that time, under the rules of the quorum, 169 people needed to be present.... If we’re going to have policies in place, they should be adhered to.”
Schmitt, now in his eighth year at Middlebury, effectively delayed the meeting a month until a quorum could be met and its definition amended by the general faculty. Thanks to the attention Schmitt's debate was getting on campus, a full quorum was present at the Nov. 12 faculty meeting and members voted to change the definition of a quorum from a simple majority to one-third of Middlebury faculty not on leave.
The professor said he’d quietly objected to the chronic lack of quorum for some time but waited until he got tenure in July to do so publicly. Although Schmitt had advocated sticking to the original quorum definition in lieu of the new one-third definition, he said he hoped the debate would encourage greater faculty participation going forward. “There needs to be participation and involvement on behalf of the faculty at those meetings – engagement on curriculum with one another and setting a direction for the college are important things that require broad participation from the faculty, in my opinion.”
Middlebury faculty members meet monthly to discuss issues that are pertinent to them. Although the body is distinct from the Faculty Council -- four tenured and two untenured, peer-elected professors who advise the college president and serve as a channel of communication between the faculty and the administration – important legislative issues come to its floor.
Other faculty members said Schmitt’s objection is ultimately positive for the faculty going forward, as the previous quorum definition was set at least 45 years ago and meetings have suffered from low participation for some time; it became the norm for a quorum to be called, despite there rarely being one.
Bert Johnson, a political science professor, called the discussion a “good thing,” despite the short-term delays it caused. “By having a public debate about what the quorum rule should be, and by agreeing on what I think is a realistic number, we brought the rules more in line with reality and we also reinforced the need for more people to show up consistently at meetings.”
Susan K. Watson, who leads faculty meetings as the elected moderator and serves as Middlebury's physics department chair, said the more-than-two-thirds vote in favor of the amendment followed “productive discussion.” For the current year, she added, the new quorum rules mean that approximately 100 faculty members will need to be present at each meeting to proceed (there are 338 faculty, including part-time and adjuncts currently at the college, and 33 area on leave this semester).
It also wasn’t the first time Middlebury’s faculty had been called out for lack of participation in governance issues. In its 2011 reaccreditation report  to the college, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges encouraged more robust participation on behalf of faculty in governance issues.
“The institution’s structure supports faculty governance in its respective areas, but faculty committees may not be utilizing that opportunity to their full advantages,” the report reads. “Given that there will be ongoing conversation about position and budget decisions, Middlebury’s mission, and other topics to be determined, the visiting [accreditation] team recommends that the administration and faculty work together to strengthen communication, clarify responsibilities and collaborate on academic planning in a way that makes all feel invested.”
Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz, a veteran faculty member who formerly led faculty meetings and relinquished leadership to the faculty just last year, in part to enhance faculty participation, said he was optimistic about future participation. But at 4: 15 p.m. on Monday afternoons, he said, the monthly faculty meetings compete with various other faculty commitments – especially at the end of the fall semester.
Still, faculty involvement remains important, he said. “If you want to stay at the forefront of higher education, then faculty need to be at the forefront, as well. Institutions are stronger with robust faculty engagement and involvement.”