Examining The University Faculty Senate

At Safeguard Old State, I serve as Director of University Faculty Relations. This new column is my way to foster a dialog on all matters academic at Penn State. Specifically, I’ll be talking here about the Penn State Faculty in terms of governance and its role — both past and present — in order to find our way to a better future.

The University Faculty Senate (UFS) is charged by the Board of Trustees to advise the administration on all matters academic. This deliberative body of over 200 faculty, administrators, and students attempts to provide shared governance with dozens of committees and advisory boards.

As the Director of University Faculty Relations for Safeguard Old State, it’s my job to strive to improve and better understand faculty-student relationships at our university. At the core is the belief that the faculty-student relationship is a significant defining factor in what makes a university and higher education.

At the founding of Penn State there was no administration and with this simplicity no blotted and inefficient bureaucracy that today too often interferes with the desires and best interests of both the faculty and students.

Since the first hiring of the president’s secretary at the dawn of the twentieth century to the current bloated bureaucracy at the dawn of the twenty first century, much has changed in terms of the relationship between administrators, students and faculty. The tripartite governance system that once was characteristic of most, if not all, American colleges is today dead at Penn State.

Over the years the role of the administration has morphed into, primarily, a decision-making role, thereby displacing many of the rights and responsibilities of faculty and students alike. It should today be obvious that faculty have ceded much of their authority on decision making in all areas of the university.

The modern concept of shared governance has emerged in an attempt to balance administrative encroachment into the rights and responsibilities of faculty and students. So, we must ask ourselves: what is the current role and state of faculty governance at Penn State?

Despite the slow decline in the role and authority of the faculty since the 1970s, the new concept of shared governance — where students and faculty merely advise the administrators who make the real decisions — the system is said to “work.” (Here to, we must ask ourselves: does it really?)

Dr. Ingred Blood is the current Chairman of the University Faculty Senate and seems to recognize the challenges, benefits, and accomplishes of the current system. Part of the reason why this system “works” is the communication and cooperation at its core under Dr. Blood.

This communication and cooperation is professional — not based on pleasantries but on a well defined role by the Board of Trustees, which is a key component that undergraduate students lack. There are several examples of modest successes of this shared governance model and several examples of failures.

Simply put, the failures of shared governance typically occur when the University Faculty Senate is forced into a defensive and reactionary stance on issues on which it was not consulted beforehand — a very familiar posture for students. This year such an example comes in the form of the administrative mandate that all computers in use by faculty be scanned for sensitive information such as social security numbers.

To faculty, this is a clear invasion of privacy rights. Administrators, however, contend it is necessary to protect sensitive information and reduce liabilities. This unilateral decision represents a clear breakdown in communication and demonstrates that when cooperation gets difficult, whoever has the real authority will exercise it.

The faculty, for their part, identified an important issue — intellectual property ownership of class material — and decided to act to ensure that their work remained under their ownership. A committee was formed that is currently working on a draft agreement.

Students can learn much from the faculty governance system. In an imperfect world — one in which a quick return to classical tripartite governance that vests real authority in the hands of students and faculty seems unlikely — the current model of cooperation is all we have.

Despite administrative encroachment into faculty affairs and subsequent crowding out on decision making, there still are well established roles for faculty in governance. The University Faculty Senate remains capable of addressing issues and policies it deems objectionable, but only if there is the political leadership willing to tackle the issues.