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February 28, 2008

Toward restructuring the Faculty Senate


“The Faculty Senate accomplishes little and its leaders are inept” is the sort of muttering one hears among University faculty and others. But this is surely an ignorant statement, as even a cursory glance at the record would show.


In only the last 10 years, the senate, working with the faculty councils, and with approval of the president and the faculty as a whole, has changed how the faculty governs and is governed, with regard to: how schools, colleges, campuses and departments may be consolidated, reorganized or eliminated; the protection of faculty rights in tenure and promotion cases; the role of faculty in helping to shape the annual allocation of salary money; the collaborative relationship between chairs and individual faculty members; who among the faculty may participate, and in what ways, in University governance; how disputes between a faculty member and the administration may and must be managed; and much more.


Along with the impressive legislative record of the past ten years, behind the scenes our elected senate leaders have played an instrumental, and historic, role that rivals the legislative record. Some highlights of this success are seen in: securing enabling legislation for faculty bargaining; affecting annual decisions regarding faculty salary increases; shaping the nature and timing of long-term strategic planning; and eliminating an annual budgetary reduction arbitrarily imposed on every academic unit. In all of these matters, and many more, elected Senate leaders have played a crucial role.


From my perch, as secretary of the faculty, I read, see, and hear evidence every day that demonstrates the force that the Senate, through its management of the Faculty Code, and through the daily work of its leaders, exerts on the quality of academic life at the University.


Given the recent, and long term, success of the Faculty Senate and its leadership, one might suppose that there is no reason to tinker with the structure of the senate and its executive committee, but that is just what Senate Chair Dan Luchtel and I have been exploring this year. We have done this because we think it is possible to give the senate and its executive committee an even more effective role in University governance, and because recent changes in the size of the voting faculty have raised the question of whether the present Senate arrangement is viable for the tasks ahead.


With regard to the senate size, the Faculty Code provides that there be one senator for every 15 faculty members. If we followed the Code, as we are expected to do, that would yield a senate of approximately 270 members, which our experience, as well as expert advice we have sought, suggest is, as a practical matter, too large a legislative body for our means and purposes. With regard to the effective functioning of the senate as a deliberative body, again, our experience and the insights of our advisers, tell us that we might increase the quality of deliberation if we were to reduce the size to fewer than 100 members. Finally, we have been concerned whether all the right players are present in the Senate deliberations and voting, in particular, representatives of the elected faculty councils of the schools, colleges and campuses of the University.


During the past six months, we have conducted discussions with the Senate Executive Committee, the senate itself, and the chairs of the elected faculty councils. We are now in the process of developing a working legislative proposal to begin sharpening the focus of the discussion. We anticipate a proposal for a smaller senate and smaller Senate Executive Committee, for a Senate that includes representatives of the elected faculty councils, and for a senate that has proportional representation of schools, colleges and campuses rather than the old system of faculty groups.


We would be pleased to hear comments from readers of University Week regarding our proposal, presented above only in a conceptual form. Some of the questions we have been asking are:




  • Would representation based on school, college and campus be a workable scheme?


  • Would a smaller senate weaken faculty/senate communication?


  • Would a smaller senate diminish its moral force?

If you have responses to any of those questions, or other comments, please send them to Senate Chair Dan Luchtel and me at my secretary of the faculty e-mail address: secfac@u.washington.edu