October 26, 2011

Keeping colleagues informed a top priority for 2011 Faculty Senate chair

A major goal Chair Susan Astley has for the Faculty Senate this year is to help senators get and stay informed on key issues that will be addressed this year in the senate.

“I know its difficult for senators to find the time to read all the briefings available,” she said. “Theres a lot of information you need to absorb if you want to really understand issues. And all of them have day jobs.”

Susan Astley

Susan Astley

Astley, a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics, understands that situation very well. As the director of a clinical/research/training program for individuals with fetal alcohol syndrome, she, like all other faculty, must spend considerable time attending to the duties inherent in that position.

Nonetheless, she feels that discussions in senate meetings will not be effective unless senators are up to speed on the issues being discussed.

“A prime source of information for senators is the senate website,” Astley said. “Resources like the senate blog and ‘issues under consideration provide senators efficient access to the most pertinent, up-to-date information that will help them stay abreast of the issues. One of my roles will be to continually direct the senators to these resources.”

The senate meets bimonthly, with the first meeting at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, in 260 Savery. Astley said that meeting will be largely introductory, with reports from the senate leadership — herself; Gail Stygal, chair of the Senate Committee on Planning and Budgeting; Marcia Killien, secretary of the faculty; and Jim Fridley, faculty legislative representative. The senate will also hear from President Michael Young. For many senators, Astley said, this will be the first opportunity to meet the new president. He and his wife are hosting a senate reception at the presidents home immediately following the meeting.

“Although this is the first meeting of the year for senators, the senate leadership has been meeting continuously over the summer,” Astley said. “So they will be reporting on their work and taking questions from senators.”

Unfortunately, Astley expects that budget matters will once again dominate the agenda in the senate this year. The state Legislature will convene a special session on Nov. 28, and further budget cuts to the University may occur. Discussions have already begun on what the impacts might be from various levels of cuts.

Other items on the agenda this year may be a bit more positive. Astley said a key item for discussion at Decembers meeting will be the role of online learning at the UW.

“It is the way of the future. Demand for online learning continues to increase,” Astley said. “Theres been concern expressed by both students and faculty about the impact of online instruction on learning. There is often the belief that online courses can deliver education to more students at lower cost.”

The concern was serious enough that the Faculty Council on Teaching and Learning devoted time last year to studying the matter, Astley said. Committee members reviewed the literature on the costs and benefits of online courses and concluded that such courses are not universally less expensive to run and can, in fact, be more expensive than traditional courses. (Their last report of the 2010-1011 academic year includes an appendix outlining their findings.)

Astley has taught a number of hybrid online courses that blend online learning with in-class learning. She says she loves the sophisticated tools and increased access online learning provides, which can greatly complement traditional in-class learning. But she has found such courses more time-consuming when the primary means of communication with students is via email, which she says is less efficient than face to face or phone conversations. The literature concludes that this is just one of several reasons why teachers of online courses often cannot handle as many students as teachers of traditional courses.

“I think there is a convergence of opinion forming about online courses among students, faculty, administration and regents,” Astley said. “Online learning presents both strengths and limitations. And online learning will play an important role in the future of higher education. Our goal will be to identify how to best harness the strengths of online learning. I look forward to the discussions that will ensue on this topic at the December senate meeting.”

Other topics for senate meetings this year include Activity Based Budgeting (ABB) and differential tuition. ABB is a method of budgeting in which the revenues generated from instructional and research activities are allocated directly to the unit responsible for the activities.

“This is a new model that has been partially implemented,” Astley said. “Several faculty have asked me how ABB might impact their program. ABB is complex and it is unlikely that faculty know very much about it, so we may bring in a speaker to talk about it and answer questions.”

Differential tuition is the variation in tuition rates based on student or instructional characteristics. Most people are familiar with the current forms of differential tuition (in-state vs. out-of-state, undergraduate vs. graduate, etc.). But the question coming up now is, should differential tuition be expanded to address the variable costs of undergraduate majors (humanities vs. science/engineering)? The idea is controversial, of course.

“In the Senate Committee on Planning and Budgeting faculty and administrators have been investigating other institutions and what theyve done in this regard,” Astley said. “The University has made no decision on this, but with all the budget cuts, topics like these are coming to the table for discussion.”

Astley comes to the chairs position after serving three terms as a senator and service on the Senate Executive Committee and the Faculty Council on Faculty Affairs.

“Its interesting to be here at the UW for 30 years in the medical/research arena and to have had so little time to experience life on upper campus,” she said. “As the chair of the Faculty Senate, it is fascinating to interact with faculty who come from such diverse units with such diverse faculty/student experiences. It is what makes this University great.  So this full immersion in senate leadership — attending meetings and learning how this institution is run, fiscally, politically, etc. —is a great experience for me.”

Astley said that serving as chair of the senate is both an honor and a challenge. “It can be difficult to penetrate the complexity, in the time available to me, to really understand how things work.  But I enjoy both the challenge and the opportunity and look forward to a productive year.”