October 25, 2012

Faculty Senate chair provides historical perspective on shared governance

News and Information

The UW Faculty Senate will hold its first meeting of the year Oct. 25. Faculty & Staff Insider asked this year’s chair, James Gregory, professor of history, to describe some of the body’s history and the issues it is likely to tackle in the coming year.

What have you learned from delving into the history of the UW Faculty Senate?

This year the Faculty Senate will celebrate its 75th anniversary. It is fitting, I think, that an historian should serve as chair during this anniversary year and I am honored to be entrusted with this position. As chair of the Faculty Senate I represent more than 4,000 faculty members who do all the things that make this collection of buildings into university. It is our research that produces the knowledge that the world values. It is our teaching that attracts the extraordinary students we serve. The Faculty Code and the UW traditions of governance add to our responsibilities. Faculty are expected to participate in decision making at the department, college, and university level.

James Gregory

Let me say a few words about this 75th anniversary year and the history of governance at our university. The Faculty Senate was created in 1938, at a time when UW enrolled 9,000 students, charging them a modest $15/quarter tuition. There were roughly 500 faculty members. That April the faculty voted to endorse a plan for a governance system that had been worked out with President Lee Paul Sieg. The background to this decision is instructive. Faculty members had been lobbying for a system of shared governance for a generation without success. In 1935 a group of professors announced that they were forming a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. President Sieg decided that he would rather deal with a faculty senate than a faculty union and entered into negotiations that resulted in the 1938 vote.

There is another part of this story that is also fascinating. A few months before the agreement, President Sieg fired one of the few female faculty members, art instructor Lea Miller. Dr. Miller was terminated because she had recently married. Unaware of a nepotism rule newly imposed by the Board of Regents, she had married a zoology professor.  Nepotism rules in that era almost always cut in one direction: wives were fired, not husbands.

Many of the faculty protested but the president and regents held firm. Lea Miller was dismissed. The story, I am glad to say, had a happy ending. Her husband resigned and UC Berkeley quickly hired both of them. They each went on to enjoy prominent careers in California.

And the incident helped move along the Senate plan. President Sieg worked well with the new framework, which included the beginnings of what we now call the faculty code. A few years later the president and board of regents agreed to a system of tenure, understanding that the protections of tenure were necessary to insure academic freedom and unhindered scholarly inquiry.

 

Is there such a thing as the mood of the faculty and if there is how would you characterize it?

We don’t take polls of faculty opinion and I can’t pretend to understand the mood of 4,000 faculty members spread across three campuses. But if I have to make a guess I would say that many of us are “dazed and confused.”

We are confused about what is happening to higher education and dazed when we think about the way opportunities are contracting for the younger generation. Why are young people shouldering so much of the burden of this economic crisis? Escalating tuition, impossible debt loads, unprecedented unemployment rates—this is no way for a society to treat its young adults. Why are we reducing the commitment to public education at a time when it is needed more than ever before?

Most faculty members are committed to the idea of public education. We grew up in an era when higher education was considered a public good, not just a private benefit. Tuition was low when we were young because having a highly educated public was understood to benefit the whole society. Now it is pay as you go or borrow and then pay and pay. And for many faculty the new formula seems tragic and wrong.

On top of that we realize that students at UW are paying more and getting less. Our classes are bigger, we have dropped lab sections and discussion sections, there are fewer teaching assistants to provide the close contact that students need, and we don’t have the proper equipment in many classrooms. This quarter I am lugging a projector and laptop to class because the room I have been assigned does not have equipment. Indeed it does not even have a screen. I project images on the wall.

Our educational mission has suffered in ways that only faculty fully understand, and many of us have stepped up and tried to help. In my department, a number of professors have been teaching overloads in the last few years, taking on extra courses or teaching discussion sections. Others are using endowment funds intended for research to pay the salaries of teaching assistants in order to maintain discussion sections that otherwise would be cut.

Some faculty are also dazed and confused about the priorities of the University of Washington. They see the buildings going up all over the main campus, west campus, and south Lake Union campus and wonder why some of that money is not available for education? They see resources pouring into the new football stadium and wonder why that is a priority? Why does entertainment trump education?  It is true that capital budgets are legally distinct and cannot readily be used to fund educational operations, and true also that from a financial perspective it makes sense for the university to borrow and build when interest rates and costs are low and when construction jobs are so needed. But even if it makes fiscal sense, the building boom still seems to signal that education, which should come first, is coming in last.

 

What issues will the Faculty Senate address this year?

The Faculty Senate is one arm of the faculty governance system. Thirteen faculty councils and committees have oversight and consulting responsibilities on issues of curriculum, budget, student affairs, faculty affairs, and other dimensions of university policy. The Senate itself consists of 120 elected senators who represent all of the colleges and campuses. The Senate meets eight times during the year with the first meeting on October 25.

We expect to have a busy agenda throughout the year. We will consider proposals that potentially affect curriculum, graduation requirements, and code of conduct rules for students; and proposals that may affect the promotion process and academic freedom protections for faculty.  Clarifying the rules governing intellectual property has become a high priority as a result of a recent court decision, and the Senate Executive Committee may authorize a new faculty committee on intellectual property and commercialization to help with that effort.

Faculty retention has become an escalating problem, as competing universities lure away many of our colleagues. The fact that salaries have been frozen here since 2008 is putting UW at risk, and we are anxious to find ways to remain competitive and rebuild the faculty. We are also taking a look at the composition of the faculty. The last five years have seen an accelerated decline in the percentage of faculty in tenure-track positions. At the same time, we have been making little progress on two important goals: increasing racial and ethnic diversity and achieving gender equality.

For 75 years the Faculty Senate has served the University of Washington, helping UW grow in size, capacity, and stature while maintaining values of academic excellence and academic freedom and demonstrating the importance of shared governance. I look forward to building on that tradition in the year ahead.