Reflections on the Faculty Senate from Former Senate Chairs

Walter Lowrie: A Senate-Founder's Perspective

In the early 1960s, near the beginning of my career at Puget Sound, I was a member of the ad hoc faculty committee that developed a faculty senate. A restive faculty had demanded from a patriarchal administration a more effective structure for consideration of academic matters under faculty purview. The By Laws afforded much responsibility to the faculty for curricular development and broadly for issues pertaining to the academic life of the University. Faculty committees operated and occasionally reported to the faculty in plenary session. At the time the Senate was being conceived and formulated, two matters were particularly urgent in faculty minds: (1) selection of the membership of the committees resided solely in administrative hands; (2) the occasional faculty meetings were proving to be too infrequent and too short for adequate discussion of the faculty's academic business. Approved by the faculty and the Board of Trustees, the Senate began meeting with the commencement of the academic year 1965-66. As planned, representatives from the academic administration and student services were full voting members. Later, although I cannot recall the precise year, student representatives joined as full members.

From the onset, then, the Senate was established to be an inclusive body for discussing and legislating on matters for which the faculty has responsibility. Nonetheless, the Senate is the Faculty Senate, in which its membership, including its chair, is elected by the faculty. The Faculty Senate develops its agenda, including initiating "charges"--matters of special inquiry--to standing committees, as well as creating ad hoc committees. Faculty committees report to the Senate on a regular basis. The Senate officers also meet with the Dean of the University to establish appointments to committees and other bodies having faculty representation. And the Senate officers help develop the agenda for plenary faculty meetings.

The Faculty Senate exists not as an adversarial body but as the faculty's principal organ of ensuring that the committee structure functions well, and that there is sufficient deliberation on matters of substantial importance to the academic life of the University. The Senate also can refer matters (either with or without recommendations) for full faculty consideration at one or more of its periodic meetings. Occasionally, significant differences with administrative perspectives do develop. At such time forthright and fair-minded leadership must be exercised by the Senate officers--and their assumption of those roles over the years has helped to engender the credibility of the Senate and its processes within the University community, including the Board of Trustees.

Walter Lowrie, Professor of History, served as Chair of the Faculty Senate from 1972-1973 and 1992-1994.

Grace Kirchner: Senate Chair Reflections

As Senate Chair, I often reminded myself that the Senate is described in the Bylaws as the Executive Committee of the faculty. The Senate occupies a midway position between the committees and the faculty, and perhaps its most important role is to decide which concerns should be referred to committees and which to the faculty. I resisted the tendency to automatically revisit committee decisions, reminding committee chairs that decisions go into effect by default within 30 days with or without the Senate's approval. The faculty as a whole will always make the most important, far-reaching decisions. In those instances the best use of the Senate's time is to frame the questions or problems and perhaps to establish a process that allows decisions to be made in a timely manner, but with maximum sense of ownership and fairness. The Senate is at its best when it is able to keep the governance process moving; faculty "drop out" of governance when they perceive that too much time is being wasted, so while thorough processes are important, a nod to efficiency has its benefits, too.

My advice relates to this philosophy and is twofold. First, read the Bylaws; they can be very helpful and will almost always contain some surprises. Do not assume that others have read them. Mistakes can be surprisingly difficult to rectify. Second, learn the rudiments of parliamentary procedure, particularly regarding how motions and changes to motions are handled. Most of us feel awkward using parliamentary procedure, especially in relatively small groups, but the Senate is large and potentially contentious enough for parliamentary rules to be very useful. I no longer believe the stereotype of the devious meeting participant pouring over Robert's Rules in order to find some way to trick those who are less well informed.

In practice, I found that verbal, stream-of-consciousness motions usually needed work, which becomes awkward once a motion is actually on the floor. If I felt the Senate was close to agreement on a particular motion, or there were clearly alternatives to vote up or down, I would ask if we thought we were ready to make a decision. If the answer was yes, I would then ask for a volunteer to spend a few minutes writing out a motion that seemed to capture our intent. We would try to vet the written motion before it officially got onto the floor. There will still be times when amendments are needed, but they will be fewer and less frustrating to make.

Grace Kirchner, Professor of Education, served as Chair of the Faculty Senate from 1994-1998.

Bill Haltom: Demystification and Desegregation

The patent functions of the Faculty Senate include the management of the faculty's agenda of governance and the vetting of issues and grievances. Usually, one means these functions when one says that the Faculty Senate is "the Executive Committee of the Faculty."

Perhaps less obvious are such Faculty Senate functions as demystification and desegregation. The Faculty Senate facilitates speaking sincerely to or over persons in the community who traffic in deceptive rhetoric or propaganda. The Senate does not necessarily speak truth to power. Instead, senators speak earnestly about how "power wears down those who do not have it" [The Godfather, Part Three]. The Senate mystifies and demystifies by turns. I suppose it even remystifies at times. The crux is that shibboleths and slogans get analyzed and reoriented in the Faculty Senate.

The Faculty Senate also desegregates audiences around the University community. Our community tends towards discrete functional groups -- staff, faculty, administration, students, and management[trustees] -- with established conduits of communication between. The Faculty Senate can make a difference by allowing for communication outside of normal channels. Both the top-down and the bottom-up get communicated more and more often. Trustees learn who faculty are and what faculty think. Students learn to see matters from other points of view. Administrators are [ever so occasionally] induced to let others know what is going on.

Of late, the Senate has demystified more than desegregated, so perhaps over the next few years the Faculty Senate should seek new and better ways to get the panoply of interests, ideas, and issues represented in settings that promote conversations and community.

Bill Haltom, Professor of Politics and Government, served as Chair of the Faculty Senate from 1998-2001.

Hans Ostrom: About the Faculty Senate

The Senate can sometimes seem contentious and at other times inefficient; legend has it that any two senators are capable of generating at least three opinions on a given topic. We are, after all, academics. Most of the time, however, the Senate is productive even if it doesn't exhibit blazing, or even smoldering, speed. It often shapes issues before the full faculty debates them--usually in ways that make the debates less wearying. Because its members and its Chair are elected, and because a high percentage of the faculty participates in the elections, the Senate ostensibly represents a spectrum of views and experiences. The By Laws, the basics of Roberts' Rules, the Faculty Code, the examples of previous Senate Chairs, and the common (and uncommon) sense of the senators are there to guide the Senate Chair, if need be, when she or he ponders how to proceed with a particular issue. In business since 1965, the Faculty Senate has some history going for it, at least.

In the structure of the University, the Faculty Senate seems to be the one entity explicitly responsible for representing the interests of the faculty when the faculty itself does not meet. In most cases, the interests of the students, the faculty, the administration, and the Board of Trustees seem to dovetail nicely. In rare instances these interests may not. In my view, the Faculty Senate should recognize these instances and stand firmly for the faculty, the Faculty Code, and the By Laws, but the Senate should also be sure not to see interests to be in conflict when they aren't. That is, the Senate should not jump to a conclusion that the faculty and the administration are necessarily opposed. Indeed, sometimes the Senate can effectively decrease conflict and cultivate consensus while representing the faculty responsibly.

When I was chair, I tried to insure that the Senate did not attempt to make a final decision on matters the whole faculty should properly discuss and resolve, even when the Senate technically could have done so. I also tried to make the Senate's agenda open to topics, questions, and concerns any and all members of the faculty might have. I hope the Senate is always perceived to be a body to whom any faculty-member may express a professional concern., even if a resolution of the concern may take a while. Because of its standing committees, the Senate does have well established business to attend to each year, but it can also serve as a clearing-house for unexpected issues that arise and for topics that might not fit easily into the standing-committee system.

Hans Ostrom, Professor of English, served as Senate Chair from 2001-2003.