Faculty forum draws few professors

After drawing crowds of faculty earlier this academic year, the most recent meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences forum on Monday evening saw only a handful of professors in attendance.

The faculty forum meetings, which were launched in the fall and are held twice per semester, are designed to provide a venue for professors to discuss University issues and policies, and the October and November meetings drew respective crowds of 100 professors and 40 professors. But only about 10 faculty members other than administrators attended the meeting on Monday evening. Attendees interviewed said discussions focused on the rising number of prospective science majors applying to Yale and the changing roles of Yale administrators, though four professors added that the declining attendance numbers may not bode well for the future of the faculty forum.

“I think the forum has been proving an interesting experiment,” said Lawrence Manley, an English professor who attended Monday’s meeting. “On the other hand, it’s true that attendance has been declining, and it may be a conclusion of the experiment that a forum on this model will not hold the interest of faculty.”

Shelly Kagan, a philosophy professor who attended the meeting, said he thinks the forum is a useful structure because it gives the faculty face-to-face time with administrators. If the meetings “end up being put on extended hibernation” due to ebbing faculty interest, they could always be resuscitated if controversial issues arise that faculty members want to address, he said.

Newly appointed Provost Benjamin Polak said the forum was more a discussion of facts than any sort of debate.

“There was not even really an issue about which one could have consensus or division,” Polak said. “It was more a discussion about the facts and what they might mean.”

President-elect and former Provost Peter Salovey said in a Tuesday email that he found Monday’s meeting “substantive and informative,” adding that the small group in attendance was able to have a detailed discussion about undergraduate admissions policies and practices.

Salovey established the forum last fall as provost to allow professors an opportunity to share ideas about University policy. A group of faculty members expressed concerns last spring that administrators were pursuing an increasingly top-down approach to decision-making with regard to issues such as Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore and restructuring of departmental staff.

Music Department Chair Daniel Harrison, who attended Monday’s meeting, said the past two faculty forums have been hampered by the fact that professors propose agenda items anonymously. If the faculty member who proposed the topic is not there to clarify his or her exact question at the meeting, the discussion will be less productive, he said, adding that this procedural flaw was an issue on Monday with the topic of University deans and officers. Levin ended up speaking extemporaneously about the evolution of his administration because no professors at the meeting identified themselves as having proposed the agenda item, Harrison said.

The forum is intended to be less formal and more flexible than the monthly Yale College and Graduate School faculty meetings, which have strict, predetermined agendas focused on the curriculum and student life and cannot accommodate extended dialogue on broader issues of concern to the faculty, according to a September report by a three-person faculty committee tasked with proposing rules for the forums. Faculty members propose and vote on agenda items for the forum, which is chaired by the directors of the four academic divisions — physical sciences and engineering, biological sciences, social sciences and humanities — on a rotating basis. Previous issues raised at faculty forum meetings have included the presidential search process, the University’s science and technology resources and the possibility of founding a faculty senate.

Monday’s meeting followed an agenda established by faculty last week, beginning with a discussion led by Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel on increases in applicants from science-oriented students. Brenzel said he provided information to attendees about how many students enter Yale with the intention of majoring in one subject and maintain that focus versus how many students change their minds after they enroll. He said the statistics led to a conversation that was “both interesting and productive.”

Though Brenzel had already given a similar presentation at a recent Yale College faculty meeting, Manley said he appreciated the opportunity to talk more in-depth about admissions.

“This was the fullest discussion [about admissions] I’ve been exposed to, and it seems like it could be a good thing if faculty were thinking and talking more about how our teaching can be adapted to the current student body,” he said.

Joel Rosenbaum, a biology professor, said Monday’s meeting was disappointing because of “relatively uninteresting” agenda items, adding that the small turnout made it difficult to build an interesting discussion. Rosenbaum, who has advocated in the past for the creation of a faculty senate with formal deliberative power, said professors may have to reconsider whether the forum is the best structure for promoting shared governance between the University and the faculty.

Salovey told the News last fall that there are many possible “mechanisms” to increase faculty input in University decision-making, adding that the faculty forum is a work in progress.

“I’d like to run the experiment we are conducting now that involves clarifying the procedures of the Yale College and the Graduate School faculty meetings while adding the faculty forum, and then assess at the end of the academic year whether this has been an effective approach,” he said in December.

The final faculty forum of the year will take place on April 4 in Connecticut Hall.

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