Two months after faculty members tasked University President Peter Salovey with appointing a committee to design a faculty senate, professors from across the country are offering words of advice — and words of caution.
Last semester, Yale’s Faculty Input Committee, which was convened by Salovey and University Provost Benjamin Polak to evaluate faculty governance at the University, brought forth the idea of a faculty senate to faculty members. After faculty members voted on Dec. 9 to create Yale’s first faculty senate, Salovey agreed to appoint a committee preparing the structure, staffing and rules of the new governing body. In a Feb. 11 email to members of the Yale College faculty, Salovey named the membership of the 11-person Ad Hoc Committee for Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Senate Planning, which will research the operations of faculty senates at Yale’s peer institutions.
“The committee will consider the organization, processes and procedures in place at other universities that have faculty senates and use this research to inform its recommendations,” Salovey said in the email.
The 18-page report published Nov. 18 from the original Faculty Input Committee, examined the governance structures of Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley. Though Salovey’s newly formed committee has yet to meet and committee members said it is too early to comment on the body’s goals, professors from Stanford and UC Berkeley — schools that established their faculty senates in 1977 and 1920, respectively — have their own thoughts for how to effectively run such a governing body.
“My advice to the Yale administration is to entrust the faculty senate with some level of power, and to ensure that it becomes a forum for open debate that is taken into account in leadership decisions,” said Stanford electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith, chair of the university’s senate in 2009.
Stanford comparative literature professor Russell Berman said the authority of a faculty senate should be clearly delineated, and voice should be given to all members of the FAS, including non-tenure track professors.
David Palumbo-Liu, the current chair of Stanford’s faculty senate and a professor of comparative literature, said Yale should be as “open-minded” as possible, even reaching out to their colleagues across the country for guidance.
“They might want to speak to members of our administration to get their thoughts, as you now have mine as a faculty member,” he said in an email.
Still, others warned against potential challenges that a self-governing faculty body may face.
Stanford history professor Peter Stansky ’53 said that while he believes the faculty senate system works “quite well,” he questions whether the real decisions are made in such a setting. He also pointed to relatively low faculty attendance in senate meetings — though other professors denied that attendance was an issue.
“What percentage of faculty [go] to the meetings?” Stansky asked. “How universities run are particularly important to some faculty, but it’s not the center of their activity.”
UC Berkeley English professor Charles Altieri said it is often challenging to assert power with the school administration when the leadership of the faculty senate is continuously in flux. While he believes the faculty senate has been effective as a voice for faculty interests, he said it has been less successful in actually achieving those interests.
But despite their issues, all nine professors interviewed said their experiences with faculty senate governance have been overwhelmingly positive. Faculty senates offer the opportunity for meaningful discussion between senior administrators and the professoriate, some said.
“I think a faculty senate is an important element in the overall structure of faculty governance,” Berman said. “It’s a way for faculty members from across the university to deliberate on issues of policy that cut across the institution.”
Eric Roberts, Stanford professor of computer science and former chair of the senate, added that faculty senates move university governance away from a corporate model. Giving voice to members of the faculty creates the opportunity for real debate and establishes a more democratic institution, Roberts said.
The Ad Hoc Committee for FAS Senate Planning will present its recommendations to a faculty vote no later than December of this year, according to Salovey.