REPORT TO THE FACULTY, PART ONE

December 17, 2002

Noel Byrne, Chair of the Faculty

Colleagues,

As is known to all, we are confronted by the prospect of major budgetary crises that promise to prevail through the 2003-2004 fiscal year.  It is clear that, to successfully weather this difficult period, the faculty and the administration must work together. 1 In this report, I wish to address institutional traditions and practices that can offer hope for success in this regard.  I wish also to communicate concerns about threats to the spirit of these traditions and practices.

SONOMA STATE’S CONSULTATIVE/COLLABORATIVE TRADITION

From the time of Sonoma State’s origins (from the San Francisco State Off-Campus Center) in 1961, a culture of consultation and collaboration 2 within the faculty and between the administration and the faculty was among this institution’s foremost attributes.  Among the expressions of this culture has been the tradition of faculty governance since 1961, exemplified institutionally by the academic senate 3 and by such processes as the faculty election of academic department chairs. 

Notable expressions of the culture of consultation between faculty and administration and of shared governance have included the participation by our university president, the provost, and the CFO/vice president of administration and finance on the Academic Senate;  in addition, all three administrators participate actively on the Academic Senate’s Executive Committee.  Conversely, the shared governance tradition of administrative/faculty consultation has included the participation of elected faculty leaders on such important university administrative committees 4 as the President’s Budget Advisory Committee, the Vice President’s Budget Advisory Committee, the Campus Reengineering Committee, and the Campus Planning Committee.  Further, from the beginning of this institution, the chairs of search committees for school deans and the academic affairs provost have been elected by the search committee members. 5

All of these elements of a long-established culture of administrative consultation, shared governance and faculty self-governance offer the promise of a cohesive campus community and effective institutional functioning.  However, threats to this culture demand attention.

CONSULTATIVE LACUNAE AND PARADIGMATIC DISJOINTS: SOURCES OF CONCERN

During my service in faculty governance over the course of the last three semesters, several events have increased my concern about the view of consultation and of shared governance held by the highest level of administration at this institution.  Four of these deserve specification.

A Troubling Report

Early in my service as Chair-elect and during a meeting with an administrator near the pinnacle of the administrative hierarchy of this university, I discussed my hope for improved relations between the faculty and the university president, since these have been troubled for some years now.  I noted my belief that a very large part of the difficulties in those relations would be ameliorated if the president were to adopt a more consultative approach with the faculty in the making of decisions that have the largest impact on this institution. 6   This highly placed administrator expressed his agreement with my points, and said that he would discuss this with the president.

At our next meeting, the administrator announced that he had spoken to the president about this, who had responded, “Impossible!”

A Disturbing Revelation

Some time later (October 30, 2001) as this university faced significantly dire budgetary difficulties, 7 the Vice President’s Budgetary Advisory Committee (VPBAC) considered a proposal to allocate $100,000 to the search for a new Vice President of Development. 8   All five of the elected faculty representatives to this committee, as well as the student representative (President of Associated Students, Remy Heng) unanimously spoke against such a large expenditure for this search at this time of budgetary emergency.

Provost Bernie Goldstein informed the committee that he would report the VPBAC deliberations to President Arminana, who would make the final decision.  Subsequently, President Arminana chose to fully expend the proposed allocation of $100,000 toward this search.

I was substantially surprised that the views held by the faculty and student representatives to the VPBAC received so little consideration by the president.  In a subsequent e-mail communication to me, President Arminana clarified this by revealing his view of such representatives.  He wrote that he did not take account of the views held by faculty representatives on the VPBAC according to their “employment category”. 

In other words, in the president’s view, elected faculty representatives are only individuals representing the views and interests of themselves as individuals.

Unsettling Enlightenment

Further clarification of the president’s view of representative processes was provided during a later discussion within the Executive Committee.  In this, members expressed concern that he did not appear to display much regard for the positions taken by elected faculty representatives.  The president responded that putatively representative processes were actually the expression of contending parties, each of which was guided only by the narrow concerns of small subsets of interest groups.  In effect, he argued that the representation of general constituencies is only an illusion and therefore undeserving of significant recognition or attention in the making of important decisions.

Distress at the Executive Committee

At the most recent (12/12/02) meeting of the Executive Committee, Robert McNamara 9 expressed surprised distress at the president’s observation that he would reject without further consideration a resolution being brought before the next meeting (12/19/02) of the Academic Senate. 10   Referring to the implied view of shared  governance at Sonoma State University held by the president (in light of the president’s expressed disdain for the possibility that the Academic Senate might support the resolution), Robert McNamara asked with some emotion, “Why then do we give up our Thursday afternoons” in serving on the Academic Senate?? 

The president’s reply was succinct, expressive, and dismissive:  “That’s a good question,” he responded.

IN CONCLUSION: SHORT TERM TRAUMAS, LONG TERM PROSPECTS

I bring this report to the faculty not in the spirit of resigned concern, but as a matter of important illumination.  Faculty representatives will work with the administration to protect and preserve the university’s ability to achieve its educational mission, and to cope with the very difficult budgetary contingencies that we face.  At the same time, I urge that we continue to sustain and promote the traditions of collaboration, consultation, representative processes, and shared governance that are central to the culture of this institution.  I also urge that we not ratify efforts to deny, reject or dismantle these. 

The difficulties that we face will be of limited duration, fated to endure only as memories of a darker time.  Established cultures, such as that of this university, resist both manifest efforts to undo them and implicit efforts to deny them.  However, it is regretful that the full range of benefits provided by a culture of consultation, collaboration, participative decision making and shared governance are not fully realized in light of such efforts.

Footnotes

  1. In this discussion, I intend the term, “successfully weather”, to refer to outcomes that effectively preserve and protect the central instructional mission of this university, as well as the university’s vital functions.  Instructional faculty achieves the former; aside from instruction, line staff typically executes the latter.
  2. Extensive research on decision making reveals a number of benefits of consultation, collaboration and democratic decision making in organizations (in contrast to individual decision making and problem solving).  These include:  1)  Higher quality solutions to important problems;  of course, this can be regarded as a “bottom line” issue;  2)  Improved morale among organizational members;  3)  Acceptance of difficult decisions even by those for whom the outcomes are not to their advantage.  This latter feature is especially relevant to the issue of “hard choices in difficult times”.
  3. Of course, associated elements of faculty governance include a number of standing committees and related subcommittees.
  4. Also of course, while the Academic Senate and the Executive Committee are structural elements of faculty governance, the administrative committees noted here are structural elements of university administration.  The inclusion of both administrative leaders and faculty leaders as participants in both sets of structural elements provides systematized and routinized channels of consultation between administration and faculty and is an expression of shared governance.
  5. The significance of this established practice at Sonoma State was acknowledged, communicated and affirmed by then-dean Robert Karlsrud during the provost search process that selected Don Farish (Bernie Goldstein’s predecessor) as Provost of Academic Affairs.  That is, at one of the first meetings of the search committee the election of the committee’s chair was marked by some hesitation by members new to process.  (The student member of this committee volunteered to serve as chair --- a strikingly notable proposal, but one that failed to prompt an affirmative response.)  The search committee included among its members an administrator new to this campus and unaware of relative established practice and tradition at this institution.  Expressing admirable initiative, this administrator announced a readiness to rise to the occasion and serve as chair of the search committee. Dean Karlsrud (also a member of the search committee) responded to this suggestion with an air of urgent surprise tempered by considered diplomacy.  That is, he informed all members that established practice at Sonoma State was that committee members of such search committees elected their chairs;  further, he noted that a faculty member was typically elected to be chair of the given search committee.  This provost search committee then elected its chair (a faculty member) in accordance with Dean Karlsrud’s reminder.
  6. As an example, I cited the decision to establish the technology high school on campus.  Faculty were brought into the process only in relation to the implementation of a directive.  The establishment of the Green Music Center by directive serves as a more recent example.
  7. These difficulties included the Governor’s mid-year budget reduction of the fiscal year 01-02 budget, amounting to a loss for SSU of $737,820.  They also included the added burden of $6,100,000 in increased costs for the renovation of Salazar Hall.
  8. Of this $100,000, $60,000 was devoted to the services of a “headhunter” firm, with the balance of $40,000 to be expended for meals, travel, lodging, and other search expenses.  Providing a point of comparison:  the typical budget for a nation-wide search for a new tenure-track faculty member is $3400, again for meals, travel, lodging and other search expenses.
  9. Member of the Executive Committee and elected faculty representative on the Academic Senate.
  10. This is a resolution addressing the president’s abandonment of an established practice at Sonoma State whereby committee members in searches for academic deans and provosts of Academic Affairs have typically elected the respective chairs of their committees.

 

REPORT TO THE FACULTY, PART TWO

May 22, 2003

Noel Byrne, Chair of the Faculty

I submit this report as a kind of “summing up” of certain matters that currently prevail with respect to Sonoma State University and its faculty.   As I have stated previously (cf. “Report to the Faculty, Part One,” of 12/17/02), I entered faculty governance because of my strong concerns for the welfare of this institution and the declining state of shared governance at Sonoma State University.  Those concerns have not abated.

In this report I wish to communicate to the faculty concerns that I believe warrant continued attention now that my year of effort is at an end.  I also wish to offer some comments about views held by junior faculty senators on the Academic Senate of this university.  My concerns focus on several matters: 

  1. The current state of shared governance at Sonoma State University; 
  2. The enduring heritage of a decade of organizational restructuring at this institution; 
  3. Efforts to reframe university processes in terms of a corporate model. 
  4. Finally, I wish to provide a report of concerns about faculty governance processes held by junior faculty senators.

SHARED GOVERNANCE AT SONOMA STATE UNIVERSITY

The principle of shared governance on the part of university faculty and administration has been a central value at the levels of both the California State University Statewide Academic Senate and at Sonoma State University.  However, the last year has witnessed a number of serious threats to this principle.1 A series of events chronicled in my Report to the Faculty of 12/17/02 signaled important difficulties of this order.  These included a troubling report from one of the top administrators at this university that my hope for a more consultative relation with the faculty by the president was doomed.2  They also included the president’s e-mail communication to me about his disregard for the views held by faculty representatives to the Vice President’s Budget Advisory Committee (VPBAC). 3   That is, in his e-mail communication to me about this matter, he wrote that he did not consider the views of faculty representatives on the VPBAC according to their “employment category.”  In addition, at the Executive Committee the president has argued that representative processes are undeserving of significant recognition or attention in the making of important decisions. 4   In light of these events, it was no surprise that the president rejected out of hand the Academic Senate’s Spring ’03 resolution 5 requesting that the members of the Provost Search Committee be permitted to elect its chair, in accordance with established tradition and practice in searches for academic deans and provosts. 6   Most disturbingly, however, priorto the Academic Senate’s deliberations of this resolution the president announced at the 12/12/02 meeting of the Executive Committee that he would reject the resolution without consideration, regardless of any action by the Academic Senate.

In these and other ways the president has demonstrated by action and expression that he regards the principle of shared governance to be an unwelcome encumbrance at best, one to be weakened as the opportunity arises.  This view and such actions warrant great concern on the part of the faculty of this university as well as by the California State University Statewide Academic Senate. 7

Excursus:  The Issue of Leadership

Over seven decades of systematic social science research addressing the nature of effective leadership has clearly demonstrated that being a leader is not the same as being a boss.  As illustrated by the saying that “the leader is that person following out front,” the effectiveness of a leader hinges inevitably on his or her ability to articulate a vision that is held and embraced by the “followers”.  Resort to bossism and decision by directive is a seductive if crippling tactic.  In the long run, a reliance on fear or force (the standard stance of the “boss”) expresses a failure of leadership, an expression typically in the voice of frustration and even anger. 8

ELEVATED STRUCTURE, CONCENTRATED POWER

In my Convocation remarks of 1/27/03, I provided data regarding important changes in the structure of this university that had been engineered during the decade of the ‘90s which have significant consequences for our current circumstance.  I referred to longitudinal data with respect to student enrollment on the one hand and organizational charts of this university on the other hand.  The longitudinal data on enrollment provide a quantitative measure of the “work” 9 to be done by this university --- the education of students --- and its change over time.  The longitudinal data presented by the organizational charts provides a broad depiction of the organization of means to those educational ends.

As I noted, this small set of data summarizes a large story.  The beginning of the 1990s to the year 2000 was a period when the “work” of the university was no greater at the end than at the beginning.  That is, SSU enrollments for academic year 1991-92 were at 6006 Full Time Equivalent Students (FTES) while SSU enrollments for the 1999-00 academic year were at 5978 FTES.  Enrollments did not exceed either of these figures in any of the intervening academic years.  Yet, an examination of the organizational charts demonstrates that this was a time of significant increases in organizational hierarchy, administrative expansion and administrative layering, all of which are implicated with increased organizational overhead.  This is the period in which the number of vice presidents doubled from two to four, the quantity of associate vice presidents increased from zero to five, and the number of janitors plummeted from forty to twenty. 10

The heightening of organizational structure by the increased elevation of positions (and correspondingly elevated salaries) held by persons who serve at the pleasure of the president leads to a consolidation of power in the highest reaches of the structure. It also brings about an increased redirection of fiscal resources to those higher reaches.

On the one hand, such a change inevitably leads to increased overhead.  More disturbing is the circumstance that such a structural consolidation of power can have social psychological consequences. The more readily available the reins of power, the more enticing their appeal. 11 At the same time, such consequences can include a diminished appreciation for the merits of shared governance.

THE CORPORATE MODEL:  A POOR FIT

During the same span of time as the principle of shared governance has become increasingly threatened, the structure of the university heightened, and organizational power concentrated, we have witnessed an effort to import into this university a corporate model of operations and presumptions.  This is a mistake and a bad fit. 12

At this institution, the effort to ground the university in the corporate model has been expressed in a number of ways.  The notion of “student as customer” has been encouraged at the highest level of administration.  (Among its corresponding implications is that of “professor as merchant.”)  A “Customer Service Center” has become a central element of the university for students, faculty and staff.  A couple of years ago, an effort to elicit data from faculty took the form of a “Customer Satisfaction Survey.” 13

A number of regrettable consequences accompany the effort to implement this model.

The transformation of the entire campus community to a market.  Students, staff, and faculty become a market to be exploited in the form of an effort to maximize profits by university auxiliaries, and perhaps even by Information Technology (IT), which now bills academic departments for its contributions to instructional support.   Such a transformation threatens community itself;  it promotes a redirection of focus from the welfare of the Other to a narrower focus on benefit to self.  To the extent that the benefit of others is pursued, it is only because this is seen as a necessary but regrettable complication in the service of self-interest.  While the motto, “the customer is always right” captures one possible beneficent outcome of the business model, its dark converse is “Buyer beware!” 

Further, the corporate model encourages the accompanying promotion of a marketing model, as captured in the slogan, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak!”  Otherwise put, image over substance can take precedence.  14

The marketing model as expressed through advertising efforts tends to emphasize the “lower-order” and baser impulses of the human animal, an emphasis that can all too easily be transformed into a presumption.  This is captured by a classic definition of marketing as “hedonomics.” 15

Expressed by the introduction of the “profit center” approach to university operations.

FACULTY GOVERNANCE PROCESSES:  VIEWS OF JUNIOR FACULTY SENATORS

Early in this semester, a senior faculty member asserted that senior members of the senate intimidate junior faculty members of the Academic Senate.  He and I exchanged a series of communications about these matters.  Although I had not observed actions that suggested intimidation, I felt it would be inappropriate to simply discount such a serious allegation. I resolved to seek further information from the senators.  Accordingly, I discussed this matter with Scott Miller, an untenured faculty member of the Academic Senate whom I judge to be generally viewed with respect and trust by other members of the senate.  I asked if he would consult with junior faculty senators and provide a report.  To his great credit and in spite of his extraordinarily large commitments he agreed to take on this large task.  After interviewing a large majority of the junior faculty senators, he compiled his findings in a report, which is attached.  This report is of great value, since I believe that it provides useful information otherwise unavailable to those involved in faculty governance processes and that should be taken into account with respect to processes in the Academic Senate.

I invite the members of the Academic Senate to read this report with close attention.  I will offer no interpretive comments at this time, as I believe that its substance merits reflection and discussion at the next meeting of the Academic Senate.

CONCLUSION

Of the matters addressed in this report, I regard the place of shared governance at Sonoma State University to be of greatest relevance to the Academic Senate.  Also extremely important is the issue of the views about Academic Senate processes held by junior faculty senators, available in the report generously contributed by Scott Miller and which accompanies this document.  The other issues touched on above --- altered organizational structure and the place of the corporate model in this academic setting --- are also significant.  However, I discuss these not as matters to be directly and immediately addressed by the Academic Senate but rather as aspects of the academic environment to which the faculty should be critically attentive, with decisions about possible responses requiring reflection and deliberation.

Footnotes

  1. The principle of shared governance on the part of university faculty and administration has been a central value at the levels of both the California State University Statewide Academic Senate and at Sonoma State University.
  2. From that report (p. 2):  I discussed with an administrator near the pinnacle of SSU administration my hope for improved relations between the faculty and the president.  “I noted my belief that a very large part of the difficulties would be ameliorated if the president were to adopt a more consultative approach with the faculty with the making of decisions that have the largest impact on this institution.  This highly placed administrator expressed his agreement with my points, and said that he would discuss this with the president.  At our next meeting, the administrator announced that he had spoken to the president about this, who had responded, ‘Impossible!’”
  3. Also noted in the earlier report:  At a time of dire budgetary difficulties --- including the Governor’s mid-year reduction of the ‘01-’02 fiscal year budget, amounting to a loss for SSU of $737,820, as well as the added burden of $6,100,000 in increased costs for the renovation of  Salazar Hall --- all five of the elected faculty members to the VPBAC during its 10/30/02 deliberations spoke against a proposal to allocate $100,000 to the search for a new Vice President of Development.  In this, they were joined by the President of Associated Students, Remy Heng.  The president chose to fully expend the entire $100,000 toward this search.
  4. From the Report of 12/17/02, p. 3:  Faculty members of the Executive Committee expressed concern to the president “that he did not appear to display much regard for the positions taken by elected faculty representatives.  The president responded that putatively representative processes were actually the expression of contending parties, each of which was guided only by the narrow concerns of small subsets of interest groups.”
  5. After lengthy and affirmative discussion, passed with no objection, one abstention, and the rest affirmative.
  6. The single prior exception to this practice occurred with a dean search committee in the School of Education.  In this instance, the president appointed the search committee’s chair, an action that was not widely known outside of the School of Education, and therefore not known by the rest of the faculty.  Subsequently, the president’s appointment of a chair to the more recent dean search committee in the School of Social Sciences was protested by committee members as a violation of established tradition and practice.  In response the president assented to an election of the committee’s chair by the committee members, an action for which the committee members thanked the president.
  7. In a recent (5/17/03) personal communication, Andy Merrifield (Chair of the Faculty, 1999-2000) offered exceedingly useful comments about the importance of shared governance at Sonoma State University.  “SSU has had shared governance as more than a mantra or a vague goal.  It has been fundamental in our actual operation as a university.  The reality is that without the belief, firmly established by actions or specific example, in real shared governance there has been very little that has been done on this campus that has worked. ….  Shared governance is fundamental to this campus, because it is too deeply ingrained [for this campus] to work without it.  In addition, though most of the first generation faculty have now gone, there is enough overlap between them and the second generation (perhaps you) and the third generation (perhaps me) and the still coming faculty, that the lore/myth/structure [of shared governance] is firmly entrenched.  We can certainly hope that the new provost has skills to handle the areas which many of us feel [are vital to this university] and continue to share the belief in the importance of faculty input.  If he doesn’t have the first strengths, we will be disappointed.  If he doesn’t have the second, he will be disappointed.”  Drawing a parallel with shared governance at the national level, Andy observes that “the real power of the President of the United States is the power to persuade.  He is essentially a clerk at the head of a giant bureaucracy.  He really can’t do much of anything himself, so he must get help.  ….”  Noting the inevitable disappointment of those with military backgrounds who “simply expected people to jump through hoops when ordered,” Andy comments that “the presidency doesn’t work that way. …. Neither does a university.  [The president at this university] can order what he what wants, but the curriculum belongs to the faculty.  Academic freedom is not something added on, it is essential --- in the literal sense.  Tenure does not protect us if we are incompetent, or if we are dishonest.  It doesn’t protect malfeasance, misfeasance, or non-feasance, but it does protect us from harassment for exercising our professional judgment on how to run the university.  …  Persuasion comes from bargaining.  Thus shared governance isn’t a frill.  It is the very core of how the university must operate. “  Later in the same communication, Andy states that “persuasion is necessary wherever there are potentially hostile groups or individuals with independent power.  That is us.  Where the goals and beliefs are together between the faculty and the administration we have no problems.  In areas where goals and beliefs may vary, and where the faculty has power, we must be not only consulted with, but bargained with.”
  8. Even Machiavelli suggested that the consolidation of power in the hands of a boss is of limited value.  In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli writes that “people are more prudent, more stable, and have better judgment than a prince.”
  9. I use the word, “work,” to refer to the educational mission of this university.  (That “work” or the university’s instructional mission both justifies and legitimates the very existence of this institution.)
  10. Sonoma State University is now graced with six vice presidents
  11. I don’t mean to suggest that the temptation to take advantage of the availability of power is simply a consequence of its availability.  To the contrary.   Structural changes that consolidate power can be the rational consequence of an intention to set into place the means to more effectively implement desired changes.  Unfortunately, such rationally intended changes often occur only at the manifest level of the formal structure of a given organization.  They are much less successful in altering the informal and more enduringly deep features of a pre-existing organizational culture, such as that which holds dear the principle of shared governance.  Under such circumstances, the stage is set for seemingly intractable and persistent difficulties, disagreements, and tensions within the organization.
  12. A brief consideration of the kind of display evident at graduation ceremonies provides some hint of the problems that are encouraged by such an effort.  The gowns worn by graduates and faculty are monks’ robes.  These are expressive of the monastic origins of the western university.  The corporate model does violence to and runs afoul of a whole constellation of values and commitments associated with those origins, including the implicit notion of a calling, a commitment to pursue knowledge (forms of Truth) for “truth’s” sake and a disposition to recognize the intrinsic value of service to others (be they sinners in search of cleansed souls or students in search of personal development).
  13. By all indications, faculty rejection of this designation was expressed by the faculty’s massive rejection of the questionnaire itself and the complete failure of the survey effort.
  14. In marketing considerable emphasis in placed on “the Four P’s” --- packaging, promotion, placement, and price.  None of these refer to substance.
  15. Many years ago, a very good friend of mine who was also a professor of marketing in a business school vigorously rejected my suggestion that the marketing discipline encourages an uncomplimentary view of human nature because of its attention to the lower order aspects of human beings.  In uncharacteristically great anger and considerable intensity he exclaimed, “What pisses me off is when marketing takes it on the chin just because people are assholes!!”

 

FACULTY GOVERNANCE PROCESSES: VIEWS OF JUNIOR FACULTY SENATORS

Scot Miller, Ph.D.
Senator, Sonoma State University Academic Senate

15 May 2003

Dear Noel,

Thought I might as well compose this report as a letter to you. As a study, I hasten to say, it is what it is—which is to say that I’d hate to subject it to rigorous methodological scrutiny. I can only say that people actually did say the things I’ll report below (understanding that each quotation is really part quotation and part paraphrase) and that I tried to ride my own hobby horses as little as possible (well, up until the end, as you might find).

I spoke with a large majority of the junior faculty senators—people from every school except Ed, I believe. I opened up each conversation by saying something like ‘The Chair of the Faculty has asked me to talk to junior faculty members of the Senate and see what we have to say about any aspect of our work on which you have an opinion. And it is the case that a particular senior faculty member has expressed to Noel his fear that we juniors were not feeling free to express our real feelings on issues.” Then I mostly just let them talk. I did make sure to ask all or most) people a few specific questions:

  • Do you always feel like you’re clear on your own reasons for voting a certain way?
  • If you don’t feel clear—for instance, if the vote is on a matter about which you know little apart from what’s been discussed during the meeting—how do you make a decision to vote one way or another?
  • Do you have any thoughts or suggestions regarding steps or strategies to make junior faculty more welcome and give them stronger voices?

Here’s what I found:

1. [The senior faculty member’s]1 concern is well founded to some degree....

It is the case that some Senators described feeling some pressure not to speak against a “party line.” And even those who reported that they endeavored earnestly to speak their true minds and vote their real consciences acknowledged the reality of some of this pressure for others if not for themselves The following quotations/paraphrases illustrate these pressures in action:

  • [I]f people speak up in Senate [against the “party line”] people will smile at each other, roll their eyes, etc. This is why I opposed [one of the politically oriented teach—ins]. Some faculty would make it difficult for students to hold a view.
  • I feel very reticent to speak on certain topics. In my first year, I thought that the Senate and the Union were one and the same - they were joined at the hip. I find myself very reticent to speak on certain topics, especially, right now, about part-time faculty issues.
  • [Q: why would you abstain rather than vote against a measure?] A: It’s not going to help [the issue] by voting against it - it wouldn’t have an effect [i.e., the measure’s going to pass anyway]. But it could possibly hurt me—I don’t know, but....
  • [If a Senator voted] consistently on the side of administration—maybe there would be retaliation. You won’t be denied tenure—but people will talk. You could get a reputation you probably don’t want.
  • I long for a better environment, where we trust each other enough to share opposing points of view. Like the dance that goes one between [vocal senior colleagues] sometimes: “I respectfully disagree with my esteemed colleague blab blab.” I’m not sure that I’d feel comfortable taking that kind of tone [especially when discussing a sensitive, politically charged topic].

While most Senators reported feeling this kind of pressure from colleagues, at least one reported feeling it from administrators:

  • • The [Junior Senators] are smart people who realize that administration is sitting there - they’re not going to say anything that will impinge on tenure or promotion. Senior faculty say that we shouldn’t be worried. But I flat disagree. There are subtleties to these things. Politic is the word.

2. . . . but only to a degree.

While Senators often did report being aware of, sensitive to, and influenced by a “party line,” they also varied dramatically in their attitudes toward this reality and in the degree of importance they attached to it. Some simply reported not feeling coerced or pressured in any way:

  • I haven’t felt coerced, pressured or prevented from speaking my mind. I’m an outspoken person—that’s who I am.
  • I’m listening and hearing. It’s not that I’m censoring myself—it’s pretty open—I don’t feel like I’m censoring myself at all. I just don’t feel knowledgeable enough. I don’t feel like I have anything enlightening to offer.
  • I don’t feel any coercion or intimidation—it feels very supportive—no bad vibes. It may help that I [serve on a few other committees where I get more information and further develop my positions on issues].

While some Senators were clearly unhappy about perceived coercion, no one seemed to think it was fatal to our process, most thought it was inevitable, and some even expressed willing acceptance of it, expressing the idea that it is often right to defer to more experienced colleagues:

  • It’s OK to defer to the expertise of people who really worked on [an issue].
  • Sometimes there is such a thing as more extensive knowledge, and sometimes I have deferred [to senior colleagues] on votes on the basis of that. Basically these matters are par for the course. It takes time to deal with these matters, to feel more comfortable and to develop a clearer voice. [This comment is a rough paraphrase]
  • I don’t think it’s possible to solve the coercion problem—there will always be people worried about the political effects of their speech. There are different personality types.

In short, in these interviews I did not see anything like a buried groundswell of disaffection, dissatisfaction, and silenced voices among the junior Senators.

Having said that, however, I come now to what I consider to be the major common complaint among junior Senators:

3. Senators are irritated and unhappy with many aspects of the Senate process.

Almost all interviewees expressed various negative feelings—spanning a spectrum from sardonic bemusement to outright disdain—toward various aspects of Senatorial proceedings. Topics of discussion was one key problem area. Some Senators expressed considerable frustration over long and fruitless debates held for the purpose of trying to move an immovable Administration on some issue:

  • •Sometimes we’re voting on things that do not have an impact—we have a lengthy discussion and then it doesn’t matter.
  • [We have too many] conversations on things we can’t do anything about. Some people who’ve been around longer may know how and when the Administration bends [on an issue]—but I get frustrated.
  • Several Senators expressed frustration with various aspects of the quality of the debate in the Senate:
  • We spend way too much time on things—I don’t know where the balance is. People need to express their wisdom—but it does get redundant.
  • I take the Senate as an opportunity to practice not getting emotional about things—not getting sucked into the negativity. You do learn about some important things . . . but it’s really disheartening to hear so many non-issues discussed for so long. . . . It’s funny. We’re all so polite. We just sit there. It’s nice that people are willing to just sit and listen—however, I think there is major stuff going on that we should be attending to.
  • The process is [problematic]. You don’t get to speak [because of the proliferation of speakers’ lists]—we get bogged down to a comical extent. Outsiders would look at us like we’re a bunch of clowns. . . . I do wish people would shut up once in a while—be briefer. It may not be good for the process, how [certain Senators] behave. The dominant males should back off—as long as the essential position gets enunciated.

Several Senators expressed regret and unhappiness regarding relations between Senators and the Administration, with particular concerns regarding tone and attitude adopted by Senators on various occasions:

  • I also think the senate is sometimes rude and inappropriate toward the Administration. One good moment was when I did speak up and challenge some rude wording (“demand” changed to “request”) in a resolution, and I got supported—that felt good. . . . We start with anger, and I wish we started with collaboration.
  • I don’t blame the Administration [for dismissing us and our concerns]. They just get attacked. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I don’t have enough knowledge [to understand how this kind of attacking rhetoric is useful].
  • But you have to keep reaching out. Some Administrators keep doing so. [One particular Administrator] tries to do good job. He bends over backward. I don’t think people should be bloodied.
  • When people get attacked they get defensive and this creates stressful situations. You can’t think clearly - it’s not a good atmosphere.
  • I think it’s frustrating that we don’t just ask the Administration: “Bernie, can we do it this way?” Does no one know that we can just ask? This is my major frustration: I’d like to get things done more efficiently.
  • [Is the Senate “toothless”?] In some ways it is... not always. Depends on the issue. Part of the problem has been communication problems—historical bad relations [haven’t helped]. I’m not sure if the President has any interest in hearing what we say. [While I’m a little more optimistic than some], we have been inappropriate.
  • And some resolutions get passed and [the President] doesn’t see them. “It never came across my desk,” he says. He sees it in the news. This [failure to inform the President] will put up more walls.
  • The way some people address the Administration—the tone, the way they phrase things—doesn’t help at all. . Could someone develop rules for talking? As in “We should treat each other with honesty. respect, and civility.” Perhaps there could be better management from the chair - but it’s tough to be the chair - you’re in for a year, then you’re out. [Should the Chair have a two-year term?]

A notable dissenter valued the style of debate in the Senate:

  • I enjoy listening to [one particularly vocal senior colleague]—love the old time union talk.

However, the majority of interviewees expressed negative feelings toward “inappropriate” tones, attitudes, and language expressed by Senators toward the Administration. This finding is the closest thing to a consensus position discovered during the study.

4. Senators were able to suggest some ideas for improvements.

I asked most Senators some variation on the question. “do you have suggestions for ways to improve Senators’ preparation or the Senate process?” Several ideas were expressed, which I’ll simply list:

  • Silent, anonymous voting. (One Senator said, “[we should institute] anonymous voting. [As things are,] people raise their hands, and everyone looks around [to see how everybody voted].)
  • Informational meetings with the Chair of the Faculty—before Senators begin their terms of office (“Perhaps have a half-hour meeting on “What is the Senate” or “How Does the Senate Work?”), before Senate meetings themselves, or on various other occasions.
  • Pass legislation which makes the Senate floor a “safe speech zone” like the US Senate.
  • Develop junior and senior caucuses.
  • Develop a junior-Senator listserv.

5. Senators do enjoy serving on the Senate.

Finally, let it be said that several interviewees described experiencing enjoyment or other benefits by virtue of serving on the Senate:

  • The Senate is one of the favorite parts of my work here—it’s good to get out of the department, good to see how the whole system operates—you don’t get this when you’re just focused on your work.
  • Overall I try to just think of the GOOD personalities [and seek mentorship from them].
  • I feel that the campus has an excellent atmosphere in terms of openness and collegiality and so forth.

Conclusions

To address the instigating issues first: I think [the senior faculty member’s] concern is real and offered in a spirit of sincere concern for the health of work relations at Sonoma State. I also think his concerns are well-founded, but only somewhat. Some peer pressure coercion and silencing does occur on the Senate floor; but not nearly as much (I think) as [the senior faculty member] fears. It’s likely, I think, that [his] concern is somewhat more well-founded than the overt findings of this study suggest. In answering questions, Senators seemed to me to be more guarded than completely transparent. Different specific questions and different circumstances for the interviews would probably, I believe, have revealed more peer-pressure coercion than my interviewees were willing to admit to - but only somewhat more of it.

Junior Senators do remain silent, and admit to doing so, frequently on the Senate floor. Sometimes they do so because a topic or opinion feels politically dangerous to raise; more often they do so out of deference to more experienced colleagues. They feel this deference is appropriate, at least to some degree.

That said, junior Senators do, on balance, long for better relations with Administration.

I’m not sure how to summarize all of this, but it may help to articulate my own feelings and experiences briefly (I suspect that my feelings and experiences are fairly common). We arrive at SSU and onto the Senate and observe the proceedings, and so much here seems so wonderful. We feel supported, empowered, and valued most of the time. However, we also feel puzzled and vaguely dissatisfied to find ourselves sometimes in the middle of what feels like a war zone. We didn’t start the war, but we have a vague sense that we ought to support “our side”- it’s our duty to do so. However, we have little knowledge or history to tell us whether this is a just or an unjust war. We wonder if the war is real or imaginary (the product of a collective paranoia), whether it’s time to call a truce, whether there is anything we can do to effect healing, or whether we ought to enlist and fight it out alongside our colleagues. And we’re frequently disheartened to see “our side” using the arts of rhetoric in ways we find ineffective, distasteful, self-damaging, and/or unethical. On these occasions we feel alienated from our own side— but that doesn’t necessarily mean we feel more solidarity with the “other side.” And ultimately, of course, we all wish to be on the same side with the Administration, and deep down we know that regarding most matters we are on the same side.

But let me reiterate: my observations suggest to me (at any rate) that the situation with junior Senators is not anything like as unfortunate as [the senior faculty member] fears. I invite you to use this report any way you see fit so long as you use your best judgment to ensure the anonymity of interviewees. I did my best to maintain that anonymity in this report, but if any quotations or paraphrases seem to you to come from particular obvious sources, I would ask you not to use or relay those. And please let me know how I can be of further assistance.

Regards,

Scott Miller
Director, SSU Writing Center

Footnote

  1. Since the person who expressed his concerns has not conveyed to me his permission to use his name. I refrain from identifying this person in this report