Saturday, May 2, 2015

Lessons from the Faculty Senate

I became Chair of the Faculty Senate September 9 2014 just by sitting at the first meeting of the term. I didn't run, someone nominated me, I wasn’t asked if I accepted the nomination, I abstained when voting, but here I am anyway.  It has been an interesting year; this is the most diverse group I’ve worked with, and it had a pretty good structure as described in the Constitution, but in practice it was shambles.

The Senate consists of 22 people from all colleges and the library and a few others. The President is a non voting member and attends every meeting.  It must be an uncomfortable seat for her, as someone recently pointed out, because it can be a fiery group, she constantly takes heat, and there's constant pressure to remove her; some members claim other members are intimidated, and that's just hard to verify.  But at one point this year we took a ballot vote that would probably have removed her -- and it failed, so apparently it's not such a problem.  It seems obvious to me that the Senate benefits from having the President there.  After all, all we do is advise her.

When I take on a big job I often try to get my bearings with a simple principle or two.  This is what I arrived at.  1) enforce rules that exist.  For this, I read the Contract carefully, and the Bylaws, and I rely on Robert’s Rules, which are designed exactly for fairness and efficiency 2) repeatedly encourage the Senate to consider that respectful dialogue, openness, and compromise might lead to more gains for faculty than adversity would do.

Not everyone was on board with these notions.  Firstly, Robert’s Rules is foreign -- they're called for in bylaws, but not really used much, as far as I can tell.  We generally prefer free-for-all discussions, intimidation, dominating chairs and sometimes dominating members, meetings that are purely informative, micromanagement, or nearly endless argument followed by unilateral decisions – or no decisions at all.  Secondly, the Senate has had a longstanding reputation; when I'd asked my first department chair if I should run for Senate in 1990 the word "snakepit" came up.   I didn't run.

I've found the senators to be a wonderfully diverse bunch, with different attitudes and opinions, just as you would hope.  Some are angry, some are quiet, some more thoughtful, others are eagerly vocal, many are opinionated, some are suspicious, and everyone is smart.  Most of them show up for meetings, which we doubled to twice a month.  There’s a little bullying that goes on now and then, but not bad -- no fistfights yet.  This mix makes for some pretty good disagreements.  Bob advises (Robert's Rules and I are on first name basis by now), that the chair should  facilitate discussion and not jump into it; I've found that this takes personal vigilance.  When necessary, Bob says, I can pass leadership to the vice chair which allows me to express myself as fully and as forcefully as I choose. The first few times I tried this, the vice chair objected -- so I’ve been a little lenient on myself since, and speak to a motion, a little, now and then.

So how did we start.  Early on, we disbanded the subcommittees that weren't active (all of them).  We all came up with seven most-salient issues, formed committees around them and the committees went to work.  After a few misfires -- like the day we passed a motion unanimously, then immediately passed another unanimously to reverse it -- we arrived at a pretty good system.  Committees form clear motions and vote on them.  These motions are presented to the Senate along with any dissenting opinion from committee.  The Senate then owns the motion and can fix it, table it, postpone it, kill it, replace it, send it back to committee -- and, if it comes this far, vote on it.  All the little rules necessary for this are followed, in order to make sure it’s not railroaded through.  That structure has worked Ok . After the year, we've done this:

  •   Established secure shared space, online, for document sharing and collaboration by Senators, and listservs for every subcommittee
  •   Called a top administrator to the floor to explain a non-standard hire -- we got some concessions
  •  Fixed many policies which were ready to be carved into stone, returned a few for full rewrites
  •  Repaired some bylaws of a new group so it fit in well to overall governance structure
  •  Scoured through the Faculty Constitution, heavy editing, and highlighted some major proposed changes for special consideration
  • ... after deliberation, sent a referendum to all tenure track faculty members to consider allowing non-tenure track faculty to vote campus-wide and in departments that choose to allow it
  • Prepared major bylaws revisions
  • Planned a retreat in the Fall to improve Senate communication
  • Developed a secure method to conducts voting and referendums on line, and got the Assembly (tenure track faculty) approval to use it
  •  Asked for and received a forum in which vice presidents explained some sticky budgeting issues
  • Formally reconsidered the role of the President on the Senate (status unchanged)
  • Revised and implemented an evaluation tool for six top administrators, and distributed the results in a carefully limited way

Then one day, at the penultimate meeting of the year, with an agenda already packed with time-sensitive issues, the galley unusually crowded with union members, a sponsoring senator brought to the floor an anonymous note proposing a no-confidence vote for the President and Provost.  This, of course, is a big deal.  It's quite unusual for a University to actually conduct such a vote, which can be a signal of great discontent. 

Now, our bylaws are not crystal yet, but they seem to allow new agenda items with a majority vote – and we’ve done it before.  This item was approved for including on the agenda.  When it came up a half hour later there was brief discussion, a call for a paper ballot, and after maybe 5 more minutes of discussion someone called the question (previous question would be the formal term), 2/3 wanted to vote and it passed.  A No Confidence vote for both president and provost is now going out to the Faculty Assembly, just like that.

I dutifully went back to my office and followed through with Senate decisions of the day: a note to the president asking for a forum on the budget, two referenda on non-tenure faculty role and these two No Confidence Votes.  Because of the new, electronic, voting system the link was in every Assembly member's inbox by the end of the day.

But then I started thinking how quickly that went, and how diametrically opposed to my own position encouraging cooperation this was, and how I didn't join the discussion by stepping down as chair,  how we hadn't discussed the ramifications to the university jusst as things ewere turning sour downstate.  Maybe other senators might be having the same misgivings. Such a vote threatened to undo all the work toward collaboration -- shared governance -- we had accomplished over the year -- and I had been under the impression Senators were on board with this optimistic path we'd been on.

Of course my opinion doesn’t matter anymore than any other voting Senator’s, but then I've been busy facilitating the meeting and as chair and I hadn't shared my own concerns fully. Might others feel, in retrospect, that that motion had gone through a little too quickly? After all, what is the purpose of the vote? What's the hurry? Who is the intended audience?  Might a no vote affect state appropriations, enrollment or alumni donations?  All these things, after all, impact the budget, 95% of which is personnel -- and most of that is faculty. Also, what would we hope to learn that we didn’t just learn from the last administrative survey that just went out (its last question was "has this person been doing a good job").  And might it lessen the value of an NEIU  degree, for alumni?  

So with the expectation that we might want to think about this a little more carefully, and the knowledge that the motion did not specify a time frame for the vote, and the fact that there was no urgency on the matter, and Robert'Smith Rules allowing a body to reconsider a motion already made, I took the bold move and hit the pause button on the ballot tool I had just activated.  I explained my reasoning in a note to the Senate, and in another to the Assembly. This was not a Stop button, mind you, just pause -- until the Senate met again.

And then the mail came rolling in. Some of it was thankful: 
  • “I’m glad you finally came to your senses about this,”  
  • “I’m behind you 100%” 
  •  I want to commend you for your way of handling this.”  
  • “Good for you!! You have to stand up for the the fair process.”  
  • Decisions have to be made rationally. I support a truly fair and collaborative process. I'm behind you 100%.”

But most and the loudest and the ones with the long cc’ lists were more like this
  • "I’m going to do everything I can to marshall opposition to you."
  • "I've read your statement, and I still condemn you. This action is totally indefensible."
  • "Erick Howenstine's unilateral suspension of the confidence/no-confidence vote for the university president and provost is unacceptable."
  • "You are not the Faculty Senate; you can't make decisions for the senate as if you were a monarch."
  • "The honorable action at this point would be to resign as Chair of the senate."
  • "Frankly, this action calls into question your entire decision-making process. As far as I'm concerned you are not fit for a leadership position of any sort at NEIU."
  • "What were you thinking?!!"
  • "Your action is an egregious abuse of your position. …It is utterly shameful."
  • "It is outrageous that the Senate has been hijacked by the chair like this."
  • "There is no precedent or rule to justify the contempt you have shown"
[I found out later that the Union President had alerted all the members that 
I had "unilaterally withdrawn" the vote]

I have to be honest, my feelings were a bit hurt; I felt as though Id been struck by lightning while dutifully pushing a wheel barrow of bricks up the hill --  or had I been beaten up by thugs in an alley.  The latter seems more like it; it was personal.  And eventually, through the day of phone calls and name calling, I took a long view of the dialogue.  I checked especially to see how Senators had responded; I knew we’d need a majority vote to reconsider (Robert's Rules would not let me independently put this back on the table), and it seemed we were very unlikely to get it.  No, the court of public opinion was pretty loud and clear on this one, so I hit the Play button on the survey, and the counter started ticking again. Another no confidence vote in a time of fiscal crisis.  Maybe I am being too dramatic, but the image of a suicide bomber comes to mind.

In the aftermath I learned a few new things about people.  In a situation like this it is easy to parse out the emails to see what the opinions was – "wait" or "don’t wait."  But some people are willing to put themselves way out there with allegations like this one:

Erick committed a grave violation of Faculty Senate procedures in a number of ways (e.g., not following Robert's Rules of Order, violating the NEIU Faculty Constitution, etc.).”  

I asked this person, "what did I violate," “where?”  Of course I knew in advance that the move would be unpopular among some people, I knew my action was against the spirit of the motion, that is, the spirit as defined by those same people.  But I know Robert's, and I know the Constitution.  If I did violate one of these, or bylaws, I'd like to know so I don’t do it again.  Yet I could find nothing.  And I only got the non-response: “no, YOU tell ME where it says you CAN!”  That doesn't help me, sorry.  I know other people too who go around pretending to be lawyers, threatening lawsuits.

I'm fine with people disagreeing, that's actually very helpful.  I'm even able to register the disagreement when it's embedded in personal attacks.  And then there are the personal attacks themselves;  now a little slap or punch is excusable -- after all in the heat of things people get a little testy, and there was that misinformation that had been circulated.  But vitriol is a different matter, and I noticed when bullies have bully-buddy alliances they can ricochet messages between themselves to look like a whole crowd of people; of course they have to copy the world to give that illusion, and sound furious enough that no one who disagrees with them would dare respond.  But, that doesn’t mean that their actual opinions are of any more value, or should carry more weight, than any other person.  Little bullies.

The vicious, public, personal attacks directed at me did hurt at first, but less so when I thought about how easy they are to write and what kind of person you’d have to be to do that.  I even received a letterbomb or two afterward -- after I’d resumed the apparently ill-considered ballot and even had apologized to everyone.  Then comes the guy who will come in for a last stomp after the fight.  Might as well just write “Hi, I’m a Dick. Signed, ____” because that’s the way I read it. 

So now there will be a No Confidence Vote at my university, for the President and Provost.  Well, I tried to get us all to pause and consider the consequences, but no, we didn't seem to want to.  It certainly reflects real frustration on campus, no doubt about that.  I have to think bullying also may play a role. And a lack of familiarity with good process. Lack of decency  Maybe disinterest.   

So, as the vote goes forward, I feel as though something hadn't been said at the right moment: "shouldn't we wait a bit?"  Over the year, Robert's Rules has been very helpful and fair, so I looked at the rule book again because something about this didn't seem thoughtful and fair.  No, I was reminded, the chair can step down to have normal speaking privileges if he/she passes the chairmanship to the VC until the motion is dealt with.  I could have suggested we discuss it more, and postpone the vote. If I'd just done that I'd feel a lot more comfortable, regardless of the outcome.  

POSTSCRIPT: The discussion at the subsequent meeting was very interesting, because some members wanted me impeached but instead, we crafted -- together -- a motion like this: "The results of the No Confidence vote and (previous) administrator evaluation be used primarily internally, to highlight longstanding faculty concerns, in a series of university-wide forums."  

... passed almost unanimously.  I think that'll be a nice outcome after all. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Sounds like an episode of Survivor. Perhaps a workshop of Non Violent Communication (NVC) is needed.


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