Saturday, May 07, 2005

my career as a senator

[Note: The meeting discussed in this post was on Monday; I wrote this post earlier this week but am just now posting it.]

In addition to whatever other hats I wear around the University--such as being my department's chief Fashion Don't--I am also a member of the Faculty Senate. My department has a tradition of electing recent arrivals as its senators: the stated principle being that it's a "good way for new people to learn how the university works", which I've suspected is mathematically equivalent to "the rest of us are not doing it again."

I'm enthusiastic enough about University Service, but my experience in faculty senate meetings has varied from finding them mostly boring to regarding them as the single most systematic waste of time inflicted on me during my time at Madison. Yesterday was the last meeting of the year, and I was looking forward to skipping it, but then it turned out that I needed to read a memorial resolution for a deceased emeritus sociologist and so not only did I have to attend, but I had to sit in the front row through the whole thing.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison prides itself on its "shared governance." In faculty senate meetings, you will hear the principle of "shared governance" extolled every ten minutes or so; it would be one of the squares you'd be sure to get out of the way early if it was on your Faculty Senate Bingo board. We are also regularly reminded about how, as faculty senators, we are the crucial cogs in the shared governance machine.

In terms of how things actually work, a big part of what shared governance means is that almost all of the real work gets done in small committees who interact with the faculty senate through reports. This indeed does seem an effective way of accomplishing things, and I can imagine where serving on these committees could be interesting and rewarding. Sitting in an auditorium hearing reports from those committees is many times informative but doesn't exactly make oneself feel a part of "governance," if you know what I mean.

The other part of what shared governance means is the discussion and debate portions of the faculty senate meetings, which is mostly comprised of the same four or five old guys talking to one another. Seriously, there are something like 150 senators, and, over the course of this year, I would estimate that at least 75% of the discussion and questions from the floor have been by five guys (yes, all guys: by my count, women have stepped to the microphones for discussion three times total in the eight meetings this year--generally speaking, faculty senate meetings are the most massive manversation I have ever witnessed).

Yesterday, one of the frequent contributors sat in the seat nearest one of the microphones and literally raised his hand to offer an observation for each and every new point of business that was raised. Personally, I just can't ever imagine having the sense of self-importance required to monopolize a forum like that.

(This particular senator, it should be said, generally does have opinions I agree with. In contrast, there are a couple others who, when they speak, I cannot believe the pampered sense of elitest entitlement that comes out of their mouths. I mean, we can complain about the unfriendly Board of Regents and state legislature, but sometimes I can't help but feel if the citizenry of Wisconsin got to hear what some faculty members feel faculty "rights" are and what is owed to us, they would be even more supportive of giving us a hostile budgetary comeuppance. Perhaps the part of being a professor that I like least is that part where you are expected to presume yourself to be more worthwhile than other people in lesser jobs. That, and the part where are you are supposed to think you are more worthwhile than other people while simultaneously lamenting why the rest of the world can't be As Good A Liberal as you are.)

In any case, the strongest preoccupation of the Faculty Senate has been how to protest the way the Board of Regents handled the dismissal of a tenured faculty member (named Marder) at UW-Superior. The dismissal happened in 2001, and this dispute has been going on ever since. It is said to mark the beginning of a slippery slope that will eventually compromise tenure and academic freedom for the entire UW system, although, as far as slippery slopes go, if you go five years without any further episodes of slippage, it doesn't seem to this bumpkin like the ground you are standing on could be all that slick.

In any case, so far as I can tell, the Board of Regents did handle the case badly, although part of what has the faculty senate up in arms is that the state is supposed to recognize the special right to extrasecure tenure that faculty have over other kinds of state employees whose positions also involve "tenure." A reference to how tenure for us is not the same as the kind of tenure that state government offers to "custodial staff" was made in one discussion. Sure, I am onboard with this argument when it pertains to actual academic freedom, but--sacrilegious as this might sound--when the idea seems also to be that faculty are also supposed to have special rights with regard to, say, a series of charges of gross (in various senses) sexual misconduct, etc., etc., I get less enthusiastic about the idea of rallying around professorial privilege.

Yesterday's meeting featured two separate motions about the Marder case. One was a straightforward and seemingly reasonable motion that passed unanimously after brief discussion. The other was this proposal by this elderly professor in the math department who wanted to faculty senate to make some kind of wideranging condemnation of the Board of Regents and the last two Wisconsin state attorneys general. His motion was last on the agenda, and by the time we got to it, it was already a few minutes after 5 (the meeting is supposed/hoped to be over by 5). Rather than just quickly get his motion open for discussion, he insisted on giving a long, rambling speech on behalf of his motion, which was following by him providing a long, rambling response to a question from one of the other four guys who speak. So that by the time there was any possibility of real discussion from the floor, it was already 5:30 and all kinds of people had left. Which meant that then, of course, somebody raised the question of whether we still had a quorum, and they counted and we were way short. The meeting was thus immediately adjourned, and the math guy will have to introduce his motion next year, which I am sure he will.

But, alas, I'll be in Cambridge. The department has already figured out which assistant professor will fill out my term. My response to him when he accepted the job was: sucker.


DS said...

Great post. But a "massive manversation"? I attended those things for a couple of years, and while I think your gender statistics are quite on the mark, your choice of words creates the impression of more of a testosterone buzz than I felt was there.

How about "lengthy whine-versation" or "long-bearded drone-versation"?

Anonymous said...

What makes it a manversation is the staggering sense of self-importance that accompanies every comment.

Anonymous said...

As a 25-year veteran of the UW-Madison faculty, there are three regular events I have managed to avoid ever attending: football games, basketball games, and faculty senate meetings. if a gun was pointed at my head, i would probably allow myself to be forced to the football and basketball games, but would resist the senate meetings to the death.

"Sucker" is exactly the right term for the junior prof coerced into representing each departmental "senate district."

Shared governance at Madison is real, and sadly, relatively rare in academia, but faculty power here is largely limited to appointment, promotion, curricular and minor budget matters. Jeremy is correct that most policy work in done in small committees, which are elected bodies, rather than the senate. He should be thankful that, after many years, the senate has figured out how to finesse that math prof so that his item comes up after a quorum has been lost. If Jeremy had ever been trapped next to said prof at a dinner party or a long flight, the senate meeting would seem a brief and pleasant interlude.

jeremy said...

There is a 25-year veteran of the UW faculty who reads my blog? No way!

Anonymous said...


Old fart academics can use the Web for work-avoidance just as effectively as you younger farts. I'm the guy on the Terrace at noontime chatting with my cronies and eating a brat. You'll know me by my "Draft Feingold for President 2008" button.