May 20, 2018

My year as Faculty Senate Chair: reflection and suggestions

Posted by Laura Guertin

My blog posts here at GeoEd Trek have been few and far between this past academic year (in my view – and I know I am my  harshest critic). No apologies, no excuses – it just happens to be one of the items that took a back seat as I was serving as my campus Faculty Senate Chair from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018.

Why did I run for this 3-year commitment (chair-elect, chair, past chair)? In my now 17 years at my campus, I have served on most of the faculty committees and chaired major committees and programs (honors, budget & strategic planning, civic engagement, etc.). I’ll never serve as a department chair, as the only geologist on my campus and not part of any four-year degree program. And the timing for this leadership role seemed right – I was promoted to full professor a few years ago, and the 2017-2018 year would be the 50th anniversary of my campus and the year we opened our first residence hall, going from a 100% commuter campus to a campus that would now have 250 students on campus 24/7. It was an exciting time of growth and transition, and a leadership opportunity I wanted to be a part of.

I wasn’t completely naive stepping into my role as Faculty Senate Chair, and I expected my research productivity to be reduced with the increased service load. But the impacts from serving as Senate Chair went far beyond my research.


What are the duties of a Faculty Senate Chair?

In searching online for information about the duties and expectations of a Senate Chair, I couldn’t locate much beyond the text of individual university Senate constitutions. I found two institutions that wrote press releases introducing their new Senate Chairs – University of Washington (2006) and Iowa State University (2014) – filled with hope and optimism as these faculty stepped into their leadership roles.

Certainly, the expectations and duties vary from institution to institution. For my situation (a campus in a multi-campus university system), I was elected to serve as the presiding officer of the campus Faculty Senate, as well as speak for the Faculty as a group in discussions with the Chancellor, other members of the administration, and representatives from other groups seeking faculty response. I was a voting member of the Budget and Strategic Planning Committee (which meant attending those meetings every two weeks) and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee (which met every month). I had one-on-one meetings with my Chancellor every other week and attended the Chancellor’s Council meetings. I responded to inquiries from Faculty Senate Chairs at other campuses in my university system. I worked with the Senate Secretary to set the agenda for our monthly Senate meetings, and I consulted with the Parliamentarian to carry out elections and votes on new programs according to Robert’s Rules.

The overall framework of my duties were clear, but the roadmap of where the year was headed, with specific issues and subjects to address, evolved as the year went along. I called additional sessions of faculty beyond our monthly meeting, opening some of them to the staff, on topics that ranged from unauthorized student technology use in the classroom (turns out our university policies are behind the technological advances, and students are unaware of the two-party recording laws that exist in Pennsylvania) to student retention data.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that it was both a delight and challenge working with colleagues across the campus. Although I had several faculty tell me how much they appreciated my communications and transparency of my actions, I also had faculty accuse me of holding back and hiding information from the Senate. I had faculty ask me to look in to certain issues of concern, and other faculty place demands and tell me what I should be doing. I had faculty that were quick to respond to inquiries and offered assistance if I needed it, while other faculty ignored my emails and never attended a Senate meeting the entire year (all of our faculty are members of our campus Senate, so our meetings are open to all full-time faculty).


Impacts no one is talking about

Was I able to address everyone’s concerns and fulfill my Senate Chair duties to my abilities? Under the circumstances, I would say I did what I could. I only had one course release for the entire academic year to do this service role (which means I had a 2-3 teaching load) – plus chair another campus committee, plus follow through on my research duties as a PI on a collaborative NSF grant and co-PI on a campus sustainability grant, plus complete my service at the national level with two organizations… and get the flu and a secondary infection, which caused me to pretty much miss the first three weeks of the spring semester (and as the only geologist on campus, no one could cover my classes).

Despite the two interviews and statements from incoming Faculty Senate Chairs I found online at the other institutions, this is what I really wish those statements revealed:

Your research time and attention will be significantly reduced

I think this is one impact that most faculty acknowledge coming in to this role. I was extremely fortunate that I was able to complete writing and revising to two book chapters during the year, so I have two chapters coming out in 2018. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to start anything new this past year, so there will be a publication break in my record (I am at an institution that wants to see one peer-reviewed publication a year).

I also went to fewer meetings and conferences, not wanting to spend too much time away from campus, as it was much easier to address all the “emergencies” while on campus. For example, I went to the OCEANDOTCOMM meeting in Chauvin, Louisiana, in March 2018 – one of the best decisions I made in my year as Senate Chair, keeping grounded in my discipline. But in the 1-1/2 hour van ride from the airport to LUMCON, instead of getting to know my fellow conference-mates, I spent the entire time glued to my cellphone, furiously emailing back-and-forth to faculty on campus to arrange a special consult/election for a university-level committee position that we just received notice to fill in a matter of days. The duties don’t go away when heading into the field.

You can’t serve everyone

I had to significantly cut back the number of undergraduate student researchers I mentored (down to one for the year), as I knew I would not have the time to be an effective mentor. I serve on the Board of Trustees at a local arboretum, and I wasn’t able to attend all of the meetings and comment on all reports. I am involved with national-level service, which is so important to me to keep connected with my discipline (again, a lone ranger at my campus). But I couldn’t keep up with all the service, and I’m now stepping down from serving in one of the organizations. It breaks my heart and is an incredibly hard decision for me, but I’m not doing anyone a service by not following through with the duties I agreed to perform. With the campus service right in front of me, all too often, the national-level service took a back seat and could never come to the top of the “to do” list.

Your teaching will be impacted

I did not see this one coming. I was teaching courses I had taught before. I was super-comfortable with my syllabus and confident facilitating all class activities. But keeping up with the student emails and grading, in addition to getting off to a horrible start in the spring semester with the flu, just made me extremely disappointed. Although my students still learned what was laid out in our overall course goals and secondary objectives, I knew I could do better, and this frustrated me not being as prepared as I wanted to be all semester. My geology courses are the first and last introduction to geology students will receive on my campus, which is why I place such an importance on teaching the content and skills relevant to the discipline. Which leads me to my next suggestion…

Negotiate for a reasonable number of course releases

One course release for all of the meetings and expectations of the Senate Chair duties, with no release in advising, was nowhere near an acceptable exchange of time/service. I’ve read that even a 50% reduction in teaching does not provide the time necessary to address the service requirements. See if you can negotiate with your campus – if you have graduate students, perhaps someone can be hired to take care of your grading, or teach your laboratory sections, etc. Don’t underestimate the value of your time and contributions, and be pro-active with your request.

Expect your health to take a hit

I’ve been in stressful situations. Although my work-life balance is not perfect, I have always felt that I was aware when the balance was off. But nothing prepared me for the quick, emotional reactions I would have to phone calls or emails sent by colleagues and administrators – on top of my own frustrations of not being able to put the time and attention in to my research and teaching. I thought the stress levels were just something I was struggling to handle, but then a former Faculty Senate Chair I know told me they were hospitalized twice during their term as Senate Chair, as their health was impacted. Yikes.

I honestly cared about my work as Senate Chair, not just doing the job to get it done. And the deadlines one has to adhere to as Senate Chair are much more rigid than self-imposed deadlines trying to get graded papers back to students, so it wasn’t always possible to walk away from the work at the end of a day and get that much-needed separation from the job. I wish someone had told me to schedule those mental and physical health breaks – I think I would have enjoyed my year as Senate Chair much more, as well as feel better about the accomplishments I was able to achieve.


Notes for future Senate Chairs

I found a few articles that offer overviews that may be helpful to incoming chairs – the AAUP Faculty Forum: Five Lessons I Learned as Faculty Senate Chair (Curtis, 2014), and for Senate Chairs at universities facing budget issues, the AAUP How to Make Faculty Senates More Effective (Sufka, 2009).

Clemson University (2014) interviewed their outgoing Senate Chair, who is quoted saying it was “the toughest job you will ever love.” His first piece of advice? “…find an organizational system that will allow you to deal with an enormous number of demands on your time and energy without letting anything important fall through the cracks. For me, just learning to manage the volume of email was a huge initial challenge.” Another reflection from a past Senate Chair exploring the theory and practice of academic governance is published in the Journal of Management Inquiry (2008, abstract free, article behind paywall).

There is an excellent summary in NEA’s Thought & Action titled Thankless But Vital: The Role of the Faculty Senate Chair (Hubbell, 2010). One point mentioned in Hubbell’s article I found particularly accurate: “As a faculty senate chair, I often had to confront lethargy. It was difficult to recruit faculty to our executive committee. It was difficult, at times, to hold a quorum at faculty senate meetings, to pass legislation. It was especially difficult to recruit faculty willing to run for faculty senate chair” (p. 150). University of Missouri in Kansas City addressed this lack of enthusiasm of running for office by putting every eligible faculty member’s name on ballots, requiring them to actively opt out before elections took place. This resulted in their Fall 2010 election winner to resign from his position as his first and only action as Senate Chair, since he thought he had opted out of the university’s electronic nomination and voting system (see Chronicle article As Your New Chairman, I Quit and commentary It’s Just Service, Dude).

Should you even admit you are a Faculty Senate Chair?

In my search for articles on this subject, I was very surprised to come across this discussion thread on The Chronicle of Higher Education Forums. A topic was started on January 25, 2012, titled For the Faculty Senate Presidents Among Us. The first post (I edited to keep it a “G” rating):

I am not one, never will be, don’t wanna be; but I am sure there are many here who contribute mightily in that role. My question arises from the fact that I was recently introduced, on-line, to one by a dear nonacademic friend who I respect and who is certain that we would have a great deal of shared interests and professional passions. With a little googling I discover this person makes quite a deal about this accomplishment (at a very small, non distinguished place, BTW)… Am I wrong in thinking that this person is ipso facto a d _ _ _? Am I wrong in thinking that touting Faculty Senate President all over the place is a little (web pages and CV PDF’s) is like touting having been Student Council President?

Additional responses were non-complimentary (and harsher) about people that acknowledged they served in the role of a Faculty Senate Chair. And I disagree with the statement that, “Putting it on a CV is neither better nor worse than putting any other administrative job on one’s CV.” One honest quote from a previous Senate Chair: “Being faculty senate president helped me learn how my college and the state cc system works–something I’m glad I did. I didn’t get into the position thinking I was going to wield great power or be able to demand deference from all the little peoples, so I wasn’t disappointed by the experience.”


My next steps

So what’s next? My research will continue, and I’m working with a few amazing faculty collaborators on campus developing some exciting pedagogical innovations for my courses. I hope to attend more conferences this year to reengage with friends and colleagues. The campus service does not end, as I continue to serve on the Faculty Executive Committee and mentor the new Faculty Senate Chair (who I am excited to work with). This leads me to my last piece of advice for current and future Senate Chairs…

Get together with past Senate Chairs at your institution

Soon, I’m going to schedule a meeting with the recent Senate Chairs and the incoming Senate Chair and Chair-Elect. Too often, we have discussed the logistics and schedule of the job, but there’s more to this than following the duties as outlined in our Senate Constitution. Now, as a soon-to-be past Chair, I am committed to having open conversations to overview what the service entails, as well as the “other” impacts of serving as a Faculty Senate Chair. The upcoming personal challenges are just as important to discuss as the professional challenges.

And now… back to blogging!