The University Record recently sat down with Neil Marsh, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, to discuss what central faculty governance will focus on this year, as well as its role in the university.
Marsh, professor of chemistry, LSA, and professor of biological chemistry, Medical School, will chair the central faculty governance system’s nine-member executive arm for the academic year, as well as the Senate Assembly — 74 elected faculty members from the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses — and the Faculty Senate, which includes all professorial faculty, librarians, full-time research faculty, executive officers and deans.
Q: What are some of the topics that SACUA will prioritize or address this school year?
A: Very top of the list from my perspective is better outreach to the faculty at large. By providing better information to the faculty so they are better informed about what faculty governance does, and I hope to elicit more participation in faculty governance. The average faculty member doesn’t hear very much from SACUA. I hope to change this by sending out regular e-mails to the Faculty Senate members. I also hope that I and other SACUA members will go out to give presentations on the importance of faculty governance at the departmental level.
Another important matter that I would like tackle is to reform some of the Senate and Senate Assembly rules, particularly the rules governing voting and attendance. Right now we are stuck in the 19th century: There’s no provision for voting electronically and there’s no provision for faculty to participate in meetings remotely. I’d like to bring some of our “nuts and bolts” processes into the 21st century.
We also aim to continue to develop relations between faculty governance on the three U-M campuses. Most of the time, the Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses function essentially as separate universities but all of the members of three campuses are equal members of the Faculty Senate. So, although Ann Arbor is much the largest campus, and most things focus on Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses also have some of their own particular issues and priorities that I hope we will address, rather than purely focusing on Ann Arbor.
Q: How do you view SACUA’s role in developing and guiding university policy?
A: The only real power the Faculty Senate has is to advise the administration. We play that role through SACUA, which primarily advises the president, and through the various other vice presidents’ committees. But this is definitely a two-way street. We will ask the president what issues he has on his mind and what would he like our advice on, and he will ask us what is concerning us.
The Senate Assembly committees act as an important sounding board for the Administration. It depends on the particular administrator and also the chair of the committee as to how effectively that process works, as to how receptive the administrator is to advice. Most of the administrators value the advice that they get from their faculty committees because those committees are populated with a diverse array of people from many different backgrounds. Therefore they get perspectives they wouldn’t normally get if they just consulted with their particular schools, colleges or areas of expertise. I think that most of the vice presidents say that their faculty advisory committees are actually very valuable to them.
Q: Do you think the role of SACUA as currently structured adequately serves faculty and the university?
A: I think it could better serve faculty. In particular, better lines of communication between the faculty at large and SACUA or the Senate office would ensure that SACUA more accurately reflects the views of the faculty. For example, if I hear the same thing from a number of faculty, then of course I will raise that issue with the president or the provost. And if I can tell the president that, “Hey, I got 50 e-mails about this,” then he’s likely to listen because it’s in his best interest to be responsive to the concerns of the faculty.
Q: How do you view SACUA’s relationship with the administration and the process of conveying the faculty’s voice to the decision of policymakers?
A: In general, we have a constructive relationship. I think opinions vary on this as to how adversarial one should be with the administration. My view is that you’re more likely to get things done if you can work constructively, especially when you only have an advisory voice. However, if the message doesn’t get through, then the one thing that we have is to take matters to Faculty Senate meetings and Senate Assembly meetings, where we can voice concerns more broadly and more publicly.
In general, I think most people recognize that in the broadest sense, the faculty and the administration are on the same side, although we might have differences of opinion about various issues. The university is a collective organization in which the faculty are more than just employees. They’re stakeholders within the university under the Regents’ Bylaws. I think that one of the problems is a lot of faculty don’t necessarily feel that. There’s an increasing sense, driven in part through regulatory creep, financial pressures and things like that, that the university is becoming more a place of employment than a place of scholarship.
Q: What direction do you think SACUA should move in for the future?
A: We need to continue to represent the faculty and the best interests of the faculty and the faculty voice. Some of the things I discussed earlier on are aimed at positioning us to be able to do that better. I think it is important that faculty feel they have a voice that’s being listened to and they do get some input into important decisions made by the university. That is very important for morale.