UAA Faculty Senate needs restraint

The Faculty Senate at UAA serves as a forum for faculty to discuss, vote and recommend policy to UAA leadership. In the best of cases, the senate can achieve effective representation by advising Chancellor Cathy Sandeen on problems facing the faculty. In the worst of cases, the senate clashes with leadership and overlaps on non-faculty issues. The senate must exercise caution in these latter cases. Its recommendations should primarily concern the welfare of faculty in the context of UAA. It should refrain from policies that resist necessary reform or transgress on similar representative entities like USUAA.

Section 2 of the senate’s constitution authorizes its purpose of providing consultative and advisory services to the chancellor on budgetary matters. There is nothing disagreeable with this as it stands. After all, faculty should be recognized as the integral bulk of what the university consists of and provides. How the budget is designed is absolutely pertinent to the welfare of the faculty.

However, the senate acts as a legislative body and is therefore democratic to an extent. Democracy tends to be uncooperative with budget reductions and structural reforms since it requires voting against your best personal interest. This problem has manifested in several clashes between the senate and the UAA executive leadership. The first incident involved the senate’s November 2016 resolution on Strategic Pathways, a university reform project that UA President Jim Johnsen supports. The reform would emphasize the comparative advantages in UAA, UAF and UAS and eliminate redundancies with the understanding that all three universities cannot financially provide everything to everyone. The senate’s resolution on this did not challenge the principle necessity of Strategic Pathways, but it did recommend the suspension of its implementation until the role of faculty is increased. The senate argued that faculty are not sufficiently included in the reform’s decision-making process. The resolution calls for a plurality of representation among faculty in programs under reform consideration.

Although faculty input is valuable in any reform, I think there is a strong case to be made for executive primacy here. This is not to say that executive leadership should mandate reforms without any consideration and accountability. It simply means that executive leadership is the strongest actor because it has the most flexibility to make tough decisions. Few faculty members will advocate for a reduction to their own program. It is likely that no faculty members will advocate for the elimination of their own program. So if executive primacy is not exercised, then the budget will never be balanced. If executive primacy is exercised, then the faculty feels wronged. The worst culmination of this problem can be found in the senate’s January 2017 vote of no confidence in President Johnsen.

To the senate’s credit, most of their budget-related resolutions include language recognizing Alaska’s difficult fiscal situations. I make no claim that UAA faculty are unobservant of that reality. However, the senate should be temperate when it comes to its role in reform or budgetary matters. It has a right to access information and influence decision-making, but it should always avoid obstructing the tough decisions that executive leadership needs to make.

The other issue that the senate should avoid is infringing on student affairs via curriculum changes. The mechanism in which the senate influences curricula is through resolutions in support or opposition to proposed changes. In October of 2017, the senate passed a resolution in support of the Alaska Native Themed GER Initiative. This initiative requires all students starting in the fall 2018 semester to complete three credits of an Alaskan Native-themed course in order to graduate with an Associate of Arts or Baccalaureate degree. The problem here is that the senate is advocating for a policy that would affect students more than faculty. It should be strictly the domain of USUAA, as the official representation for students, to advocate on matters overwhelmingly affecting students.

The University of Alaska has a clear structure that encourages localized power. Students influence USUAA, and vice versa. Faculty influence the senate, and vice versa. Executive leadership reserves the right to exercise its primacy in sensitive matters, such as reform. This is the best system for a functional university. The senate is welcome to communicate freely, but it should exercise restraint in its resolutions concerning non-faculty specific issues.

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