When to Dissolve a Faculty Senate

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 22, 2011

The State Board of Education in Idaho—the governing board of all institutions of public education in the state—recently suspended my institution's Faculty Senate and directed the university's president to return in two months with a proposal for a reconstituted senate. I'll spare you the details as to why that unusual action was deemed necessary, since it concerns local politics, but it is, nonetheless, an occasion to reflect on such actions in general.

When the senate suspension was first announced, several commentators—including one reporter for a national publication—called the state board's action unprecedented. But it wasn't. Over the years, university boards or administrations (and occasionally faculty senates themselves) have elected to dissolve their senates and reconstitute new governance systems in their place.

In 1997, for example, the Board of Trustees of Francis Marion University dissolved the Faculty Senate and revoked its bylaws, replacing it with a new faculty governance system. The board's action was based in part on an accreditation report by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges suggesting that in its incarnation at that time, the senate "tended to create an adversarial relationship between the faculty and administration, and between the faculty and the Board of Trustees."

Eight years later, the president of Texas A&M University at Kingsville suspended its Faculty Senate and created a new structure for faculty governance, accusing the senate of not cooperating with changes that were necessary to improve the university. In particular, the senate had opposed the president's efforts to increase the rigor of the institution's tenure-and-promotion process.

More recently, in 2007, the governing board of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suspended the Faculty Senate after its leaders rejected the board's demand that they amend the senate constitution to exclude non-tenure-track faculty members from its membership. The administration then created an interim faculty governance structure. The provost cited concerns about senate interference in an ongoing review of faculty governance as one reason for suspending the senate.

In some cases, governing boards have taken measures just short of outright suspension. In 2003, trustees at the University of Akron stripped the Faculty Senate of a number of key powers, such as having a say in the selection of deans, department chairs, and senior administrators. The board, responding to a faculty vote to unionize, also disbanded the senate's planning and budget committee and amended the rules governing financial crises. The trustees felt that those powers should be negotiated along with other issues on the bargaining table.

So the suspension of a faculty senate is not unheard of, but the reasons for it vary widely. At Francis Marion, it was an adversarial relationship between the faculty and administration. At Kingsville, it was opposition to change. At Rensselaer, it was the senate's rejection of a board directive. At Miami-Dade Community College, which disbanded its system of Faculty Senates in 1998, it was because the faculty voted to unionize. In a 2001 dispute at American University, it was an effort to provide a more "flexible, consultative, and efficient system of decision making."

One theme that recurs repeatedly in these disputes is the sense that faculty senates are working in opposition to the administration.

Take the University of the District of Columbia, for example. In 1992, trustees there dissolved the Faculty Senate, a 60-member body that was said to be obstructive, quarrelsome, and largely responsible for the university's "inadequate progress toward fulfilling its great potential." The university's president had criticized the senate leadership for attempting to interfere in administrative policy making and for being too closely aligned with the faculty labor union. Before the dissolution of the senate, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools had described it as adversarial rather than collegial.

Years later, in 2008, another president of the university again disbanded the senate and replaced it with an interim academic senate of department-elected faculty members. He cited the earlier senate's failure to carry out its responsibilities as part of the university's overall system of governance. Each side would, no doubt, offer a different explanation of what went wrong, but clearly, a pattern of contentious relations dominated the relationship between the senate and the administration.

Another common allegation in these disputes is that a senate has impeded progress on the campus, either because of a bloated committee structure or because of intentional delays of proposals it finds distasteful.

Of course, not all changes in governance occur because of adversarial politics. Most institutions change their governance systems in more amicable, collegial circumstances. Typically, that takes one of two forms. Sometimes, separate advisory groups unite to form a new governing body, often called a University Senate or an Academic Senate. At other times, the constituent groups within a single senate elect to dissolve and form separate governance groups (such as a staff council, a student senate, and a faculty senate).

Wichita State University, for example, dissolved its University Senate in 1993 and created four separate senates—one each for faculty members , students, classified staff members, and non-classified staff members. In 2000, the trustees of the College of New Jersey instituted a new governance system that included separate bodies for faculty members, staff, and students, but within a single integrated committee structure designed to allow people to make recommendations in their principal areas of responsibility. According to an internal document, the college's previous system was "complex, overly formal, and marginalized some campus stake-holder groups."

In a unique twist on the theme, the University of Notre Dame's Faculty Senate voted in 2001 to dissolve itself, contending that the senate had no real power or influence over university decision making. The senators were frustrated with the advisory-only role. The senate later reversed its vote.

Clearly, over the years universities have dissolved and reconstituted their governance structures for a variety of reasons and circumstances. But in all of those cases, one or more of the participants cited the need for an improved governance system—one that was more efficient, more cooperative, more representative, more responsive, or more capable of accommodating change.

The most efficient, productive, and collegial model that I have experienced is one in which the senate chair and the chief academic officer jointly set the agenda for each senate meeting. They work collaboratively to conduct the meetings and deliberate on proposed policies and procedures.

Perhaps American University can serve as a good example for institutions seeking to embrace the values that enhance shared governance while operating in an efficient manner.

In 2001, the president replaced a universitywide senate with a smaller faculty senate that would focus on academic and faculty issues and provide advice on potential administrative decisions. According to the university's self-study prepared for the Middle States Association Commission on Higher Education, the new governance structure was built on four principles: that a governance system should be democratic and inclusive; that faculty time is valuable; that decisions should be made on the local level whenever possible; and that duplication of efforts and functions should be avoided.

It seems to me that American University has got it right. To be effective and legitimate, faculty governance must be both inclusive and democratic. To be efficient, it must be streamlined to avoid squandering faculty time and effort, and it should not duplicate or trump the efforts of faculty governance bodies on the local level.

More than any other factor, the key to establishing an efficient, productive governance body is mutual trust and understanding. All sides must understand that they are partners in helping to move the institution forward, not adversaries. It is when the parties lose sight of that key dynamic that the relationship can go very wrong.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor with John Presley of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives from America's Academic Leaders," newly released in paperback (Paradigm). He can be contacted at