“On the Value of an Independent Faculty Senate” by Leslie Bary

Today, I want to share with you a powerful piece on a very troubling developing in academia. Leslie Bary’s “On the Value of an Independent Faculty Senate” demonstrates that academic activism is not dead.

Bary begins her article with an observation that I find absolutely crucial for the understanding of how the academic world gets manipulated into sacrificing true teaching and scholarship for the benefit of turning universities into useless diploma mills:

The defense of face-to-face teaching is reinterpreted as a lack of care for students “shut out” of traditional courses. The sharing of original insights based on current research is the dull practice of “writing one’s own lectures” or “one-way delivery of content,” while the use of class time to administer a commercial educational product is “student centered” and modern.

Academics who are not prepared to withstand this barrage of verbiage that sounds so progressive and appealing end up ceding ground to the administrators who want us to sell goods to students instead of educating them.

The same pernicious practice of using pretty verbiage that will soften most academics’ hearts is now being used to demolish one of the few remaining bastions of scholarly power on campus: the faculty senate. Administrators slowly creep up on the institutions of faculty self-government and erode the power of academics to decide how universities are run:

In the 20122013 academic year I had occasion to observe the use of similarly soft language in an attempt to revise and “update” the Constitution of a Faculty Senate. The proposed changes were presented not as amendments but as “edits,” although some were more substantial. There was also discussion of possible future changes to “make the Senate a more effective body,” as one administrator put the issue.

This is a phenomenon that is not limited to Bary’s university. Encroachments on the faculty governance are happening everywhere. Bary is calling our attention to the pattern of rhetoric that is now being commonly used to undermine higher education:

This rhetoric is not neutral and does not serve us well; we should not take it as our master. Its hallmarks include a call to revise or abandon allegedly outdated practices which in fact are either (a) straw men such as the deadly “one-way” lecture or (b) principles such as academic freedom, that are time-honored because they are valuable.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I agree with this. I’m sick and tired of seeing these straw-men being discussed to death by people who know nothing of pedagogy and academia.

An assault on the power of the faculty senate at Bary’s institution utilized all the right vocabulary:

To increase democracy and reduce patriarchy, it was suggested, Full Professors should stand for election and the ratio of less experienced faculty on Senate should be increased. At the same time the size of the Senate should be reduced, on the questionable or even specious premise that this would result in all members being engaged.

Of course, the intended goal of the change was not democracy. It was to fill the senate with faculty members who would be a lot easier for the administration to bully and silence than Full Professors. As Bary explains:

A small group of midlevel to contingent faculty may not always be as strong or as representative of informed faculty opinion as is a large group including as many as possible of the faculty most likely to be national figures.

Of course, the administration knows this and tries to manipulate faculty members into doing its bidding by using the rhetoric of inclusion, resistance to patriarchy, and democracy.

Leslie Bary’s article is not one of those pieces where we all scratch our heads, say “Yeah, it’s too bad,” and then forget all about it. This article is a call for action. We all need to do the following:

1. Read the article in full.

2. Make a list of institutions of self-governance that are still present at our schools.

3. Begin to pay a lot of attention to every communication from our colleagues and the administration that mentions them to see how these institutions are faring these days.

4. Make a list of activities each of us is willing to engage in to support and strengthen self-governance. Visiting the next meeting of Faculty Senate might be one such activity.

5. Get involved with AAUP.

People, remember, if we snooze on this one, we might find ourselves managed right out of having any university or college worthy of the name. Leslie Bary is a brave academic who has risked a lot to publish this piece. Let’s not let her act of bravery go to waste because of our inaction. If we don’t govern ourselves, we will be governed by others.

24 thoughts on ““On the Value of an Independent Faculty Senate” by Leslie Bary

  1. Thanks for posting this. What a wonderful and important article! Thanks also for posting the link to the AAUP. I have always heard of it but quite never realized what important work they accomplish. I will definitely join it now. This was a great post! 🙂


    1. This is juts one of the issue that AAUP is pursuing right now:

      “In the Summer of 2010, the administration of Southeastern Louisiana University announced the closure of its French program and the dismissal of three tenured faculty members, Margaret Marshall, Katherine Kolb and Evelyne Bornier, among the most highly regarded professors on campus. In violation of University guidelines and AAUP standards, the program closure was determined without consulting the faculty concerned. Nor did the program, in fact, close: French courses are still being taught; a French minor is still offered. In further violation of University policy and AAUP guidelines, these courses are being staffed by instructors, who, in cases of program closure are to be dismissed before tenured faculty.

      The SLU administration ignored wide-spread protest, rejected the unanimous findings of the SLU Faculty Grievance committee and the Faculty Senate’s urging the professors’ reinstatement, and sneered at the AAUP’s subsequent investigation and censure.

      The three professors have filed suit, a courageous action given that the legal and financial resources of the defendant far exceed their own. ”


      This is a horrible trend that has been slowly developing at a variety of places. And, for some reason, it is always French that gets cut in this way. Tenured scholars!!! Thrown out!!! This is beyond wrong.


  2. “Tenured scholars!!! Thrown out!!! This is beyond wrong.”
    So wrong and horrifying.

    “And, for some reason, it is always French that gets cut in this way”.
    Yes. Before French it was German and German is now almost non existent at smaller schools. Spanish is still good for now because it is regarded as “practical” while French is regarded as “unnecessary” and “snooty.” It’s so sad and anti-intellectual.

    In my heart, I actually believe something you posted a while back–that there is no true “crisis” in the humanities. But when I hear of vicious administrators like these, I do get scared for higher education.


    1. Yes — there isn’t a “crisis” in the way the Harvard people or Russell Berman think, but there is a crisis because of this kind of administrative-think and it is not just in the humanities, it is in social sciences and from what I can tell hard science as well any intellectual type discipline, anything that is not vo-tech or for-profit.


  3. I just looked up Leslie Barry. She is an Assistant Professor–which means she’s untenured. That makes the piece even more brave. Good for her!


        1. Now that I mentioned it, I’m not sure if it’s OK to give the link to the blog. Let’s wait for her to come over and decide, OK?

          I just want to be on the safe side and not reveal anything I shouldn’t revel.


      1. So tenure doesn’t mean Associate at your university? Am I understanding that correctly? I hope I’m misunderstanding!


  4. @EA you are understanding correctly. This is all part of the disempowerment, right? So you come up for promotion to Associate when at other institutions it is to Full, and then to make Full it’s yet another review. What they *tell* you is, they are very nice because you did not deserve tenure at all so that is why they did not promote you, but they are kindly granting tenure anyway. Most recent person to be tenured and not promoted that I know of has two books (if I am not mistaken it is two).


        1. This is also a way to undermine the institution of tenure by making it less meaningful and putting academics in the role of supplicants who should be content with anything that is thrown at them. This sounds like a practice that has every chance of becoming wide-spread.


          1. It already is widespread and it is to be resisted.

            I am of course not advocating for entitlement. I’ve got another friend or two whose attitudes toward the university I would not recommend (the mean library has recalled their book, the mean department is making them teach at times they would rather be at their running group, the mean business office lost paperwork and therefore “clearly” does not intend to issue reimbursement check to speaker, and so on) … I do not mean this kind of thing.


            1. People need to be able to go up for promotion at regular intervals. This isn’t entitlement, this is a set of very normal expectations. I know people who aren’t going up for Full professor because they know they don’t fulfill the criteria. But this is normal, they know what’s happening and there is no abuse.


      1. P.S. What it comes down to is, with all they do it is more or less impossible to respect them — they think they are making these big power moves and they may win, but even so they don’t look serious when they do these things, they look clueless and incompetent.


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