Panel addresses the future of faculty governance

At the Academic Council’s annual meeting, three former university leaders address the role of a faculty senate in a time of change.

Jonathan Jansen, Nannerl Keohane, Persis Drell, and Hans N. Weiler

One of three presenters, Hans N. Weiler, right, was joined by Jonathan Jansen, left, and Nannerl Keohane on the panel discussing faculty governance that was moderated by Provost Persis Drell. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

What is the role of a faculty senate in a time of shifting demographic, economic and political environments? Three prominent university leaders contend that it’s more than just setting academic policies – faculty governing bodies need to tackle large and difficult questions of higher education and society.

Identifying those challenges and how faculty senates might address them was explored at the symposium “Looking Forward at 50: The Future of Faculty Governance in Higher Education,” held on Thursday in Hauck Auditorium at the annual meeting of the Academic Council. The symposium was one of several activities organized in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Stanford’s Faculty Senate.

Presentations were given by Nannerl Keohane, visiting scholar at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford Faculty Senate chair emerita and former president of Wellesley College and Duke University; Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor in the faculty of education at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and former vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State in South Africa; and Hans N. Weiler, Stanford professor emeritus of education and of political science and academic secretary emeritus, and founder and former president of Viadrina European University.

The role of a faculty senate

Jansen observed that senates are traditionally tasked with the academic mandate of the university, including various routine functions, such as setting policies and reviewing degree-granting programs.

He argued that, in addition to these administrative responsibilities, faculty governing bodies should focus on bigger questions, which often emerge in times of crisis. He cited Stanford’s Faculty Senate, which was founded during the political upheaval of the 1960s, and more recent controversies at universities in South Africa and the United States.

“Why does it take a crisis to demand the attention of a senate to problems on the academic estate?” he asked.

Jansen suggested that the major focus of a senate’s agenda today should be on larger questions of the curriculum, the makeup of the professoriate, the diversity of the students, methods of teaching and the impact of learning on students.

“It matters enormously that senates ask questions about the curriculum – what belongs and what does not,” said Jansen.

He emphasized the importance of assessing teaching and learning outcomes. “An academic senate agenda should be concerned with the question whether what we teach matters in the lives of students. Powerful teaching is only evident in powerful learning,” he said.

Weiler said that higher education today is facing some extraordinary challenges and faculty senates should focus their efforts on addressing them. One example, he said, is a growing skepticism about the role and value of higher education.

“Universities have come into the cross-hairs of the culture wars that are tearing this country apart,” he said, adding that Stanford has the expertise and resources for a productive debate on this topic.

Keohane suggested that faculty governing bodies can and should play a significant role in defining and clarifying the basic purposes of higher education in ways that make sense to the general populace.

“What is a university for? What do we prepare our graduates to do? What counts as good research in various fields? Too often we take answers to such questions to be obvious, not something we need to worry about. But in today’s world, we cannot take the answers for granted,” said Keohane.

Areas of concern for higher education

The panel expressed concern about the international environment of higher education. According to Weiler, the current political climate has the potential to erode the many gains made in the strong system of international academic cooperation and exchange that developed in the last 50 years.

Persis Drell looks on as Nannerl Keohane, right, addresses the Academic Council meeting. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Keohane spoke about some of the effects of globalization – the rise of top universities outside of the United States and the increased competition for students and faculty in all fields today. She stressed the need for collaboration with other universities around the world to form partnerships that take advantage of the strengths of both parties.

Both Weiler and Keohane expressed concern about federal policies that make it difficult for international students and faculty to come to the United States.

“Concern about terrorism should not sanction policies that close our society to talented, eager students and academics from around the world,” Keohane said. “If we allow that to happen, we all lose out – our universities as well as our society, our economy and our polity.”

The panelists also addressed the issue of campus diversity. Keohane applauded Stanford’s progress in this area, including efforts to make the university accessible to more first-generation and low-income students. However, she cautioned that all universities should ensure that diversity on campus “goes deeper than statistics.” She emphasized that the issue is relevant to a broad range of activities: curricular development, setting research agendas, hiring faculty and advising students.

“Making diversity actually work for everyone will be an important agenda item for shared governance in the years ahead. This issue cannot be successfully addressed by any one set of leaders. It will require listening to new voices and re-envisioning what inclusion and belonging really mean,” said Keohane.

Despite the many challenges ahead, the panelists remained hopeful about the future of higher education and the importance and relevance of shared governance.

Jansen ended his presentation with a reflection on the Stanford senate’s 50th anniversary and the work that lies ahead. “The point of an anniversary is to take stock, to recognize achievements made and challenges ahead, but most of all to be alert to the danger of smugness and complacency,” he said.

Report on 50th Senate

Also at the Academic Council meeting, Elizabeth Hadly, professor of biology and chair of the Stanford Faculty Senate, gave a brief report on the senate’s deliberations this year.

“Our colleagues in the senate think about and deliberate about issues at the heart of our university – who we are, what we do and why we do what we do,” Hadly said.

Deliberating on and striving to improve academic life at Stanford is at the center of the senate’s work, Hadly said, adding, “Our senate is also concerned about and extremely interested in how Stanford is run, and how its future will be assured in the face of potential disasters, climate change, social unrest, changing demographics and economic uncertainties.”

In support of this dimension of the senate’s work, numerous administrative units of the university presented to the senate this year on their priorities, challenges and opportunities, she noted.

Hadly said the senate’s work this year included attention to the long-range planning process; new initiatives in undergraduate and graduate education; issues facing postdoctoral scholars; efforts to diversify student and faculty populations at Stanford; affirming the importance of the advising relationship between faculty and graduate students; and recognizing the longstanding relationship between Stanford and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, on whose traditional territory the university sits.