Faculty senate should not exist if it fails to meet faculty needs | The Triangle

Faculty senate should not exist if it fails to meet faculty needs

At the Drexel University assembly meeting May 27, which unfortunately I was not able to attend, the faculty senate will pat itself on the back for a job well done as usual in representing the interests of the Drexel administration at the expense of the faculty. It will also take note of new charter language affirming the principle of faculty governance, thereby pinning a medal on a corpse.

Let’s sum up the recent achievements of the senate.

Upon retirement, Drexel faculty typically received a lump sum payment of a year’s salary, which went at least a little way toward compensating them for what the University administration now admits was an inadequate retirement program. I say “typically,” because there was no settled retirement policy or benefit, a circumstance that forced each faculty member into an individual negotiating position without any formal rules or institutionally recognized rights. That, of course, is precisely the situation employers prefer to have their workers in. Very few universities don’t have at least some kind of retirement policy. We are proudly on that list.

Despite the absence of an official policy, a year’s salary was nonetheless the typical retirement payout, and prospective retirees knew of this through the grapevine. Less well known was that more generous packages of up to two years’ salary were also available, depending on the savvy of the faculty member and the degree of interest in “recapturing” his or her line in the preferred lingo of administration-speak, as if it were an escaped zoo animal on the loose. Frequently, the recaptured line was itself designated for retirement, as tenured faculty members were replaced by so-called “teaching” ones. (I put that term in quotes, because teaching faculty have become increasingly subject to pressure for publication and service despite their heavy workloads and low compensation.)

A couple of years ago, the administration decided to rationalize the payout package (not, heaven forbid, institute an actual retirement policy) by setting a fixed sum for it. It would henceforth be a half-year’s salary equivalent, not a full year’s. When I queried this point, I was told that a full year’s payout had never been the norm. Since, of course, the payments were all “confidential,” there would have been no way of directly challenging this statement. I have it on good authority nonetheless, from a former colleague who served in administrative positions and who informally counseled potential retirees for years, that a full year’s payout was indeed the norm.

I raised this matter at a senate meeting and told the administrative representative present that he was apparently trying to encourage me to work till 90. “We’d love to have you, Robert,” was his reply.

It’s a deal, then. Of course, I’m tenured, so it’s a little harder to show me the exit. Not so for teaching faculty — one of whom, curiously, is the current chair of the senate — who work at pleasure, enjoy no such luxury as academic freedom and are hardly in a position to obtain or protect it for others.

Once embarked on reforming retirement, the administration next attacked the matter of university contributions to the retirement plan. I say “attacked,” I think, advisedly. My own plan, as I can tell, is unaffected (although I am still awaiting the formal text of the plan, promised to me in December and not as yet delivered). But junior faculty are disastrously affected and can be required to contribute up to 85 percent of their wages to achieve the benefit level the administration is supposedly aiming for. Sorry, folks, that isn’t a benefit. It’s essentially a self-funded plan that you can set up for yourself.

How did the senate deal with that curveball? Like Ryan Howard taking a called third strike. They never took the bat off their shoulder. Come to think of it, they weren’t even in the ballpark.

So, just who is representing the faculty of Drexel University?

No one at all.

To finish our tale: As faculty and staff alike will have noticed, new pay contracts, which in the course of my time at Drexel have been rotated a full year forward under various pretexts and excuses, have been pushed forward from the start of the academic year in September to the beginning of the calendar year in January. Faculty members were not notified of this, and were simply left to wonder where their annual “evaluations” (another sour joke, in these days of 2 percent raises or less) had gone. Belatedly, the treasurer sent out a singularly unenlightening email with the news. The senate, needless to say, had no comment at all, just at it had nothing to say about the retirement swindles or, come to think of it, any other matter.

And, if you haven’t heard the news, we’ve just hired a new provost who never deigned to introduce himself to the general faculty, or even send it an email.

As they say, you get the government you deserve.

I used to be a staunch supporter of faculty senates. I even led one at a former institution. I personally negotiated annual raises, benefits and conditions of employment. I saw the full draft university budget every year, and my colleagues and I saw to it that it reflected academic priorities.

Even had I not found these terms satisfactory — and eternal vigilance, as is usually the case, was the price of freedom — the Supreme Court, in its usual wisdom, had declared faculty at private institutions ineligible to form unions. It was senates or nothing.

In Drexel’s case, unfortunately, it was a senate and less than nothing: the pretense of something that never actually existed.

Recently, however, the courts have begun to shift ground on the issue of faculty representation. They’ve noticed the distinction between serfs and “supervisors” and better late than never.

Unions haven’t been doing so well lately either. But faculty, or at least tenured faculty, have notable advantages over other kinds of personnel. They can’t be fired or railroaded out like fast-food workers. Some of them at Drexel are lawyers, accountants and economists. Even without special expertise, they tend to be brighter than average. And I think that, put to a suitable test case, unionization might very well pass legal muster now.

Some public institutions, like Temple University, have both a senate and a union. The former is a vestigial organ, like your appendix, but it does no harm. The long-time leader of Temple’s union was highly committed and capable. So is his successor, a good friend of mine whom I’m sure would be willing to share his expertise.

I would retire Drexel’s senate at once, however, with whatever thanks are due for a job completely undone. I wouldn’t wait on a union, either. Nothing at all is better than a nothing that pretends to be something.

A burst appendix can actually be fatal.