The importance of Faculty Senate

By Daniel Stratford

As many at the University of Massachusetts are aware, the primary advocate of, and financial provider for the undergraduate student body is the aptly-named Student Government Association. As I have mused in prior columns, the SGA executes a broad swath of responsibilities that have the potential to greatly, and positively, affect the student body at large. Amongst these responsibilities are the so-called “power of the purse” in the form of providing registered student organizations, agencies and area governments with budgets and emergency funding. It also has the “power of the pen” in the form of self-regulation and reform via the SGA Constitution & By-Laws. In this capacity, the SGA also acts as an advisory body to the University administration with regards to policy.

However, government and politics is an intrinsically communal enterprise. As such, the SGA cannot be the proverbial “Alpha and Omega” of student life. As great an institution as it is, it is ultimately just as human as the rest of us. Consequently, it routinely needs to partner with other campus institutions, as well as the administration itself, to accomplish its goals. One of the primary partners of the SGA is the Faculty Senate.

According to its website, the Faculty Senate is composed of “elected faculty members and ex-officio senior academic line administrators who hold faculty rank.” In addition, its responsibilities include “develop[ing], recommend[ing], and review[ing] policy on a broad array of issues that affect the faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students.” In a sense, this is not particularly dissimilar to what the SGA does, albeit at a higher and more advantageous position in UMass’ Great Chain of Academic Being. As such, it has the capacity to affect much more on a much grander scale than the SGA.

Indeed, the two organizations see – or should see – each other as vital partners in a destiny that is inextricably intertwined.

I can personally attest to how efficacious this esteemed body truly is. In my position as Chairman of the SGA Senate Student & Academic Affairs Committee, I am an ex-officio member of the Academic Matters Council. The Academic Matters Council is chaired by the eminent John Jenkins, Professor of Music and former director of the UMass Minuteman Marching Band. I am a member of the Programs sub-committee of that council, which gives initial approval or disapproval of, amongst other things, new certificates, programs, and even whole departments. The council as a whole has also deliberated and passed such matters as the 2013-14 Academic Calendar, as well an increase in the default credit load for full-time students from eighteen to nineteen. As a result, it is easily amongst the most powerful councils in the Faculty Senate, which is composed of councils, committees, and Ad-hoc committees.

However, there is a myriad of other committees and councils aside from Academic Matters, including – amongst others – the Academic Priorities Council, the Campus Physical Planning Council, the General Education Council, the University Press Committee, and the Joint Task Force on Accountability (JTFA). They all have a crucial part to play in the daily operations as well as the greater destiny of UMass.

What is truly unique about the Faculty Senate is that, though the lion’s share of its membership is in fact faculty members, many of its committees are open to undergraduate and graduate students. They are not only “open” in the sense of open meetings, but open in the sense of full, voting membership. The Academic Matters Council, for example, reserves membership for one graduate student and three undergraduate students, as well as the Chairman of the SGA Senate Student & Academic Affairs Committee. This generous extension of student membership applies for a broad selection of other Faculty Senate councils and committees as well. This enables students to not only gain crucial experience in the deliberative aspect of the political process, but to also, to use a well-worn aphorism, take control of their academic destinies. Most pertinently, it enables students to palpably and relatively speedily affect issues that are close at heart. Faculty Senate and participation therein affords students an opportunity which they are typically denied – to voice their contentment and criticism about the benefits or malfeasance that may have befallen them in their academic and personal pursuits.

Though I fear to say it, even our own beloved SGA does not wield this kind of influence in the world of academic policy. This, it can be safely asserted, is due to past incompetence. As a result, the forces at work that could legitimately better the existence for large contingents of UMass students began to distrust the SGA and viewed it with contempt.

It is the opinion of this humble senator that the SGA is on the upswing. However, as any prudent person in a position of leadership must do, we as a body have to ascertain and acknowledge our limitations. At the same time, it is imperative that we work with our esteemed partners in the Faculty Senate to position ourselves for a more fruitful and more enviable future. This future is only attainable if the student body at large can re-learn the fine art of bargaining that enables representative politics to function effectively. That adroitness at bargaining and constructive argumentation can only be honed effectively in the presence of parties whose interests are intertwined with our own. This, over all, is the reason why student membership in the Faculty Senate is so crucial for the student body at large, regardless of governmental affiliation. From the perspective of an SGA chairman, the promise of a responsive government is the greatest debt that we owe our constituents.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist and SGA Senator. He can be reached at [email protected]