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MAIRSON: Justice Brandeis, does faculty governance matter?

Published: February 4, 2005
Section: Opinions

This academic year has seen considerable tumult over Dean Jaffes suggestions to eliminate teaching Greek, the program in Linguistics, the program in Music Composition, and to reduce faculty in NEJS and Physics. Program terminations could occur immediately. Faculty elimination catalyzed by the demoralization of being told that youre not wanted or needed awaits retirement of tenured faculty. Whats faculty governance got to do with it?

At the Oct. 28 faculty meeting, the faculty relentlessly criticized both the academic and procedural grounds for these proposals. Subsequently, the Senate Chair and Provost appointed a faculty committee, headed by Prof. Richard Parmentier (ANTH), to examine matters further. Is the work of this committee the deliberative process that everyone is talking about? The shortest answer is: No.

The Committee provides important fact finding and analysis, but the faculty hasnt deliberated yet (Merriam-Webster: to think about deliberately and often with formal discussion before reaching a decision). The Parmentier Committee cant be the faculty deliberative process, because it doesnt represent the faculty (no appointed committee does), and because its self-imposed confidentiality excludes faculty from discussions.

Blue ribbon panels of eminently qualified citizens often examine matters of national concern, like the Kennedy assassination, urban violence in America, the Challenger explosion, and most recently the 9/11 disaster. Committee members are respected individuals of distinction and celebrity, whose opinions count for something. The Parmentier Committee is just like that only everything is scaled down, since were talking about the University, not the whole country. The political conflict in academia is so fierce, as the old joke goes, because theres so little at stake.

No one would think that governmental authority was granted to any of these committees. None of them provoked a constitutional crisis, because the only people they spoke for were the very people on the committees. The President wouldnt say, now that the 9/11 Commission submitted its report, Ive consulted the people. The only way to consult the people on a specific proposal is either by popular vote, or a vote by the Congress, informed by the fact finding and analysis of such committees. Why? Because the Congress represents the people, and the people represent themselves.
The same goes here, except that the Congress is faculty governance committees, and the people are the faculty. If the administration wants to make academic, curricular change X, and the Faculty Handbook says that the faculty must be consulted, its insufficient to ask What do you think about integrated planning? or What alternatives are there to X? and call that deliberative process, because the choice is to do X, or not to do X. The obvious question to ask the faculty is Should we do X?

How do you ask? You ask the governing bodies of the faculty exactly that question. You ask the Faculty Senate, and the School Councils in Humanities, Social Sciences, Creative Arts, and Sciences. You ask the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, and the Finance Committee. Be sure to ask the Science Council what they think of eliminating Greek–not only is Mathematics the Classics of the sciences, the connected university championed by the administration means that scientists too are responsible. Finally, you ask the faculty Should we do X? at a faculty meeting, once they have read the reports of the Dean, the Parmentier Committee and the governing bodies mentioned.

Marc Brettler, who is the NEJS chair, the chair of the Humanities Council, and a colleague for whom I have the profoundest respect, asked me last term what the Senate knows that the faculty doesnt if theres no difference, whats its opinion worth? The answer is in the Faculty Handbook: the Senate is elected to represent the faculty. With that election comes a responsibility to act wisely and not screw up. Whats the point of faculty governance if its bypassed when crossing this academic Rubicon? Bypassing it risks defining the very irrelevance of faculty governance, when it should be anything but.

Inevitably, political and social conflicts involve people who like getting their own way, and others who dont agree. If significant changes are made to the academy without the advice and consent of representative faculty committees, without a vote of the faculty at a faculty meeting, it will not only be a miscarriage of faculty governance. It will be a miscarriage of justice the commitment to social justice that we at Brandeis talk about in far parts of the globe, but which also applies right here. And if we have a miscarriage of justice right here, know one thing: Justice Brandeis wouldnt have liked it.

Editors Note: Harry Mairson is a professor of computer science and a member of the Faculty Senate Council.