Senate remarks: Supporting shared governance

April 8, 2015

Interim President Scott Coltrane addressed the University Senate with the following remarks:

Good afternoon.  My remarks today will focus on the topic of shared governance. This is a principle to which we―Provost Bronet, our administration, and I―are fully committed. We, like many of you, have made our life work the pursuit of knowledge and research in the academy. We believe a healthy, functioning faculty-administration relationship is paramount to the success of any great research university. And it takes a commitment from all of us to create that environment―one of mutual respect, productive debate and collaborative problem-solving.

Frances and I, in our interim roles, have attempted to establish a new level of engagement with the University Senate to advance effective shared governance. We have regularly engaged at senate and senate executive meetings on a variety of academic matters, sought input and involved faculty and staff in important campus initiatives such as hiring and strategic planning, and participated in regular meetings with your senate leaders to encourage open dialogue and resolution.

I need, value and appreciate your perspectives and expertise on academic issues. And I do not expect us to always agree, because the role of a research university isn’t to just find consensus and stay on safe neutral ground, but to question critically and explore provocative issues that move us forward as an institution and as a society. But I do expect that we treat each other with respect as we engage in productive discussion and debate.

You are essential to our university and our students’ success—and we want to be partners with you to advance the academic mission of our public university. I hope today marks a new opportunity to revisit how we achieve this goal.

Right now, our senate-administration relationship is not working for our mutual benefit. The exchange has become increasingly combative and accusatory, and reflects a lack of trust and respect. We all bear responsibility for this situation, and we are all suffering because of it. But this doesn’t have to be. We can repair the relationship—but we must first acknowledge what is broken.

First, the process is flawed. Rules that guide the Senate are not followed—leaving little room for thoughtful study and collaboration.  

Too many senate motions lack timely notice, majority participation and adherence to the senate’s own constitutional rules related to meeting agendas, final motion text, and attendance. Rather than using the many senate committees to foster a collaborative, constructive dialogue that informs senate actions, many motions appear on the full senate agenda at the last minute or not at all and require a suspension of the rules to be considered. This rush to judgement does not allow for the statutory faculty and senate to engage in open debate and discussion that is needed, or allow the administration to participate until after the fact—and does not support functional shared governance.

For example, the resolution on gender inclusive bathrooms is a matter the university supports fully, and has been working to address for months. Yet the resolution that passed in February fails to consider ongoing work by student life, campus facilities and planning in this area, nor the array of complex problems and potential solutions to these issues.

When Provost Bronet raised the issue of building code compliance on the senate floor, the resolution was quickly amended to include a statement “that the city of Eugene modify or amend its building code.” This amendment did not address the issue she was raising and did not strengthen the resolution. It ignores the complexity of municipal policy and inter-institutional relationships, not to mention the amount of time it takes to change municipal codes.

The resolution was an opportunity for us to work together—but yet we find ourselves once again at odds over something about which we fundamentally agree. This was a missed opportunity for us to move forward together on an important matter. It put me into a situation of having to say no to something I support, because of constitutional deadlines. That is not very effective.

Second, the Senate’s role on legislation is clear―as stated in the constitution―it is charged with working with the administration on academic matters as commonly understood. Recent action by the senate has disregarded this charge and has over-reached into nonacademic areas such as personnel decisions, finances, organizational redesign, and operational management.

The issue of athletics alone consumes the Senate in a way that is neither productive nor appropriate. In recent months the Senate has passed a series of resolutions and legislation related to the Senate’s desire to exert control over athletics in budgeting, football tickets sales, conduct policy, and admissions. Today alone, there are two additional pieces of legislation on the agenda related to athletics―one which would give the Senate authority to vote to add or eliminate any sport in which a student-athlete receives scholarships. Let me be clear. If this hits my desk, I will veto it. 

I am open to engaging faculty on these issues and hearing faculty concerns about student athletes’ education and welfare―but I do not appreciate receiving prescriptive legislative directives based on faulty information about finances, organization and practices within our athletics department.

These issues are simply not academic in nature and they are not under the senate’s legislative purview. There are several administrative units, with staff, faculty and advisory committees dedicated to the oversight, review and consideration of the administration of athletics.  The university, the NCAA, Pac-12, and other entities have carefully crafted and vetted rules and policies regarding these matters.

I know, some faculty would prefer that college athletics be less prominent in the United States or that the University of Oregon not compete at the highest levels of intercollegiate athletics. But our strong athletics program is an asset―one that provides many benefits to our collective campus including building relationships with our multiple community partners, and inspiring donors to make major contributions to our university. Those contributions to athletics do not undermine the academic mission of the university, but rather create bridges to our academic mission. And at this critical time in our university’s evolution, it is exceptionally important that we seek private donations to build our endowment to support our long-term academic aspirations and support the hiring of new tenure track and research faculty.

How has the Senate overreached in passing legislation that attempts to control athletics? In the motion passed in March, the Senate seeks to terminate the recently hired Faculty Athletic Representative or FAR who was hired according to current policies, as well as inserting itself into the process for hiring a replacement FAR.  In the motion, sponsors made incorrect assumptions and simply got the facts wrong. This was a legitimate search process that appropriately involved the Senate, IAC member on the search committee, and faculty for consultation.  The Senate does not have the authority to overrule a presidential appointment for this or other administrative positions.

My interpretation of these recent Senate measures is that they are meant to divide―which does not support a functional shared governance model. Focusing on divisive actions in areas outside the scope of the Senate’s charge undermines the important role that the Senate has to play in the governance of academic issues at the university.

We need our faculty engaged productively so that we may build our faculty ranks, bolster our academic standing through strategic planning and clusters of excellence hiring, expand our collaboration with our peers, and build our relationships with donors to fund expansion of our research and academic endeavors.

Adversarial governance also risks alienating other members of the faculty who witness political theatrics instead of policy progress. Over the past few years, I have heard from many research-active faculty that they have retreated from seeking election as senators or to Senate committees because they saw such participation as being fruitless, or worse, feared being targeted. And the attacking tactics also risk alienating the administrators who are working hard to re-build trust. 

We share a burden in this relationship. Faculty members tell us they have been frustrated and hurt by what they see as surprises by administration, as we’ve set out with good intentions to hire new staff or clarify our policies to protect students, yet those are seen as attacking. Today for example, there is an incorrect belief that the counseling center has diminished student privacy protections, because the website was changed to reflect existing practices. In fact, the staff at the counseling center sought to carefully clarify the current policy in response to questions, to ensure students understand current protections, as well as federal and state laws related to privacy of records and confidentiality. The policy did not change. However, this website clarification came just after Provost Bronet had called for a review of privacy issues related to counseling and health records, and that’s important work and as she is forming a committee to lead the work. That timing created confusion and uncertainty, at a time when we are trying to assure confidence in the safety of our counseling center. This is unfortunate. I’d like to get to a place where when there is something that doesn’t seem right, you call us. Not attack as a first move, that’s not going to get us where we need to be.  

I've laid out the problems but now let's focus on solutions.

I believe our challenges are rooted in a lack of trust. I am committed to repairing this relationship. As interim president and returning provost, upon the selection of a new president, I will continue to be a champion for shared governance with the Senate and the new Board of Trustees. And I ask for that same commitment from you.

I think one way we can strengthen this body is to engage more faculty. Nominations for elections are underway and I hope together we can advocate for greater participation from a broader range of faculty from all constituencies across campus. Another way to move forward is to keep the doors open to each other.

Frances and I have begun a series of conversations with members of the Senate, union and faculty about how to repair the distrust, and rebuild our relationship―we are committed to continuing these and we hope you will continue to participate.  Strategic planning has also been a model for engagement on critical issues for the University of Oregon and it will share the future of the university.

I stand here today to ask you for that same commitment and for your ideas; ideas for how to move forward together constructively; a commitment to move past adversarial attacks and practice true shared governance. This is about how we can treat each other with civility and respect. Too much is at risk for us to continue down this antagonistic path.

We have the opportunity to be a great university―together.