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Four Ways to Improve Faculty Senate Meetings

Riveting MeetingWhat is it, exactly, that makes faculty senate meetings go awry? Elizabeth Murphy reports this morning on a few institutions that limit the length of senators’ speeches during debate as a way of trying to keep discussions lively. In my experience, the reason it’s efficacious isn’t that lots of senators would go over the time limits, necessarily, but that they speak with a limit in mind, which tends to focus their presentations.

It’s a little puzzling as to why this is news–as the story suggests, this is a fairly common practice, especially when a particular topic is likely to be controversial. It’s clear from the story, however, that there’s a sort of misreading of what makes senate discussions problematic:

About once a month, on scores of college and university campuses around the United States, dozens or hundreds of people mill into the auditorium, resigned to the fact that it’s going to be a while. There is gavel-pounding. There is heated debate over comma vs. semicolon usage in biology department literature. The institution’s president is barraged with questions. And, yes, there are PowerPoint presentations.

Welcome to your average faculty senate meeting.

. . .
A quick survey of other institutions across the country reveals that, for the most part, the stereotypically talkative faculty senator isn’t as prevalent as one might think.

(My first reaction: “Once a month only? What a dream!”)

But this presentation of the stereotype misunderstands most senates: Generally, the problem isn’t necessarily that senators are longwinded during debate, but that senate meetings are dominated by presentations that can be . . . drawn out. Those presentations are often exacerbated when senators who are not current on a particular topic revisit questions that are long since settled.

Improving senate discussions is a challenging task. I would identify four key steps:

  • Train new senators in parliamentary procedure. Senators who are well-versed in the nuances of Robert’s Rules are often able to achieve results in a meeting that might be surprising. Similarly, for those who are not familiar with parliamentary procedure, its norms can be frustrating.
  • During debate, call on new speakers first. Even more than a time limit, limiting the number of times a person can speak to a particular question can help move a discussion along. (A different way to achieve this might be to try to balance speakers for and against a motion–if all the talk is one side, then you’re not really having a “debate.”)
  • The third rail of senate discussions, though, is senator preparation: Senators need to be prepared for meetings. The reason those presentations seem so long is that many people in the room didn’t read the report in advance. But when senators are prepared, then they can exercise their oversight without listening to a long presentation. People are busy, to be sure, but the senate will feel less like a wasteland–and maybe even move more quickly–when everyone’s prepared.
  • Finally, it’s important to make clear the stakes of particular motions. Faculty senates can play an important oversight role, but only when senators are willing to do so.

(A bonus fifth thing might even be to give senators copies of the AAUP Redbook of policies and statements, which contains useful guidance on academic freedom and governance.)

What else? How can we improve faculty senate meetings?

Photo “Riveting Meeting” by Flickr user Mark Hillary / Creative Commons licensed

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