Why Are Non-Faculty Senates Important To Universities?
Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli
Note: this is an up-dated version of a talk was given in March of 2007 to members of FIU's USPS Senate as they confronted the question of whether they should continue to exist.
In contemporary America many colleges and universities lack a healthy structure of senates, and because of this they lack the sense of community that is necessary for well-functioning institutions of higher education. I have written elsewhere about the importance of faculty senates, and the special role they play in the governance of higher educational institutions. Here I want to discuss the importance and role of senates for other members of the college or university community.
I will begin these remarks with a contrast: unlike business enterprises, institutions of higher education are not organized to produce a profit—indeed most such institutions are “non-profits” and require support from friends, alumni, and the government to make up for the fact that they have operating deficits. Why would such people support institutions that regularly run deficits—why get behind a loosing cause? Well, generally speaking, people support particular non-profit organizations because they support the specific goals of the organization—thus individuals contribute to churches, orchestras, museums, scouting groups, etc., because they value the goals and work of these groups.
Similarly, the people who work for such organizations usually do so because they also share this commitment to the goals and works of the group! As you all know, people who work for non-profits are only rarely compensated as well as those who work at profit-making enterprises. There are undoubtedly two reasons for this:
* first, those who support the non-profits (but do not work for them), while they value the goals and works of these groups, do so while also valuing other endeavors and enterprises—that is, they are willing to make only limited contributions to these enterprises. Because of this their contributions never are sufficient to overcome the deficit so that the employees of non-profits may be lavishly compensated.
* second, those who work for these enterprises, because they value the goals works of the enterprise, are willing to work for less compensation since they derive non-monetary satisfaction from their work (indeed some people work for non-profits without compensation, literally volunteering their time).
Non-profit higher educational institutions perform a vital public function—they provide education for next generation; and they promote, preserve, and extend human understanding. For many of us this is why we choose to participate in the work of the academic community—we derive a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment from fostering these goals. In short, we work in such institutions because the provide the opportunity for us to pursue meaningful work.
It is in this fact that I find the rationale for Senates. As I conceive it, their primary role is to foster, promote, and protect, the shared community that is necessary if the academic community is to fulfill its mission, accomplish its goals, and continue to serve society.
The role of senates for members of the academic community who are not faculty members is largely a function of the roles that these individuals play in the academic community. All the roles are vital, but they are also different. Take the most obvious example, the students: they should have a “Senate,” and at FIU it is the Student Government Association, which serves this function. Clearly the roles of the students are different from the roles of the faculty, but a university without students would be as oxymoronic as one without faculty members. Nonetheless, the students’ roles provide us with an understanding of the role for their “Senate.”
Consider now the roles that members of this audience play in the academic community. At FIU we refer to you as “University Support Service Personnel.” What are your roles and what does this tell us about the role your “Senate” should play? Here some quick observations are all I really am qualified to offer:
first: ‘support’ is too weak a word: without your work the community could not promote its goals of educating students; and preserving, promoting and extending human understanding. While the faculty undoubtedly believe they do the educating, promoting, and extending here (and while I don’t want to minimize their roles), I believe that if they didn’t have you to buttress their work, they would be like the walls of the Medieval cathedrals without their flying buttresses—their efforts would produce a pile of stones rather than a beautiful wall.
second ‘service’, while clearly the right word for much of what you do, doesn’t cover the breadth of your essential contributions to our community. I know “secretaries” who provide more education to some of our students than the faculty do, and I know “technicians” who make a greater contribution to research projects that some of the faculty members on a “research team.” But I also know that even where those who serve are not leading, their role is essential.
Now if these comments give us a beginning understanding of the roles you play in the University Community, then what does this tell us about the role of your “Senate?” If the roles of senates generally are to promote, preserve, and foster the academic community, then the role of your Senate should be to promote, preserve, and foster your roles in this community endeavor. The USPS Senate should be focused upon fostering your unique roles within the academic community, and your contributions to the overall missions of this community in education, research, and the promotion and preservation of understanding. More specifics are appropriate, but here I am both out of time, and the wrong person, to go further down this line. Indeed, I have not been invited to tell you what your Senate should be like or what it should do. I was asked to give you my view regarding why it is important. Without a well-functioning Senate, the business of the university will still get done. What will be missing with be the sense of community and of shared commitment which is essential if we are to have the true academic community which we need to have if we are to fulfill our mission.
A non-profit group can provide services, promote causes, and engage in advocacy with a group of uninvolved and uncommitted employees, but it would be a shadow of what it should be. To really accomplish its goals, it must have, maintain, and promote the commitment of its employees. In a small non-profit organization there may well be no need for a formal voice for the employees, but in a large public university it is beyond question that there needs to be such a formal voice. Without a strong and vibrant Senate it is probably impossible to sustain the sense of community and shared purpose that is necessary if we are really to be what we want to be.
Frankly today’s FIU is at a cross-roads point. During the majority of its first 35 years, this institution has had a tremendous sense of community. There has been a very high level of shared commitment and community that has allowed us to become a true community asset. As we have grown, however, we have not paid sufficient attention to the need to maintain this sense of community and commitment, and we are in danger of becoming a shadow of ourselves. While a well-run Human Resources Department may do an excellent job of promoting the requisite sense of community, the role such departments generally play in large bureaucratic institutions nearly necessitates that the employees need an organization which can help foster the requisite sense of community. While unions can help, they play a different role than do Senates, and while I am an advocate of unions, I am also an advocate for Senates.
Shared commitment and a sense of community can not be imposed from without. It is up to you, and your Senate—either we will preserve, promote, and enhance our sense of community and shared commitment, or we run the risk of evolving into a faceless place of employment. Either way, people will get paid (and not that well since we are a non-profit), students will graduate, and understanding will be advanced and enhanced. There will be moments of pride and moments of shame either way. What will be different is whether or not we are a community.
The choice is yours, and I have made my preference clear. Now it is time for me to sit down.
Notes: [click on the note number to return to the text for the note]
 Cf., my statement “My View of the Relation of Academic Administration and Collegial Governance” on my webpage.
 I will speak generally of the non-faculty members of the community, and will not address the question of whether there should be distinct senates for differing groups within the larger community.
Last revised on 04/30/2014.
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