Ideals and Politics


The Academic Senate's resolution process has seemed to me, from my first exposure to it, to be an absolutely remarkable example of democratic governance. Resolutions are drafted, discussed at local senates, area meetings and plenary sessions; they are clarified and "perfected" and, finally, they are subjected to debate and vote on the final day of each plenary session. There is no doubt when the voting is through that the 57,000 faculty of our 109 (and counting) campuses have spoken. The result is that these resolutions are taken very seriously in discussions of the statewide Consultation Council, at meetings of the Board of Governors, and even in the office of the Governor and the halls of the Legislature. I have heard first-time observers of our process marvel at the complexity of the issues with which we deal, at the thoroughness with which we treat them, and the seriousness and civility of our debate. Even after many years, I share that sentiment. I would not change the process an iota; it seems to me to be as perfect as an institution of its kind can get.

And although I would not change it, I would make some observations that might make it work even better.

Despite many similarities, there are some very real differences between the workings of local academic senates and the statewide Senate. The principal of these is that the local senate is relatively autonomous with respect to initiatives it might take, whereas the state Senate does not take action without direction-in the form of resolutions-from the plenary body. A local senate might make a decision at one meeting and, in the light of changing circumstances or as a matter of political strategy, decide to rescind or significantly modify it at the next, where the time frame involved is a matter of weeks. A resolution passed by the plenary body, on the other hand, may lock the state Senate into a course of action for at least the next six months, and often for many years.

I have sometimes heard an occasional local senate president say that he or she is not interested in politics. That has always surprised me, as I have always viewed that role as very much a political one. There is certainly no doubt that our efforts at the state level are political, from dealing with the Chancellor's Office, the many constituencies in the Consultation Council, the Board of Governors, and of course the Legislature and the Governor.

Our activities are political, and politics is the art of empowered compromise.

Now, that's the part that seems to frighten some people, and it brings me to my point about improving our efforts.

I believe there is no question that the Senate, through its resolutions, should express an unswerving commitment to its principles, and that commitment should not be compromised. Examples would be (a) our commitment to the principle that students are best served by a fulltime tenured faculty; and (b) that community college fee policies should be consistent with the principle of open access, that the community colleges should be the gateway to higher education for every individual who might benefit, such that higher education is open to all and is not reserved for the elite who can afford it.

And while I believe that our commitment to these principles ought to be steadfast, I also believe that our resolutions should leave the Academic Senate room to participate in the political process. They should not, in short, lock us into a specific, narrow course of action that does not allow us to proceed toward the realization of our principles incrementally, through compromise with other constituencies. The rule should never be "All or nothing." It should be "Something or don't go backwards." And to the latter, we should add "If you have to go backwards, don't do so without an ironclad guarantee of a future bigger step forward."

The problem with "All or nothing" in politics is that, in reality, it usually translates to "Nothing." Once people know your position and that there is absolutely no room for compromise, they quit listening to you. Why should they listen? From their perspective, you have come to the table as an ideologue, not as a problem solver. For the Academic Senate thus to marginalize itself would be most unfortunate.

Let me illustrate these points by getting back to the issues mentioned above: the full-time hiring obligation, and student fees. At the fall plenary session, the body approved an amendment to a resolution that added an absolute proscription on any waiver or deferral to the full-time obligation, ever, under any circumstances. That is the sort of "All or nothing" approach that will have the effect of marginalizing us in the future. The debate on whether to trigger the obligation-in whole, in part, or not at all-comes up every year. This past year, we reached a compromise, and the Senate played an active role in shaping it. Next year, I will bet that there will be another compromise, but this time the Senate has written itself out of the game. There was another part of the resolution -the original part-that calls for a change in Title 5 that would guarantee progress toward 75/25 in good economic times, and no slippage in bad ones. That's a good idea, one that, were we to get it, would render current debates moot. Politically, it's a very strong card in a hand that the amendments forbid us to play.

For this spring's plenary session, the Executive Committee has approved a resolution on student fees. It calls on us to reaffirm our opposition to them, and to oppose as well a new proposal that would call for increasing fees on the condition that they be kept by the colleges (which is not currently the case). The point here is that the resolution does not simply direct us to oppose student fees, ever, under any circumstances. It says why we are opposed to them, which leaves us room to say that we will entertain the notion of increasing student fees, but only in a context that addresses our reasons for opposing them: their negative affect on access to a system that is supposed to provide universal access to higher education. Our stand is principled, our principles are clearly evident, but we have not written ourselves out of the discussion.

I will end as I began, in praising our resolution process. My recommendation for improving it involves no change to the process at all, but only a request that delegates attend to the fact that movement toward the realization of our ideals is going to occur in a political arena, which is an arena in which sound principles will be realized incrementally, through a process of trade-offs and debate. The Academic Senate should be a party to that process, and should take care not to lock itself out.