Modeling the Relevance of the Boss

April
2013
Beth Smith, ASCCC Vice President

"The dozen or so times I've seen him, I've marveled at the obvious; his energy, powerful voice, under-appreciated guitar playing, engaging personality and songwriting. But this time -- thinking back over the two hour and forty minute concert - I was struck by his relevance. Despite being 62 years old and having created 17 albums over forty years, he's more relevant than ever," (Blog entry by Andy Beaupre about Bruce Springsteen's new Wrecking Ball tour, March 28, 2012).

The "he" in this quote is singer Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen, and the quote was written by someone blogging about Springsteen's most recent tour. Anyone who remains relevant over 40-plus years is worthy of awe and study. The blog uses characteristics of the Boss to help understand why he remains relevant today, such as "he's a thought leader" and "his values define him." Also mentioned are the facts that he is an innovator and his brand conjures up more than music for his fans. Using those same characteristics and others from other entities attempting to remain relevant, we should work to ensure that our senates are relevant to the faculty as well as to the college for many years. The worst thing that could happen to a faculty is for its senate to become irrelevant, especially at a time when leadership from the faculty is needed more than ever in California's community colleges.

When I first became senate president at my college, I often asked myself, "how is the senate doing?" On several occasions, I asked others how the senate was doing, and the union president at the time said to me, "The senate must be fine - people are still attending." At the time I felt somewhat relieved, but after more thought I came to realize that perhaps the bar was rather low. People showing up should not be the only or the primary measure of the senate’s vitality. We need more substantive means to determine that the senate is still relevant to the faculty.

If the faculty are attending senate meetings, the next benchmark is the level of engagement of the senators and the overall information exchange with the faculty at large. Unless the local senate is a “senate of the whole” that includes the entire faculty, most senators have an important job as conduit of information to the faculty across campus - full and part time, counselors, librarians, day and evening teachers, and faculty in career technical education programs who might be in labs or workshops or off-site in clinicals. The senate leaders have a role to play with communication too, and hearing from every corner of the campus is what makes our senates and colleges stronger. A senate with faculty who read the senate agenda and its attachments prior to attending meetings is also a sign of engagement of the faculty and the belief that the work of the senate is important. Taking time away from students to prepare for and attend meetings is often difficult for faculty for a number of reasons, so when they take time and effort to come to meetings prepared, the senate should celebrate the results of that engagement: a strong senate and one that is working up the relevance scale toward "thought leader." What might a relevance scale look like? Models exist and may be adapted for review and improvement by your senate.

Not relevant Of Slight Importance Somewhat Important Important Critical

This five point scale may be used alone or with more explanation as the next model shows. Your senate may decide to include alternate descriptions for the two ends as well as descriptions for the gradations between the extremes.

Not relevant to faculty           Critical to faculty
Faculty don't know what the senate is or does; don't know why they should care about senate           Faculty are engaged in the senate and its agenda; see the senate solving problems on their behalf

If a senate chooses to use such a scale to examine relevance, then faculty must be given an opportunity to explain why they feel the senate is relevant or not. Quantitative and qualitative information are both necessary to understand where the senate is performing well and where it can do better. Such information will allow the senate to respond to concerns and successes that indicate the senate may or may not be relevant to the faculty. As most senate leaders know, the senate is a key component to the overall success of a college in serving its students, and, despite heroic efforts, the faculty at the college may still be less informed about the work of the senate, its agenda, or its accomplishments than hoped. Senate leaders will want to find ways to share outcomes of the senate beyond publishing meeting minutes.

When the faculty believe in the senate and find it to be critical and significant, then the faculty must consider whether the college or district believes the senate to be relevant. Through Title 5, senates have a role and purview, but relevance is greater than simply demanding respect or participation because the laws, regulations, or policies require it. Relevance does not necessarily mean loud, bigger than life, or tough. However, when senate representatives walk into a meeting room and are asked to sit on chairs along the wall rather than at the table where academic and professional decisions are made, the senate may have a sign it is struggling to gain relevance with the administration.

A similar scale to the one for faculty might be used by the senate to gauge its work and relevance in college or district governance.

Not relevant Of Slight Importance Somewhat Important Important Critical
Senate leaders are missing from or marginalized in key governance meetings, especially those related to academic and professional matters; decisions that could have appropriately included senate input and recommendations are made absent the official voice of the faculty       Campus leaders reach out to the senate for ideas, leadership, and implementation strategies as well as issues that affect the teaching and learning environment; timelines are developed that reflect adequate time for the senate to conduct its process of outreach and deliberation with faculty to formulate a recommendation

The descriptions at the extremes are provided as examples and food for thought to help a senate begin a conversation about its relevance on campus. These tools only help a senate learn to be more effective and identify areas where some improvement may be made. In some aspects of college or district governance, a senate may find it measures differently on its relevance scale. Perhaps it shows greater relevance with respect to curriculum but less relevance when it comes to budget process development. In any case, a sound practice for using these scales is to gather much more information than simply a mark along a 5-point scale.

Staying relevant to faculty and the college as a whole may require a senate to discuss how open it is to change or flexibility. Are the faculty at the college considered "early adopters" or do they like to phase in change? When can faculty be trail blazers and when do they need to take a wait-and-see or more calculated approach? Being adaptable to change may make the senate seem more relevant to faculty or the administration, but without conversations about the philosophical approach the senate will take on an issue, often the senate simply seems indecisive, which can be a disservice to addressing the needs of students. Using scales similar to those provided here, a senate should have good conversation starters to see which directions it wants to go.

Springsteen has found ways to remain relevant today despite changes in music genres, technology, politics, attitudes, and fashion. Even for those who do not like his music or point of view, one can learn something powerful from a person who has managed to be connected to the world and significant in it for so long. Academic senates have also been around for over 40 years, but that does not mean that all senates experience the same significance or relevance today. Senates must remain relevant to the faculty and colleges as forces exert pressure on us to become something tied to a fad or the latest trend out of Sacramento or elsewhere. We must show that we can adapt and be flexible when necessary to meet the needs of students no matter who they are or how many resources we have. At the same time, senates need to ensure that they are relevant in decision making processes on campus. If senates or their local leaders find that they are struggling to even have a seat at the decision making table, then perhaps that senate needs to reassess its relevance within local governance processes. Faculty must keep this conversation alive about the significance of the senate and let the values of the senate define it.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.