Power and Paranoia: Effective Senates are Victors, not Victims


At the first Summer Leadership Institute I ever attended, Jim Higgs from Modesto Junior College told me that the local academic senate president was the most powerful person on campus. I wonder why more of them don't feel that way.

Jim, who is now deceased, was a big, blustery man, who wore a fedora and loved the blues. He is on my mind today, as I've recently returned from Mississippi, where I toured delta blues shrines and attended seminars and concerts and catfish dinners. Jim once spent a summer in Mississippi engaged in similar pursuits.

If you knew Jim, you might have supposed, given his size and bombast, that he would have thought himself the most powerful person on campus whether or not he had been academic senate president. In fact, though, he wasn't just projecting his own persona on the world; he had a serious point-and I have always felt a valid one.

Jim's point was nothing more nor less than a straightforward acknowledgement of the power of the faculty. Again, I wonder why more of them don't feel that way. I wonder, but not for long.

For the power we are talking about is political power, and it's a sort that faculty aren't called upon to exercise all that often. Nevertheless, it's always there, waiting to be tapped. In contrast to power of the physical sort, it does not require frequent exercise in order to be maintained. Paradoxically, too frequent exercise can result in the dissipation of political strength, and prolonged periods of inactivity can in fact augment it. What, then, are the conditions of its effective use, how do we nurture it, and how and when do we display it?

Do you remember Chili Palmer's "Look at me!" in Get Shorty? It works for Chili every time; but when Gene Hackman's character tries it, he just gets his butt kicked. What's the difference? Easy. Chili believes in his own power; for Hackman, it's just a technique. Another way to put this is to say that it's the difference between authenticity and its opposite. In faculty politics, it's the difference between the senate president who can't shut up about faculty rights under Title 5 and the one who gets the job done-every time-by saying "Why don't we look at it this way...," and who, when the administration is about to go badly wrong, quietly points out that "The faculty are never going to buy that" (this last sounding like Chili's "Look at me!").

On my trip to Mississippi, I heard novelist Nevada Barr tell a story about her career in law enforcement patrolling Mississippi's Natchez Trace. One night, Barr recounted, in the wee hours, she pulled over a powder blue Cadillac chauffeured by an elderly pink-coiffed Mississippian. "Aren't you afraid being out here at night all by yourself?" came the syrupy query as the woman rolled down her window. "No, Ma'm," Barr replied, "I've got a great big gun." "Oh, honey," the woman said, "we all do!"

Happiness may not be a warm gun, but there are times when confidence is. She didn't say this, but Barr's encounter on the Trace might have been an occasion for discovering that it's not so much packing heat that keeps you safe-it's much more the attitude you display or the way you carry yourself. We are told by people who study this sort of thing that, if you don't walk like a victim, you are in fact far less likely to become one.

Academic senates, it seems to me, are always packing heat, and so it is never appropriate for them to walk like victims. Yet they sometimes do, and when that happens, their native power is dissipated. Three of the victim-like gaits that we might all recognize are (1) constant carping about transgressions against faculty authority coupled with citations of Education Code and Title 5; (2) the paranoid supposition that administrators are constantly engaged in plots to undermine the faculty; and (3) the "Chicken Little" approach to leadership that seeks to persuade faculty that they are perpetually in some dire state of crisis.

None of which is to say that administrators don't sometimes challenge-or ignore-the authority of the faculty, or that things can't sometimes reach crisis proportions. (I do find the perpetual conspiracy notion laughable, and would suggest that, if you think "they" are conspiring against you, you might ask yourself if you're not just seeing the reflection of yourself acting, in the words of the late great Spiro T. Agnew, like a "nattering nabob of negativism."1 I know it's hard to believe, but I have seen that happen.)

Well, then, what does the "power walk" look like? How does a truly empowered academic senate behave? One way is to step forward and ask your administration and board how you, the faculty acting through the academic senate, can help solve the college's problems. This gives administrators and trustees the opportunity to voice their perspectives while it appropriately places the faculty in the position of problem solvers and team players. It also opens the door, in a very positive and faculty empowering way, for a genuine dialogue about institutional priorities. In addition, the empowered senate will be involved in all appropriate aspects of campus life: planning and budgeting, curriculum, program review, accreditation, hiring; and it will have close and positive ties to the bargaining agent, the student association, and the classified and administrative organizations. The leadership of this senate will also walk its walk outside of the campus, attending meetings of civic and business organizations and speaking-and listening-about the role of the college in the community. This positive, proactive approach to tackling common problems and working toward common goals is very different from the victim-like preoccupation with faculty rights and authority and the prevention of abuses of same.

As I said, abuses will occur. When they do, the empowered faculty won't whine; they'll solve the problem. No administrator in his or her right mind wants their faculty to turn against them. They are, in fact, dependent for their success on the support and cooperation of their faculty. When they mess up and start to cross the line, the empowered faculty will say, "Look at me!" and will remind them of the wisdom of working together toward common goals. The gun doesn't have to leave the holster.

In 1984, George Orwell portrays a state that exercises totalitarian control by, in part, persuading the populace that they are in a constant state of war. This "Chicken Little" approach to leadership, which seeks to convince constituents that they are faced with serial crises, is one that seeks to empower not the constituents so much as the leader. In its essence, it is demagogic. It asks constituents to rally round the leader to enjoin a battle that is then never won, and which places the followers in the perpetual posture of victims.

In the rare case where chronic abuse by an administrator produces a genuine crisis, the empowered faculty will, again, see the situation as a problem to be solved and will go about solving it. The extreme "solution" would be the vote of "No Confidence" and the powerful, persistent follow-through that results in the abuser's departure. This scenario seldom gets played out, one of the principal reasons being, I am convinced, that faculty are on the whole too mild-mannered (read "ambivalent") to endure the brutal end game of such a process. Where they are willing, as Emeril says, to "Kick it up a notch!" I am equally convinced that the vote of no confidence is fatal. "Look at me!" or the "power walk" works because, in the final analysis, you are willing to draw the gun and use it.

Let me state the case in slightly different language-but, I would hope, to the same effect. When an educational institution works, the faculty are essential to making it work, and the empowered faculty knows that. And they walk as though that were true, and they talk as though that were true, and they spend somewhere between very little and no time trying to prove this to themselves and the world.

Knowing and feeling one's own power frees one from the preoccupation with being made a victim, and it frees one at the same time to appreciate and acknowledge power and excellence in others. And that, ultimately, is the foundation for teamwork and positive problem solving.

A successful academic senate is going to be a key player in making an institution work for students. Faculty aren't going to do it alone; but neither can it be done without them, and the successful senate knows this. Rather than assuming the posture of victims, perpetually concerned with conspiracies to undermine their authority or with creating alarm over crises-real or perceived -the successful senate will bring its very real power to the table in the service of solving the very real problems to be overcome in providing our students with equitable opportunities for a quality education.

1 Agnew delivered his famous line during his vice presidency in a speech in San Diego. The rest of the quote isn't bad, either. Of the nattering nabobs, Agnew said, "They have formed their own 4-H Club-`the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history."