Power in the Collective: Faculty, Collegial Consultation, and Collaboration


A few weeks ago, I was searching for resources on the ASCCC website to send to a local senate president who had recently requested information to help with a situation that was developing at his college. Faculty were considering how to address what they perceived as a disregard for and circumvention of the academic senate purview by the college president and other administrators. The ASCCC regularly receives requests to provide assistance to academic senates in navigating troubling situations, including what is considered by some to be the nuclear option in local college politics, the vote of no confidence. Sometimes the call for such a vote originates with the faculty union, and the senate president requests assistance in determining what the vote would mean for the local senate. Other times, the idea originates with faculty on the local academic senate, and the senate president is trying to ascertain the political and practical ramifications of holding the vote.  In this case, the local academic senate was not ready to proceed with a vote of no confidence, but the senate president felt the need to reach out for resources in case things took a turn for the worse. To assist, I sent the link to past president Jane Patton’s timeless article “So, You’re Thinking About a Vote of No Confidence: 10+1 Questions to Ask.”The article’s practical approach to votes of no confidence makes it required reading for any senate president considering such an action. As I worked to address this senate president’s request for assistance, I reflected on how governance at a college can break down so extensively that faculty feel compelled to take a public stand against an administrative colleague.

Many of our colleges are in a time of significant change. New initiatives, grants, and programs have the power to shape not only the way our colleges function but also the culture of our institutions. Within the past few years, the ASCCC has received substantially more requests from local academic senate presidents for resources, information, and technical assistance visits, as well as numerous questions and phone calls from faculty leaders involved in all aspects of academic and professional matters. Of course, the Academic Senate is always happy to provide assistance, and we expect and welcome these requests, but the increase in the number of such requests in recent years has been noticeable. More than ever, faculty appear to need assistance in navigating the changes that are occurring at their colleges.

Faculty leaders are often deeply involved with alterations to their colleges’ practices and policies, and rightfully so since they are charged with ensuring that the purview of the academic senate is respected and that faculty play a significant and meaningful role in any change that affects academic and professional matters. This situation is nothing new, and yet substantial changes to practice and policy seem to be happening more frequently. These changes may be difficult to manage depending on the circumstance of the faculty leader. Some faculty may be new in their leadership positions and may need support as they navigate relationships and responsibilities that come with their new roles. For seasoned leaders, these changes can be challenging but not unmanageable, and, since circumstances are constantly evolving, additional resources are always useful. These factors can account for the some of the increase in requests for assistance received by the ASCCC, but not all of it. Something more may be happening at our colleges.

In this time of change, faculty leaders may find themselves more often in a position to defend not only faculty and academic senate purview but also the value of collegial consultation as well as the practice. Our colleges have experienced significant turnover in personnel, with many of our faculty colleagues retiring or moving into new positions. Furthermore, our system’s administrative ranks have also seen significant change, including the persistent churn of college leadership. As a result, many individuals –faculty, classified staff, and administrators—who have a deep history with governance are leaving our system.  Our colleges are hiring individuals in all positions who may not have an understanding of or training in the principles of constituency participation in governance. The effect of these changes may be that the commitment to collegial consultation at our colleges has slipped in recent years, contributing to a campus climate or culture that is less unified or inclusive.

This issue has no quick fix; correcting the situation will take some effort. The values inherent in collegial consultation must be reaffirmed and embraced by the colleges, and the actions of all leaders on our campuses – faculty, classified, and administration—must embody a commitment to those values. Academic senates can play a key role in reorienting their colleges towards the practice of collegial consultation through the use of their own power. To do so, we may find wisdom from ASCCC leaders from the past. In 2003, ASCCC President Hoke Simpson wrote a Rostrum article titled “Power and Paranoia: Effective Senates are Victors, not Victims.” In the article, Hoke discussed the power that academic senates have and how making a distinction between power and technique can assist senates in exercising their purview:

What, then, are the conditions of its effective use, how do we nurture it, and how and when do we display it?...[I]t'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.”

Hoke also includes a reminder of the responsibility faculty and academic senates have in the application of power:

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… the empowered senate will be involved in all appropriate aspects of campus life…and itwill have close and positive ties to the bargaining agent, the student association, and the classified and administrative organizations.

Hoke’s article provides a timely reminder that power is most welcome and best exerted when it is used positively. This proactive and positive approach to asserting academic senate purview may be something that we have lost sight of as the culture of our colleges shifts in response to exigent demands. Framing the power inherent in faculty purview as a means to solve problems could reduce the defensiveness that others may feel when faculty flex that particular muscle. Also, the emphasis on problem solving orients the college towards collegial consultation, since finding the optimal solution to a problem naturally involves seeking diverse perspectives and genuine collaboration in determining the most appropriate solution.

California community colleges are incredibly fortunate to have effective participation in college governance and collegial consultation as part of the fabric of our institutions and system. The faculty role in governance is clearly articulated in legislation and regulation to provide clear and direct guidance when it comes to academic and professional matters. Participatory governance has served our colleges well in the past and will continue to do so as long as we take an active role in ensuring that the values and principles therein remain at the forefront of all our work. Faculty should and must be actively and directly involved in ensuring governance at our colleges remains inclusive, professional, and collegial.