Vigilance and Self-Defense: The Local Senate's Response to Crisis

Vice President

From time to time, every local senate finds itself in the midst of crises-internal or organizational, at the college or within the district, lasting or transitory. Based on the experiences some senates have endured, we offer these suggestions for your consideration-and for wider debate and discussion. What follows, then are thoughts about the collective responsibilities of local senate members and advice particularly suited for local senate presidents and officers-whether in crisis or not.


Local senates must remain aware of changes in local or state regulation or in statute that impinge upon our duties-and upon those with whom we share governance roles. As a personal observation, I recommend that local senates consider retaining separate counsel familiar with education law and that they establish separate, legal defense funds independent of college funding mechanisms. This resource, in time of happy, conciliatory relationships, affirms our contentions and keeps us abreast of pending legislative or regulatory threats; in times of crisis, such counsel assumes duties and does not compel harried faculty to become masters of legal code, writs of mandate, formal grievances or other implements of legal recourse. By distributing the responsibility for vigilance, legal resources can ensure our informed participation.

Local senates must also confront moral and legal infringements upon shared governance in their institutions. Full participation should always be assumed, but never left unquestioned by the senate. Resistance need not be confrontational, but it should never be oblique; it must be clearly articulated and visible to all in the college community. The ability of tenured faculty to oppose injustice without reprisal often obligates them to do so on behalf of others, particularly untenured faculty, the staff and students who are or who feel most vulnerable.

Local senates must never be complacent about their roles in educating and re-educating boards, new administrators, and new faculty. Senates need to present to these groups well-organized orientations that outline senate authority and the past practices that distinguish one campus from another. This need is particularly true of the smaller siblings of multi-college districts: board members and district administrators need information to compensate for the sometimes louder voice of the larger siblings; college administrators need such data and clarity if they are to advocate confidently for their institution.

With due diligence, the local senates must carry out their statutory responsibilities-and seek appropriate support for these governance tasks. At the same time, we must be prudent, respecting and reinforcing the delegated authorities of other bodies: the faculty bargaining unit, the classified senates, administrators' councils, and student government. Publicly supporting their work and resisting outside efforts to pit us against one another ensures open communication. Having a clearly articulated statement about college governance structures can also prevent incursions into other entities' "territories." Continual review of these locally-and legally-defined relationships translates into a continual renewal of commitment among leaders of governance groups. Joint planning or goal-setting among these groups can further cement resolve and mutual respect for the parameters of authority and consultative power.

Should rifts between segments or factions of the faculty occur, local senate leaders must seek to bridge these schisms whenever possible. Local senates should use flex week activities or presentations before the board trustees to highlight collaborative inter- and intra-college efforts, to emphasize what is positive, encourage future cooperation, and provide the media with positive examples. It is nave to presume that wounds will heal quickly or that grievances will be forgiven. Senate leaders, however, must present a professional model of decorum and reconciliation to be emulated by others.

Local senates clearly, then, must develop ongoing strategies to promote the quality of their programs and the institution. Key faculty leaders must continuously cultivate trusting relationships with legislative aides, with local officials, with influential community leaders, with foundation members, with colleagues in the K-12 and postsecondary communities-and with the press. Such efforts are of apparent benefit in times of crisis; but they also build our local reputations, or enable us to explain to the general public our need for bond issues or proposed legislation. They provide us with forums for ongoing conversations about educational and pedagogical matters often misunderstood by those outside of the academy. Some districts face a particularly daunting task in rebuilding a shattered reputation resulting from the malfeasance of trustees or college members. Rebuilding public trust in an institution cannot be done alone by a public relations officer who issues press releases; it will be accomplished by the one-on-one assurances made by those with the most enduring concern for the institution -its faculty.

Finally, as members of the local senates, we must clearly segregate acts of vengeance from those of vigilance. We must seek to prevent, after the crisis has passed, the same sort of retaliatory actions we denounced under a previous regime or on prior occasions. In taking action, we need to make the case for the skeptics within our institution and for the public outside of it; we must explain why the battles were necessary to preserve the institution as a whole.


For a senate president-or any faculty leader-in time of crisis, we suggest these rather general truisms; however self-evident, they seem to bear repeating:

  1. Take immediate stock of your own personal and professional resources. Admit your weaknesses publicly to your own small group of trusted comrades and solicit the aid of others who can do what you are not comfortable doing; now is not the time to acquire and practice new skills-you will be too busy just managing what lies before you. If others are more adept at massaging the press contacts or interpreting the budgets, let them do so. Share the burden and communicate your gratitude to them in ways they hear and feel.
  2. Do not delay gratification. Give yourself permission to ignore the phone calls, to declare your household off limits, to take a trip during which you are incommunicado. Listen to the experts: eat right and exercise regularly. It does matter and it will enable you to endure the steady accretion of worries and details, slights, wrongs, and other generally bad news to which you will (regrettably) fall heir.
  3. Understand the truism that being privy to certain kinds of information and having the counsel of those in "high places" necessarily isolates you-from friends, from your fellow officers, from the faculty at large. Regardless of the assurances of others they stand behind you, remember that they are, indeed, behind you, and thus it is that leaders suffer the slings and arrows. Such isolation can be the most demanding of all your burdens.
  4. Cultivate and nurture interdisciplinary friendships. Retain social connections beyond the politics and continue to share books, movies, jokes, parental woes, and lunches with those who may disagree with the new political shift or who are inherently apolitical. While their retreat from the fray may easily be misconstrued as a personal affront, not all of your colleagues have the courage to participate. Be grateful for and proud of those who muster the spirit; be patient with those who do not and hold on to your previous acquaintanceships with them. Ultimately, their friendships can help you-and your institution-repair the rends.
  5. Continue to think long-range, beyond today's immediate crisis, beyond your term of office, beyond this president or that chancellor or board of trustees, or those policies. You will endure, your classroom teaching will inspire, your students will matriculate, your friends will remain with you. Do the very best you can do, intellectually and morally, for the greatest number who may benefit, and then, pass the torch.

* This article is an adaptation of an address given at the 2001 and 2002 Faculty Leadership Institutes.