UW Faculty Senate celebrates its 80-year history

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Eight decades ago to the day, the Faculty Senate met for the first time at the University of Washington.

Today, the same body leads the UW faculty in shared governance, advocating for faculty and academic freedom, as well as for how the university makes good as a public good.

It wasn’t always that way.

“Eighty years ago we didn’t actually have the clear mandate for these important missions” said Thaisa Way, professor of landscape architecture and chair of the Faculty Senate. “And 80 years isn’t that long.”

Thaisa WayUniversity of Washington

On May 18, 1938, UW President Lee Paul Sieg called the first meeting of the Faculty Senate to order. In the two decades that followed, the Faculty Senate rapidly evolved and, in 1947, the university president was replaced as chair with an elected faculty member.

In 1956, the Faculty Senate emerged with a “constitution” in the form of the Faculty Code, the framework for shared governance that remains in effect to this day. The accord affirmed the ideals of shared governance at the UW and was instrumental in cementing trust between the university faculty and the administration.

A university is a community of scholars contributing, each according to his own talents and interests, to the transmission and advancement of knowledge,” the Faculty Code says. “A university administration must seek wisely and diligently to advance the common effort, and the strength of a university is greatest when its faculty and administration join for the advancement of common objectives.”

During the past 80 years, the Faculty Senate has solidified academic freedom as a core value, Way said.

Today, the Faculty Senate does much more than oversee the curriculum. It contributes to leading the university on many fronts, Way said. The chair joins the Provost and the President in decision making that impacts the wellbeing of the university as a whole.

“UW’s Faculty Senate is part of that leadership group,” Way said. “The Faculty Senate here said, ‘Yes, we’re in charge of curriculum, we’re in charge of our discipline, we are the ones who pursue academics,’ but if we’re not also part of the discussion around finances of the institution as a whole, around our relationship with the state and the legislature, all of this, we can’t really do what we do as teachers and scholars.”

The UW Faculty Senate is a great example of the role faculty should — and can — play in shared governance, said Provost Jerry Baldasty.

“The Faculty Senate is thoughtful, analytical and devoted to the institution — and willing to work with administration in identifying, pursuing and achieving important UW goals,” Baldasty said. “As provost, I’ve found the Faculty Senate to be an important partner in this work.”

Dr. George SandisonUniversity of Washington

The Faculty Senate is a democratic institution with 143 elected members and a chair who serves a one-year term. Way’s term ends on July 31, 2018. She’ll be replaced by Dr. George Sandison, a professor of radiation oncology who served as vice chair for the 2017-18 academic year. Joe Janes, a professor at the Information School, has been elected to replace Sandison as vice chair.

“One of the remarkable things about our system of shared governance is its breadth and comprehensiveness. Faculty from all three campuses are represented in the Faculty Senate and serve on our university faculty councils,” said Zoe Barsness, an associate professor at UW Tacoma and former chair of the Faculty Senate. “Most important, just as we have federal, state and local government, faculty at the UW benefit from the opportunity to help govern the affairs of their own academic units, their school, college or campus, and the university as a whole.”

Faculty enjoy certain rights and privileges, but also have collective responsibility for the stewardship of the institution in collaboration with the administration, at all levels, in our departments, in all schools and colleges and across each distinctive campus, Barsness said.

“We’re a big, complex institution. If academics are going to be our mission, then the faculty — the academics — need to play a role in shared governance,” Way said. “We need to have a voice and we need to have a strong contributing role.”

Still, the institution isn’t static. The senate’s focus and work has evolved in many ways and continues to change to meet the needs of today’s students and faculty, Way said.

For example, the senate recently voted to require the tenure and promotion committee to recognize faculty who incorporate diversity into their scholarship. As a result, tenure panels will consider such scholarship when it is submitted in the evaluation of their peers.

“What we can’t say is how you consider it or what the metrics are because that’s up to the disciplines,” Way said. “What diversity scholarship looks like in the College of Education is going to be different than what it looks like in the School of Law.”

And, like diversity, community-engaged scholarship is increasingly important at the UW, Way said. Shared governance also has catalyzed opportunities for both President Ana Mari Cauce to call on the faculty to be more engaged and for disciplines to develop relevant standards. In the middle is the Faculty Senate, which will establish guidelines, similar to diversity, for how faculty should be measured.

Today, the Faculty Senate works to strengthen the university’s role as a public good, as part of a belief that higher education serves the broader community as does the scholarship and knowledge produced.

“Our code and culture is going to have to better articulate our role as a public good and our role as having a real impact on our communities,” Way said. “That’s going to change how we do things.”

Way believes the future for academics will be less governed by departmental rules and more focused on what problem the faculty member is trying to solve, be it an equation, social issue or disease. The same holds for students. For students, college will be less about choosing a major, and more about what big issue they’re trying to address, she said.

That shift brings new challenges to the Faculty Senate as it manages faculty, since they still teach in traditionally structured departments but are engaged in interdisciplinary endeavors to solve broader challenges like population health, homelessness and other complex problems.

“Shared governance is going to be part of figuring out what the university of the future looks like,” Way said.

Faculty governance is evidence that the UW has been changing the way scholarship is passed along from one generation to the next. Looking back at 80 years of shared investment in the UW’s mission is similar to looking back at careers of faculty and thinking about how it’s very different to be a faculty today than it was in 1952, Way said.

“It will continue to change,” Way said. “Our careers are changing. The way we do things is changing. Faculty governance is changing.”

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