Opinion | Staff Editorials

Activating faculty activism

In a year that has been plagued by turmoil over administrative decision-making, one of the recurring themes has been a constant lack of faculty input in decisions that have far-reaching consequences for undergraduate education. At a time when Columbia College’s relationship with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is evolving, the faculty voice has been underrepresented and disproportionately weak. Save for a handful of dedicated and usually tenured professors, the faculty remains quiet and relatively uninvolved in public with issues of undergraduate academic importance.

The faculty voice is especially important to campus discussions. Members of the faculty directly interact with students and understand their interests more acutely than does the administration. More importantly, while undergraduates are only here in four-year increments, the faculty remains at the University for a longer time, making it much more capable of influencing long-term change. To have faculty involved in undergraduate academic issues means a more thorough debate with the administration and, ultimately, a stronger representation of student views.

Although this issue has been highlighted in the past year, its roots extend to the earlier part of the 1990s, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was created to merge the faculties of Columbia College, the School of General Studies, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of International and Public Affairs, and the School of the Arts. Key decisions that had been reserved by the faculties of the individual schools—in areas such as admissions, financial aid, programs of study, conditions for graduation, grading, honors, examinations, and instruction—were transferred to the larger FAS body.

While merging the individual faculties into one FAS body undoubtedly has had its benefits, especially in non-academic decision-making, the structure of the combined body has led to a decrease in faculty participation in academic issues. The very nature of a body designed to integrate interests common to the combined Arts and Sciences faculty influences the agenda in a way that leads the focus away from undergraduate academic concerns. Whereas a body such as the Faculty of Columbia College had undergraduate education as a primary interest, FAS subsumed it as one of many concerns on a busy agenda. Effectively, the faculties of the individual schools lost their platforms for discussing the issues exclusively pertinent to them—one of which was undergraduate education.

The 1978 bylaws of the Faculty of Columbia College mandated that “meetings of the Faculty shall be held at 3:10 p.m., on the third Monday of every month from October to May inclusive.” Senior professors who still remember those meetings recall that they were primarily spent discussing academic issues. When Columbia College faculty was subsumed under FAS, the meetings grew less frequent and more sparsely attended by faculty, and understandably so.

Columbia College faculty meetings used to be devoted to undergraduate issues, but FAS now has to cover a wider array of topics. When it met to vote on the inclusion of Frontiers of Science, for example, the entire FAS was allowed to vote on the decision, even though many of its members did not teach undergraduates or adequately understand the Core Curriculum.

Within the current structure of FAS, there is an effort to create a forum to recreate these discussions in particular committees. For example, the Policy and Planning Committee recently announced the formation of the Educational Policy and Planning Committee, composed of faculty and administrators with the intent of advising Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks on academic issues such as global centers and the Core Curriculum. On top of the standing committees on the Core and Instruction and some of the vague academic policy powers of the University Senate, there are some efforts to create the institutional framework to foster faculty activism. Yet the committee system, as it stands, is difficult to navigate, because the roles of each are unclear to faculty.

All of these committees would be confusing enough if it weren’t for the recent turmoil that FAS has recently undergone with the instability of provosts and the CC dean. On top of the confusing network of committees with seemingly overlapping jurisdictions, the committees have recently seen substantial changes. At the same time, meetings of the entire FAS faculty have grown more infrequent.

The problem goes deeper than just infrequent meetings, though—many professors don’t attend faculty meetings, or don’t participate vocally in the meetings when they go. According to a number of professors, this is because there doesn’t appear to be a clear outlet for faculty to voice particular undergraduate concerns. Robert Pollack, a Frontiers lecturer and professor of biological sciences, said that faculty meetings need to be reconfigured so that they have a clear agenda. Without an agenda, the roles of each of the different committees are not fully realized or understood.

At the recent town hall on the Columbia College dean selection, both Chair of Literature Humanities Christia Mercer and Slavic languages professor Cathy Popkin articulated that while faculty have a great deal of opinions, they don’t know where to take them. If the various committees had their intent, aims, and scope fully communicated, then faculty would hopefully feel more included and willing to participate. Ultimately, according to Mercer, “If faculty were being listened to, more would be involved. If faculty voices could be heard more easily, then we would hear more of them. I also think that more faculty governance would change the culture of faculty, create a greater sense of belonging.”

For faculty voices to be heard, professors need to see that advisory committees are influencing administrative decision-making. Furthermore, existing committees must clearly delineate their advisory scope and extend membership to dedicated and knowledgeable professors. We find it hard to believe that diminished faculty activism is a result of apathy. Passionate and interested professors surely still exist, but they need to regain forums to discuss issues relevant to undergraduate education.

FAS is important for larger, more universal faculty concerns such as benefits and housing, which are crucial to recruiting and maintaining top-notch professors. The committees are important for addressing more specific undergraduate academic issues, and with greater clarity to their role and agenda, the committees can begin to function more as an outlet for faculty to be heard. If faculty activism increases, the strength of the undergraduate education will only be cemented and augmented. In the end, though, our faculty members needs to feel like they’re being heard—only then will they speak loudly and clearly.

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