University News

U. seeks to attract faculty members to leadership roles

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Involvement in faculty governance remains persistently low – only one in seven faculty members regularly attend monthly faculty meetings, and the task of recruiting faculty for leadership roles is often extremely difficult, according to Faculty Executive Committee members. But as President Christina Paxson settles into office, she and Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 have taken an interest in incentivizing participation in faculty governance, said Harold Roth, professor of religious studies and a member of the FEC, adding that they have commissioned the FEC to suggest creative ways to support faculty members who choose to take leadership roles. 

In general, faculty are invested in having a voice in University matters, wrote Professor of Philosophy and FEC Chair Mary Louise Gill in an email to The Herald, but other obligations can make committing time to governance burdensome. 

The Nominations Committee, which is charged with finding faculty volunteers for leadership positions, has often faced difficulty finding faculty to fill leadership roles and serve on various committees. 

“It took six months for the Nominations Committee to find somebody to be vice chair of the Faculty Executive (Committee),” Roth said. “It was like pulling teeth.”

Finding faculty to fill leadership positions this year has been easier than past years, Roth said, but such jobs are still not the highest priority for faculty members. 

“We’re expected to have very high-level scholarship, but we’re also expected to excel in the classroom,” said Peter Shank, professor of medical science and past chair of the FEC. “Service tends to be the last thing on the totem pole.” 

The struggle to increase leadership participation among faculty is not new. A 2003 task force examined the faculty governance system in hopes of making service seem more relevant and interesting to faculty members, said John Savage, professor of computer science and former chair of the FEC.

When the FEC reviewed faculty governance in 2008, the report expressed interest in increasing transparency in various decision-making processes, including budget matters and the selection of candidates for faculty leadership roles. 

Get out the vote

Faculty participation remains largely interest-driven, said Stephen Foley, professor of English and comparative literature and secretary of the faculty. As in any system of governance, some people are simply more inclined to be involved, he said. 

“There is moderate and conscientious interest at every meeting, and that interest is piqued by topics and driven by issues,” he said, “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be that way.” 

Shank estimated that around 100 faculty members attend each meeting, out of a population of nearly 700. 

Limited attendance has at times prevented faculty members from passing legislation, Shank said. When a quorum was called on a vote to amend the charter of a committee, Shank said not enough faculty were present to obtain the requisite 100 votes for the motion to pass. 

Increased awareness about the incentives offered for service could encourage participation, Savage said. Currently, the Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee, which has a particularly intensive time commitment, is the only committee to offer compensation. Members are awarded research money in an amount proportionate to time served. 

Junior faculty are particularly less inclined to attend faculty meetings, in part because of an increased sense of competition among their colleagues, Savage said. The Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology discourages their junior faculty from participating in governance so they have time to build their research credentials, Shank said. 

Both Shank and Roth emphasized that eligibility for tenure is based on scholarship first, teaching second and service third. 

Prioritizing debate

The University’s emphasis on scholarship was at the crux of a particularly contentious debate over improving tenure policies two years ago, Roth said. 

The Corporation feared that the University was granting tenure to too many junior faculty in comparison to its peers. A review of tenure policies led to several changes regarding the standards for faculty tenure. 

The new policies devalued undergraduate teaching and took decision-making power away from departments, causing widespread objection from the faculty, Roth said. 

“In the wake of that, there was an impression among the faculty that service didn’t count for much,” he said. “The impact of that flap over so-called raising tenure standards left a really bad taste in the mouths of a lot of my colleagues.” 

No faculty members have explicitly cited the tenure standards issue as a reason for declining leadership roles, Savage said, adding that frustration over the issue could just as easily serve as a motivating factor for seeking a voice within faculty governance. 

If anything, the issue proved that faculty will be heard on certain issues, Foley said. “If you had a strong interest in a certain area of University policy, committee work would be exactly where you’d want to be.” 

Members of the Academic Priorities Committee and the University Resources Committee have the most power to influence policy, and Foley and his colleagues agreed that the faculty culture allows and even encourages dissenting opinions. 

Recent meetings have been relatively free of conflict, due in part to the arrival of a new provost and president, Roth said. 

“There’s a honeymoon period with Chris Paxson,” he said. “She’s just such an ebullient, optimistic, high-energy person – nobody’s yet wanted to rain on her parade.” 

Paxson’s attitude could open up new horizons for the University, Roth said. He also praised Kevin McLaughlin P’12 as one of the best deans of the faculty he’s ever worked with. Schlissel has been particularly receptive to faculty input and straightforward and informative about budgetary issues, Roth said. 

In an email to the Brown community yesterday, Schlissel announced the creation of six new committees, including the Committee on Faculty Recruitme
nt, Career Development and Retention; the Committee on Financial Aid; the Committee on Educational Innovation; the Committee on Doctoral Education; the Committee on Online Teaching and Learning and the Committee on Reimagining the Brown Campus and Community. 

Many faculty expressed interest in joining the new committees, Shank said. 

Overall, both Paxson and Schlissel have shown a genuine respect for faculty and the role that they play, Savage said, adding that there has been a general increase in the University’s esteem for faculty in his 45 years at Brown. 

“This isn’t like a corporation that has a bottom line or a hierarchy,” Foley said. “There is a faculty of some hundreds of people, there’s a student body, there’s an alumni body, there’s a large staff ­- all of those elements have to work in consensus, not on every issue.”

  • Anonymous

    One way to make leadership roles attractive for teachers / researchers is to get rid of idiotic stinking bureaucrats who have low intellect as well as low level of integrity. There are too many of them at Brown. And Ruth “Ms. Popularity” Simmons just had these people as her allies. It had been easier for her to keep her job that way.