BOV Seat Top Priority for Faculty Senate, Chair Says

Posted: December 15, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

It’s been talked about for years, and it’s been the topic of proposed legislation in the Virginia General Assembly, but a faculty seat on George Mason’s Board of Visitors (BOV) has yet to materialize. However, Faculty Senate Chair James Bennett says getting that seat is now the senate’s number one priority.

Discussing the Faculty Senate’s plans and achievements following the recent publication of the Executive Committee’s first “Annual Letter to the Faculty,” Bennett says one of the most important accomplishments of the senate’s past year was getting a faculty representative on the BOV’s Faculty and Academic Standards Committee. “That is a major, major change, and I think we’re going to get better decisions coming from the board and more understanding of issues on the part of the board as a result of this than we’ve had in the past,” Bennett says.

But that’s just a first step. “We must have a faculty member on the full Board of Visitors who can speak on issues and provide input to the decision-making process. The board members for the most part are not academics. We have an academic culture here, and it’s vastly different from the corporate culture.”

Bennett says he understands that a faculty member, like a student representative, will not have a vote and must recuse himself or herself from personnel issues. “But I frankly find it disappointing and surprising that we can have a student member on the board when the faculty can’t. I happen to believe very firmly that whatever is good for faculty is also very good for students. I think the interests of faculty and students are virtually aligned.”

Beyond this goal, Bennett says that “transparency” and “accountability” are the two main concepts currently guiding the senate’s activities.

“We have to have everybody having access to information about the university. Much of this information is financial, for the simple reason that the budget process and the allocation of resources drives the educational mission and the evolution of the institution,” he says.

Bennett, a professor of economics, credits President Alan Merten with facilitating the distribution of information–statistical and financial–on every academic unit in the university, as well as annual activity reports of administrators. Merten also assisted in getting a faculty seat on the Faculty and Academic Standards Committee and the George Mason University Foundation Board of Trustees. “Alan has responded to this magnificently, and we are so pleased. This is a major step in this whole notion of transparency we are trying to get to.

“We cannot be intelligently engaged if we’re not informed,” Bennett continues, “so you’re going to find a lot of information published on the Faculty Senate web page that has never appeared there before. You’re going to see all kinds of information about summer school salaries and summer school expenditures, and you’re going to see faculty salaries. This is nothing new, it’s been available for years. We’re just making it convenient.”

As to accountability, Bennett explains, “Every year I fill out an activity report that tells my chair what I’ve done in various areas–teaching, research, publications, books, that kind of thing. Accountability goes both ways, and they [administrators] should be telling us what they’re doing. The Faculty Handbook mandates that there will be an evaluation of the administration by the faculty, and that furthermore, this evaluation will be used by the president in terms of his decision making.”

Bennett says the past year was the first year that activity reports by the president, provost, and the deans were made available. “Prior to that, what we had was a situation in which we had no information on which to evaluate these people. The faculty were being put in a position of, well, innuendo, and what-not, and so-on. In the past, these evaluations have been pooh-poohed because the natural thing to say is, ‘How can faculty members evaluate me when they don’t have any reasonable idea of what I’m doing?’ Well, this is going to change.”

Approximately 50 percent of the faculty participated in the evaluation of administrators in the past year, and the results are now posted on the Faculty Senate web page. Bennett says, “I think that is an excellent response rate. And, I might add, we’re going to do better this year. Last year was the first year we were getting this thing operating, and we ended up sending the questionnaires out the last week of class and during exam period, and people just don’t want to mess with stuff at that time.

“We’re in this together,” Bennett says. “There are natural tensions between the faculty and the administration. This is true at every university. Alan and I disagree on things. Peter [Stearns] and I disagree on things. But we agree to disagree agreeably. There is no personal animosity to this. It’s just how a university is. My whole job in life is to argue and put forth my perspectives. It’s a battle of ideas.”

While some faculty members have little interest in participating in the Faculty Senate, Bennett believes they still must have a voice. “The heart and the soul of this institution is the faculty,” he says passionately. “Faculty have very, very different interests. There are some people who are quite concerned about faculty governance and are involved and committed. I would say the typical faculty member isn’t. I wasn’t for 27 years. But they elect the people who are willing to do this.

“My job, as I see it, as chair of the Faculty Senate, is to represent my faculty and to do the best I can for them. We are in just damn difficult times; budget-wise there are all kinds of pressures on the institution.”

Although Bennett is not familiar enough with other faculty senates to compare them, he thinks George Mason’s situation is probably unique. “I think George Mason is in a rougher position than many schools. I’ve been here 29 years and we just never caught up to ourselves in terms of monies matching growth. I think we’re probably among the most seriously underfunded institutions in the state, and for this I think our problems, in some degree, are unique.”

As a result, Bennett says, morale among the faculty is low. Having gone without raises for three years and with personal expenses, such as insurance and taxes going up, faculty members’ living standards “are being rapidly eroded,” he says. In addition, class sizes are inching up. “About the only thing that ameliorates [the situation] is knowing that other universities are in basically the same shape we’re in,” he says.

In its role as advisor to the president and administration, the Faculty Senate has no guarantee that its recommendations will be put into effect, although the president is required to tell the senate why a particular recommendation is not adopted. This was done in the case of the senate’s motion regarding the library reporting structure this past year. However, Bennett feels that this advisory role is crucial. “We recognize that we can’t do everything. There are severe limitations. But on the other hand, I think it’s important for us to have a role in setting priorities.”

Bennett also points to the fact that most motions debated in the senate in the past year passed unanimously. “It’s not like there’s a lot of dissension,” he says, “and getting a group of a couple of dozen academics to agree on anything is just a huge accomplishment. I don’t think we’ve done anything that’s outrageous or anything that is not essentially in the best interests of this institution.”

Another area where the senate has had success is in improving communication with administration. Bennett notes that the Executive Committee meets regularly with the president and the provost. Moreover, Bennett is quick to pick up the phone or e-mail administrators when he hears about an issue he thinks they should be aware of. “A lot of stuff never gets to the senate, but we’re acting to help the faculty. What’s important is not how things get done but that they do get done.”

Write to at