In a recent article titled “Who Needs a Faculty Senate” by Robin Matross Helms and Tanya Price, the authors made the following assertion: “Faculty participation in campus governance is declining nationwide. As higher education shifts toward market models of organization, boards and administrators increasingly apply bureaucratic modes of decision-making to areas that used to be the domain of faculty members. All too often, administrators seem to sidestep faculty senates in favor of more efficient and accountable decision making that does not reflect faculty opinion or expertise.”  (Academe, November-December 2005, pp. 34-36)

In addition, of late, numerous editorials have lamented the “corporate” management style that has permeated many institutions of higher education with a concomitant decline in the role of faculty in the decision-making process — this interactive process is classically referred to as “shared-governance.”  

A university is really the collective energies and intellect of the faculty, students and staff. The product of a university is new knowledge — not grant dollars, not new buildings, not tuition dollars — but knowledge.  The “job” of faculty is to generate new knowledge, to disperse that knowledge (e.g. publish) and to provide an environment where knowledge can be successfully acquired by students.

So, we have a conundrum! Using a business analogy, the output of this business — that being new knowledge — is something that is difficult to quantify. Of course, a university still has to pay its bills — and “knowledge” per se does not go very far when it comes to paying the bills! Obviously, for the university to work successfully we must have the business expertise to stay in the black — but also we must provide an academic environment that promotes the generation of new knowledge. This mutually supportive and collaborative relationship in academia can be achieved by shared governance.

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Derek Bok, former president and interim president of Harvard University and former trustee of the University of Massachusetts, described the “border skirmishes” that occasionally break out in a university due to the ambiguous nature of shared governance. Bok elucidates that “shared governance usually means that the trustees concentrate on the overall mission of the institution and on questions of finance, physical planning, fund raising, and, last but not least, hiring and firing presidents.  

Faculties, in turn, are given the task of taking care of academic matters — deciding on the curriculum, teaching, and hiring and promoting professors. This scheme has an obvious logic. Faculty members and trustees each have responsibility for the tasks in which they have superior competence. Professors know the most about teaching and curriculum; trustees tend to have the advantage in subjects like finance, budgeting, and physical plant.” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 52, Issue 17, p. B12)

Thus, there is a delicate balance in a university between the practical aspects of paying the bills and that of providing appropriate academic freedom that gives faculty the leeway needed to nurture and support teaching and the generation of new knowledge. At UAB we are fortunate to have trustees, administrators and faculty leadership that work well together as partners for the benefit of the UAB enterprise. Of course, it would be laughable to assert that the faculty and administrators always agree on everything here at UAB! But I think you will agree that the types of accomplishments that UAB has achieved certainly highlight the fact that something is working right!

There are some clear examples of the types of things UAB has been able to accomplish because of shared governance and the atmosphere of mutual respect and collaboration. The successful SACS self-study and accreditation process, the nationally recognized Quality Enhancement Plan developed by faculty as part of the SACS accreditation process, enhanced faculty development programs and the concerted efforts to increase faculty compensation are all examples of faculty-administration partnering to accomplish great things for UAB. The UAB Faculty Senate has played an integral role in bringing these accomplishments to fruition and many other issues — large and small — are in various stages of development and implementation.  The mutual respect and cooperation required of shared governance is alive and well at UAB and is allowing us to move forward to address real challenges facing us, such as the vagaries of state budget allocations, shrinking NIH budgets, the ever-increasing commitments on faculty time at the expense of necessary research time and heightened competition for exemplary faculty in the face of salary levels below the SUG average — all of which pose significant challenges for UAB.

But, as we move forward we should feel confident that we have the people and the infrastructure in place to address these challenges head on. The strength and vibrancy of the UAB academy and the mutual respect among the trustees, the UAB faculty and administration portend a successful outcome to the many challenges ahead.  This environment of interdependent shared governance allows UAB to continue to prosper and to excel as a recognized leader in higher education.

For this successful shared governance process to continue we must have active participation by all members of the UAB community. Instead of casting a skeptical eye upon the process, everyone — students, staff faculty and administrators — must participate in the process. Although not every constituency is going to achieve their desired goals all of the time, participating in the process ensures that you will be at the table when decisions are being made and can influence to whatever degree possible those decisions.  For faculty this means participation in the Faculty Senate: make your voice heard, represent your colleagues, lobby for your favorite issue, and partake in the process.

All of us working together fosters an enlightened intellectual environment at UAB that not only facilitates the great accomplishments that our faculty have achieved, but also produces an academic environment wherein our students can acquire the skills and knowledge they will need to lead Alabama into this new century. Thanks to the efforts of the UAB administration, faculty, staff and students, we are strategically poised to continue our meteoric growth in academic and health-related knowledge generation.  

—Peter G. Anderson, professor and director of pathology undergraduate education is the immediate past chair of the UAB Faculty Senate.