In order to characterize the role of the Academic Senate in the last quarter century, it is important to look at the issues and topics with which the Senate has dealt. Where has the Senate been influential in University decision-making, what has the Senate done to guide the operation of the University, and how has the University changed as a result of the Senate’s governance role?
The Senate’s role is typically defined as a decision-making body with respect to academic issues and educational policy. However the Senate has played a role in administrative operations, financial matters, and campus life. A survey of Senate actions since the 1990s–the so-called modern period of the Senate where an elected faculty member has been at the helm–shows that curriculum, tenure, salaries, free speech, policy making, diversity, governmental relations, academic freedom, grievances, and research practices are a sampling of topics covered.
In 1988 the Senate was concerned about social and campus climate issues such as bicycle and skateboard safety, non-smoking policies, family leave for faculty, and diversity. The Senate expressed concern with diversity throughout the 1980s and 1990s when the University’s non-discrimination policy was discussed and approved. In a rare split vote, the Senate added the term “sexual orientation” to the non-discrimination policy. The Diversity Committee became a Senate Committee in 2005.
A national trend of severe budget cuts was felt locally at the University in the late 1980s and the Senate discussed how universities would cope. The Senate evaluated and approved financial exigency policies which protected tenure, academic freedom, and defined program discontinuations. The Senate decided that the University of Utah would adopt its own exigency regulations as opposed to those established by the State Board of Regents since many senators considered the University’s provisions to be more thorough than the state’s.
The Senate has played an important role in University President searches through the years, including representation on the search committee, conducting forums with the candidates, seeking input from faculty and students for the search committee and offering statements on the qualifications needed for any new University President. Most recently, the Senate President has been an appointed member of committees to evaluate Presidents and Vice Presidents.
The conversion from quarters to semesters took a great deal of the Senate’s time in the early 1990s. The Senate’s Academic Policy Advisory Committee studied the matter for two years and based on survey data concluded that faculty opposed the change. The first vote in the full Senate reflected this opposition. Since the State Board of Regents sought the semester calendar for all state institutions, APAC continued to study the question and, by early 1993, the Senate voted for the change. The Senate also created the Library Policy Advisory Committee in 1993 to deal with major budget cuts and changes in the collection.
Following the adoption of student course evaluations in the 1960s the Senate reexamined the issue in the 1990s looking this time at who and when the evaluation could be accessed. There were major revisions in the conflict of interest policy in 1994 and a task force was created by the Senate to discuss representation of Lecturers on the Senate; this did not come to full fruition until 2013 when the Senate voted to add career-line faculty.
In response to efforts by the Utah State Legislature to define faculty workloads, the Senate organized a U of U faculty meeting in March 1998 to discuss a statement of values entitled “Defining Ourselves and Our Needs in Time of Change” (University of Utah Academic Senate 1959-present). The Senate leadership prepared the document and offered it to initiate dialogue. The statement defined faculty as “members of an educational community, committed to teaching and learning, participants in knowledge creation, participating citizens, professional entrepreneurs and dedicated workers” (ibid., Mar 2 1998 meeting). The statement urged that “we [faculty] define our commitments and ask that our identity as professionals with specific responsibilities and contributions to the State be taken seriously” (ibid.). As a result of the forum and discussion, the workload bills never passed.
In January 1999, the Senate passed a major redefinition of the faculty. It defined faculty in categories: Regular, Auxiliary, and Academic Librarians. Three years earlier, in 1996, the Faculty Code was revised with considerations including academic freedom, due process, and an academic environment free from violence.
The University’s ban on concealed weapons became a very controversial topic in 2000. The debate was vigorous and contentious requiring the Senate President and the Parliamentarian to impose a structure. Each respondent had strict time limits. Those in favor of the ban spoke first and those opposed spoke second. The Senate passed the ban, but the Legislature later overturned it.
The Senate took an important role in how the University dealt with the Winter Olympics. Conversations started in 2001 and lasted into February 2002 when the Games greatly impacted University scheduling and operations.
Based on a formal complaint from a student regarding the nature of course readings and assignments, the Senate worked to pass a content accommodations policy. The policy provided students the opportunity to object to an assigned reading based on closely held religious beliefs and established a mechanism for a student to work with the professor on finding an alternate reading. A related policy was also passed that restricts a faculty member from assigning a self-authored text when royalties are potentially increased through the required purchase.
In 2006, the Senate overhauled the academic freedom, faculty rights, and general grievance process by establishing the Consolidated Hearing Committee. As the name suggests, the committee brought together the various committees and entities that existed for complaints to be filed. Faculty rights were further clarified with the renaming and repurposing of the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee to the Academic Freedom and Faculty Rights Committee.
From 2006-2008, the Senate worked through a major re-write of all University policies. Formerly called the Policies and Procedures Manual (or PPM), the name was changed to the University Regulations Library and it included the policies affecting the Senate itself. Policy revisions happen regularly and in 2012 the Senate updated the instruction policy in order to clarify the role of credit-bearing units and to redefine student evaluation standards. In 2014, career-line faculty joined the Senate and all ten of its committees.
The role of the Senate has been important in the operation of the University and, as these examples demonstrate, the Senate often plays a role in steering campus life in addition to academics and educational policy.